December 6, 2015
First Reading: Baruch 5:1-9
Changing your clothes satisfies something inside. When you change from dirty, ripped-up clothes into your most elegant gown or suit, life just feels a bit better. In fact, we dress up for special occasions: weddings, funerals, job interviews. We also judge people based on their appearance even though we know we shouldn’t. But if someone shows up in an ill-fitting, worn-out T-shirt, we will often think less of them than if they came in a tuxedo. Why do we make that judgment? Because a person’s clothes tell us something about that person—what he thinks of himself, his level of self-confidence, his attention to detail, even his mood. The transformation that we experience when changing our clothes becomes a powerful metaphor for spiritual change.
The Mourning Mother
In this Sunday’s first reading, we find the prophet Baruch speaking to Jerusalem with this metaphor. It might seem odd for us to speak to a city—imagine having a conversation with Chicago, for example—but for the prophets this was the normal mode. It might be easier to depict activists giving a piece of their mind to Washington. Jerusalem is a symbol for the whole nation, for all of God’s people. Just before our passage, the city is depicted as a mother (Bar 4:31), and the Jews as her children. But in the prophet’s situation, mother-Jerusalem is in mourning. Her children have been carried off into exile by the Babylonians. The Jews are living apart from their land. The city mourns over the loss of her children. Here’s where the clothing metaphor comes in. He tells her to “take off the garment of sorrow and affliction” (Bar 5:1).
In ancient times, cultures often had mourning customs that included a change in clothes. Today, people still wear black to funerals, but when society was more formal, so were our customs. Mourning clothes in Victorian England were quite elaborate and attended by an elaborate set of rules—so that a widow often wore black mourning clothes for up to four years after the death of her husband. Other relatives and friends of the deceased would wear mourning clothes for a period time. If you wanted to dive deep into these customs a few years ago, you could have visited the Museum of Funeral Customs in Springfield, IL, but it closed its doors in 2009. During Old Testament times, the people of God had mourning customs as well. Job’s friends mourn in silence with him for a week (Job 2:12-13). Some people would shave their heads as a sign of mourning (Jer 16:6; Ezek 27:31), though that was forbidden by OT law (Lev 19:27-28). But the central sign of mourning was the clothes, clothes made from sackcloth. Yep, burlap. It is probably the most uncomfortable form of cloth to wear—itchy, scratchy, irritating.
Why on earth would someone wear such a nasty garment in a time of emotional woundedness? Well, it seems that the discomfort of the cloth matches the discomfort of death. The mourner acknowledges the pain and loss of death by putting on a sad and scratchy piece of clothing. It is a way to participate vicariously in the death of a loved one and to express externally the inner pain that one is experiencing. So in the time of exile, the city of Jerusalem is wearing a mourning garment of sackcloth, but Baruch is looking forward to the end of the exile, when the people come back from the land. For this reason, he invites Jerusalem to throw off the mourning garment and put on glorious garments instead—to exchange the external signs of sorrow for the external signs of joy.
Changing into Royal Raiment
Baruch calls Jerusalem to don the “beauty of the glory of God” (5:1), “the robe of the righteousness from God” (5:2), and even a “crown of the glory of the Everlasting” (5:3). She is going from being a widow to being a queen! Not only will she put on new clothes, but she will receive a new name—another sign of transformation. “Jerusalem” means something like “foundation of peace,” but the new name of the city will be “Peace of righteousness and glory of godliness” (5:4). The new name will be more glorious than the first and will reveal the destiny of God’s people—to be a peace with him and to be like him, godly.
A Triumphal Return
Rather than sulking in mourning clothes, Jerusalem will stand up and look to the east (toward Babylon) to watch her children streaming homeward (5:5). Not only will this triumphal procession bring back her inhabitants, but God will miraculously speed up the process by making their path level and smooth (5:7). He will smash the mountains and fill in the valleys so his people can walk on a highway home. Indeed, God himself will “lead them in joy, in the light of his glory” (5:9). In the same way that God led his people out of Egypt and through the wilderness, now he will lead them out of Babylon and back to Jerusalem.
The Baby-Sized Hope of Advent
After living in “the valley of tears” for a while here on earth, it would be easy to think that mourning is always the order of the day. Yet Advent invites us to recall that the Christian faith embraces hope. The hope that Jerusalem finds, the hope of return from exile that causes her to take off her mourning garments and put on royal raiment, points to the change in the story we will find at Bethlehem. The longing for return, for restoration, for vindication, for fulfillment, that the Jews so deeply experienced, will meet with its conclusive answer: a baby. Every baby is a sign of hope, but the baby of Bethlehem will not only bring us back from the exile of sin, he will “lead us in joy” into everlasting glory. I hope that you’re dressed for the occasion.