You pull open the front door to your local parish and peer inside. The church looks dated, and truth be told, so do most of the people. In a sea of gray hair and bald scalps, only a few heads belong to young adults.
We’re glad you’re here. We need you.
We don’t always act like we’re glad you’re here, however. Too often we make you feel judged for your hairstyle or piercings or clothing. Mostly your clothing.
It might help if you understand why.
When you attend a formal dance, you wear a tuxedo or gown. You dress up to go to the symphony or live theater, to a wedding or a funeral.
Your choice of clothing reflects the importance of the event. An audience with the Queen of England requires formal garb; a ballgame at Yankee Stadium does not. In our culture, dressing up for important occasions is a way of showing respect. The clothing does not have to be expensive; just modest and neat.
Many places of worship have specific clothing requirements. A woman visiting a mosque, for example, must wear an ankle-length skirt or pants, sleeves that reach the wrists and hair that is covered by a headscarf. Clothing that is revealing, clingy or tight is not allowed. Men wear long pants and plain shirts devoid of messages or slogans.
A synagogue requires modest clothing, as well. Typically, women wear dresses and men wear suits. All men and boys are expected to cover their heads.
When you visit these places, surely you respect their customs. They are houses of worship and as such, they deserve respectful behavior and respectful garb.
Now consider a Catholic church. It, too, is a house of God, with the remarkable distinction that Jesus is actually present in the tabernacle. Consecrated hosts are reserved in the tabernacle for those who are sick, hospitalized or shut in. And yes, it is actually, truly Jesus up there. For real.
When we step inside a Catholic church for Mass, we are joining an exquisite banquet with the King. Life doesn’t come any grander than that, and we should dress for it. Appropriate clothing not only shows respect for Christ’s presence, but it avoids distracting other worshipers.
Here’s the gist of the matter: avoid low-cut tops, short skirts and tight or ripped clothing. We do this out of simple respect for God and for God’s people.
And now some words for the rest of us. Recall how Jesus dealt with people whose clothing was, in all likelihood, scandalous.
When scribes and Pharisees dragged a woman caught in adultery in front of Jesus, surely she was scantily clad.
And yet Jesus said nothing about her clothing. He told her that he did not judge her, and to go and sin no more.
Jesus was often criticized for keeping company with sinners and prostitutes. I’m pretty sure these folks were not dressed respectably, and yet Scripture records no words about their garb. Jesus was more interested in changing their hearts than changing their clothing. Besides, when you change the inside of the person, the outside usually changes as well.
Centuries earlier, God summed it up through the prophet Samuel: people look at the outside while God looks at the heart.
Those of us who complain about casual and unsuitable clothing in church are correct that Mass is worthy of celebration attire. We’re right. But there’s something more important here than being right.
We are called to love, to welcome the stranger, the sinner, the sojourner, the seeker. Celebrate that they are among us. Accept them just the way they are, as Jesus accepts us just the way we are.
If instead we judge them, they are likely to stop coming altogether.
How does this serve God’s purpose? How does this show love?
All of us, regardless of garb, would do well to remember the Apostle Paul’s admonition:
“Put on, then, as God’s chosen ones, . . . compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness and patience, forbearing one another . . . And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:12-14).
Regina Cram lives in Glastonbury and is a freelance writer. She is the author of Do Bad Guys Wear Socks? Living the Gospel in Everyday Life.