I have a confession to make.
Not infrequently, on Saturday mornings, this scrivener abstains from shaving his mug. There are few things that I loathe more than this necessary activity, with the possible exception of ironing. You see, I have rather thick, wavy hair, and a similar beard, both of which grow very quickly. As a result, sometimes within an hour or two of shaving off a nascent beard, it looks as though I need to shave again. Such is the swarthy genetic inheritance of the Mediterranean side of my bloodline, to balance the WASP side.
The relief of waking up on the weekend and not shaving, particularly when you have rather sensitive skin, is a great one. Fortunately, whether with scruff or with beard – as I grew last Halloween – facial hair actually suits me, which is not true of some people. While I have no intention of growing a full beard, it is nice to know that if I did have to do so for some reason – such as becoming a spy or a pirate – it would not look so terrible.
That being said, as I general rule I do try to make the effort to shave the previous day’s growth off for mass on Sunday, and make sure I am wearing something clean and ironed. I do not always wear a suit and tie to mass, particularly if I am not serving as a lector, but I do try to remember to shave. Someone commented over the weekend on Twitter, of all people Jesus would probably be okay with my sporting some beard, but if I forget to shave before mass I do feel rather like I am out of place at a party. So this Sunday, I shaved, ironed, got out the Spanish glazed-caramel-finish dress boots, rubbed a bit of spit and polish into them, and then slipped on a new Italian cardigan with great detailing, to happily clomp my way over to mass, knowing that I looked nice for church as well as for anyone who might run into me and need some assistance.
And as it happened, appropriately enough, this past Sunday’s Gospel reading contained one of those stories which probably makes most of us feel uncomfortable not only about how we look, but also about how and why God acts as He does. We heard the parable of the royal party no one wanted to attend, and of how the king sent out his servants into the streets to forcibly gather people up and make them attend the wedding banquet of his son. And of course the most famous part of the story, that of the improperly attired guest who gets thrown out bound hand and foot, makes us feel even more uncomfortable.
When I was small, I had an illustrated book that explained baptism, confession, and the other sacraments. I recall that a frequently used illustration was that of a “baptismal garment” – though it really looked like a t-shirt with an embroidered hem. It showed that a sinful soul’s baptismal garment had stains on it, but that the waters of baptism, or the absolution given in confession, would wipe those sins clean and leave a sparkling white garment: a sort of spiritual detergent with bleach alternative for the soul. I thought of this image on Sunday, as the homily progressed.
The natural human reaction to the guest being chucked out for being improperly dressed is to say, “That’s not fair. He had no time to go home and clean himself up.” And as Father told us in the homily, the guest probably wanted to do so, so that he could conform with what was expected of him. Yet he ran out of time; he was not ready when the moment came, to be presented before the court, much in the same way we put off cleaning our own garments and our own souls, with the idea that there is always tomorrow.
It is interesting to note the more obvious implication of this parable, which is one that I have made before: are you presentable when you go out of the house? Now of course, God is making the point about the inside of the person, and the Final Judgment, but remember why Christ used teaching in parables in the first place. He is trying to give His listeners situations analogous to things that they themselves would have seen and experienced, but with a surprise twist. Thus the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example: it was all too common in Jesus’ day for travelers to be assaulted on the road by bandits; it was not common to expect help from a Samaritan.
Similarly, if Christ tells the story about the wedding guest being scooped up for a banquet and not being properly dressed for it, He is of course speaking about the soul, rather than the man’s appearance. Yet there is something about the appearance that tells us about the interior of the person. For the Jews of his day, ritual cleanliness was of great importance, and particularly when surrounded by all of that sand and general odor. In the present age in the Western world, apart from those of us who are in dire poverty and cannot afford a bar of soap to clean both ourselves and our garments, there is nothing to prevent us from at least being clean and tidy when we are out and about. So why is it that so often we do not do so?
Perhaps the answer is equally applicable to Christians and non-Christians alike. In a self-obsessed culture, such as that we have watched the Baby Boomers create over the past 40 years and which we, their children, have inherited, we are more concerned with our own comfort than the comfort of others. If we are dressed in clothing that is comfortable and yet, at best, would only be appropriate for the gym, or working on the car, is that same clothing really appropriate for going to the market, or out to eat? Putting on a suit and tie specifically to go to the post office might be a bit much, in this day and age, but why are you going there, to conduct business with your government, in clothing with rips and stains on it?
For the vast majority of us who are reading these pages, it does not take a great deal of effort to be clean, at the very least on the outside. If we are stained and selfish souls, no doubt we will dress accordingly, in many instances. Cleaning up the inside may take a great deal more work, for most of us (myself included) and will probably never be dust-and-dirt free in our lifetimes. Yet like anything worth striving for, that does not mean the attempt should be left unmade. Nor is it a question of money: I would rather chat with the man in clean, inexpensive clothes from a discount store ahead of me in line at the supermarket, than with the man ahead of him in expensive, designer clothes covered in wrinkles, stains, and so on.
If we want to draw people to us, rather than push them away, then that should be reflected in how we look in public as well. The ultimate message in Christ’s parable is that we do not know the day and hour when God will call us to Himself. Yet because we do not, if we go about in public looking awful, we actually lose an opportunity for practicing selflessness, by sending out a message that we do not care about others, or ourselves, enough to make an effort or be approachable if help is needed – and then we really will be unready when He calls, both on the outside and on the inside.