When I was about ten years old, a new evangelical church was established in my hometown. They had rented a billboard near the local supermarket. The ad featured an “average Joe” in jeans and a t-shirt. In big, bold, letters it said, “Change your life, not your wardrobe.”
Even as a ten year old, I understood that the advertisement was a little bit of a jab at my own parish, as well as the other Christian churches in the area where it was common to put on your “Sunday best” for church. I think they might have been insinuating some not-so-nice things about our priorities… perhaps that we were so focused on our appearance that we forgot about the whole reason for worship. Sorta like the Pharisees in Mt 23:27-28:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.
The point this new church was trying to get across was certainly valid, but I felt that it was also a little judgmental. Not everyone who gets dressed up for Sunday Mass is a “whitewashed tomb.”
What the Bible says about Dressing Up for Church
There are lots of instructions about appropriate attire in the Old Testament (check Leviticus and Deuteronomy for dozens of examples). In Exodus, before the Israelites can “meet” God, they have to spend three days purifying themselves and washing their garments. They appear before the mountain of God at their very best.
In the New Testament, there are also a few parables about wedding feasts. Within Scripture, the wedding feast always symbolizes eternity; a celebration of the union of Christ and his bride, the Church. As members of the Church, we are all “brides of Christ.” What bride does not make an effort, whether big or small, to present herself as a gift to her groom? Brides appear before their grooms at their very best.
Based on Biblical traditions, as well as respect for The Almighty, it is totally understandable why Christians dress up for church on Sundays. However it is not, nor has it ever been, a requirement.
As humans, we are the sole link between God’s material and spiritual creation. We possess both a body and a soul, making us the only beings that are both spiritual and material. As a result, God speaks to us in material ways that will help us to understand those spiritual things we cannot see. The required purification of the Israelites wasn’t really about physical hygiene; it was about spiritual cleansing. God used the physical cleansing to help them understand that they needed to be spiritually clean when they approached him.
We can also find this same lesson in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus tells the parable in which a king holds a wedding feast for his son, and none of the invited guests attend. The king then sends his servants into the streets to invite anyone that they can find. The servants bring in everyone, the good and the bad, filling the wedding hall with guests. When the king arrives, he sees a man who is not dressed for the occasion. Because this man failed to wear a wedding garment, the king instructs his servants to bind the man and throw him out of the Great Hall. Not only was this man thrown out of the party, but he was thrown into the “outer darkness,” where there was “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Right about now you’re probably thinking, “wait a minute… you said that dressing up wasn’t a requirement… now you’re saying we’ll be cast out of the feast if we aren’t dressed appropriately. What gives?”
When studying this story, it’s important to remember that it is a parable. It teaches a literal truth, but the story itself is a metaphor. According to Scott Hahn, the wedding garment was a symbol of the righteous deeds that ought to accompany faith. The fact that the man had failed to wear a wedding garment meant that he had failed at living a faith-filled life. He was cast out for his lack of love… not his lack of fancy clothing.
Luke the Evangelist actually shares a similar parable in his Gospel. In this case, the king was holding a feast, and all those who had been invited where making excuses as to why they couldn’t come. The king then sent his servants into the streets; “…bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame.” Just as in Matthew’s Gospel, the Great Hall was filled with guests. Since these people were poor, they wouldn’t have had appropriate attire to appear in court. They probably only had the worn-out clothing on their backs… but the came anyway, and that pleased the king. All he really cares about is if people show up.
Does this mean you can wear whatever you want to Mass?
Not exactly. The way I see it is as follows.
As a married woman, the love I show to my spouse and the love I show to God are one in the same. There are times when I doll myself up for my husband, there are times when we’re in everyday clothes, running around fulfilling our daily responsibilities, and there are (lots of) times that we sit around together in sweatpants. Every instance is a different level of intimacy… and all of these things are part of who I am. Who I am is a gift to my husband. My husband is a gift to me. Our attendance at Mass is exactly the same, a mutual gift of self… Christ to me, and me to Christ. Often, to fulfill the other duties and obligations of my life (all of which glorify Him) I have to be dressed in casual outfits.
During the week, if I am able to attend daily mass, I go in whatever I would normally be wearing at that time of day. At the 6:30am Mass, I will most likely be in sweatpants and a hoodie. At a mid-morning Mass, you might find me in jeans or workout clothes. If it’s an evening Mass, most likely I will be wearing whatever I wore to work that day. When it comes to the weekend, I always set Sunday apart. As part of my attempt to honor the Sabbath, I wear my “best”- my favorite clothes (which for me all happen to be stereotypical church clothes). I do my hair, I wear makeup. I reflect on the fact that I am a bride of Christ. I go to Mass dressed in my hypothetical wedding garment. I know that the King has invited me to a feast and I want to honor him. I want to respect him. I also want to absorb the majesty of what is taking place — dressing up helps me to remember that.
It’s the Heart that Matters
The only reason that God gives instruction about clothing within Scripture is to help the Israelites understand elements of their spiritual being. The cleansing has little to do with our bodies, and everything to do with our hearts. The same is true of the clothing we wear to Mass. While it’s important to remain modest and respectful, there is nothing insulting about attending Mass in your daily “rags.” We’re all poor, blind, lame and maimed. Jesus cares much more that we come to Mass — and that we want to come — than he does about our attire. Meeting the King for his banquet is an honor and a gift. As long as our hearts approach it as such, it does not matter what we are wearing.
**This post is not meant to encourage a lackadaisical attitude towards Mass. Rather, it’s meant to help those individuals who may be struggling with the matter, especially when it comes to daily mass.