From swaddling clothes to ermine-trimmed capes

And she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.    Luke 2:7

On December 25 the Washington Post reported on the pomp and ceremony of the Pope’s Christmas Eve mass.

We are told that it reflected the continuing return to tradition that has marked this Pope’s reign. Somehow in a world wracked by natural disasters and wars, poverty and hunger, the highest priest of a church inspired by a Child lying in swaddling clothes in a manger, chooses to bring back ermine-trimmed, red satin capes and other cloth of gold vestments to celebrate the Eucharist. Yet we attend Mass to memorialize the life, death and redeeming grace of the One who arrived homeless, and died wearing a crown of thorns on a cross. We fill the pews on Christmas Day and at every service to remember Christ who came into the world with nothing and left us with a way to make something of our imperfect lives by giving up, not increasing, the gaudy splendor of how we live. He asks us in parable after parable to resist, hard as it is, the lure of the material in order to connect to the spiritual.

In an age of visual culture writ large on big screens in public squares and on millions of small screens drawing viewers to YouTube and Facebook, this return to ancient traditions of heightened pomp and pageantry is probably smart spectacle and good PR. It almost certainly drives viewership and millions of hits. But what does it have to do with the child in swaddling clothes? What does it have to do with faith?

Dress Code for Prophets and Believers

When exactly did gilded vestments become the dress code for those who would be messengers for Christ? It certainly wasn’t what John the Baptist wore when he spoke of Christ’s coming. And Jesus appears to have approved of his attire:

“What did you go out to the desert to see—a reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine garments? Those who dress luxuriously and live sumptuously are found in royal palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. “   Luke 7: 24-26

This confusion in dress perhaps explains a question I was recently asked by a non-Catholic who wanted to know if I followed everything the Pope prescribed since he was “like a king?”

The Pope’s Master of liturgy says that the return to more ceremony is intended to keep the Eucharist from becoming “banal.” What is truly banal is the way the rough, imperfect, struggle that is faith as it is practiced by countless believers helping to heal the sick, feed the hungry and clothe the naked in Christ’s name is compromised by tactics that a slick PR practitioner would applaud.

Beyond the Banality of the Big Spectacle

Pope Benedict can make a radical break with the banal by starting to dismantle the vulgarity of so much opulence masquerading for the radical simplicity of Christ’s call. Christ sent his twelve apostles out to “proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. He said to them, ‘Take nothing for the journey, neither walking stick, nor sack, nor food, nor money, and let no one take a second tunic.’”  Luke 9: 2-3

Pope Benedict can have his second or third or fourth tunic. But enough with the ermine. Not cool. Not Christian.

Homeless people attend a Christmas mass celebrated in a bus in Nice, southeastern France on December 25 2010. (REUTERS/Eric Gaillard) #


Pix from

Thanks to reader Kaysie McAlister for pointing me to these pictures.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in I BLOG, Liturgy, Religion, Religious imagery, Uncategorized, Vestments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: