Nakedness is synonymous with vulnerability, but also humility. It’s also a state that is potentially one of humiliation.
In the scriptures we see Jesus naked on three occasions: his birth, obviously; his death; and at his baptism by John in the River Jordan.
It is a principle of Christian discipleship that we seek to emulate, even imitate Jesus in our efforts to achieve sanctity.
When we choose to trust him, we are like little children, vulnerable; that’s why it is difficult for us to give ourselves over to Him. We are, metaphorically, “naked and afraid” in this life—we overcome our fear and clothe ourselves as we grow and mature. The issue is how it is that we overcome our anxieties, and how we clothe ourselves—what identity we choose and then advertise to the world.
Such was issue within the mythic garden—Eve, at heart, did not trust God, and the serpent worked on her doubt and played on her sense of vulnerability, convincing her that she could be made invulnerable through knowledge, and so become like God. We need to be reconciled to our vulnerability just as God the Son was reconciled to his becoming a weak, vulnerable human being; then clothe ourselves with Christ and comport ourselves with humility.
Christ’s death on the cross is also something to be emulated, but for most of us, not literally. Some early Christians did seek a martyr’s death as a testimony to their faith, defying Roman authorities in a manner that was provocative. For the vast majority of Christians, the death we are to seek is a death to ourselves, and extinguishing of selfishness, self-centeredness; grasping at last how we are fulfilled in loving sacrifice for others.
Today, we look at the event of Christ’s baptism, which is a curiousity in itself. We understand that baptism is for the remission of sin; even John’s baptism of repentance that Jesus receives, different from Christian baptism, is predicated on the idea that the person coming to receive it is a sinner. Yet we believe that Jesus was without sin.
In Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus explains that he must be baptized to “fulfil all righteousness” – that is, Jesus is saying that baptism is a necessary step in achieving the sanctity that fits us for life with God eternally.
Jesus, in His baptism, is not having sin wiped away; but rather, Jesus is humbling himself and showing us the necessity of humility as a prerequisite for discipleship and eventual full adoption as sons and daughters of God. And in His humility, kneeling in the river, having the water poured over Him by John, then rising to his feet in the rushing current of the Jordan, it is then we hear God say, “you are my Son.”
I know that today modesty is something that is regarded as problematic by many secular people—some see it as evidence of psychological repression, an indication of unhealthy shame.
I don’t think that the case at all. Modesty is an understandable instinct. Nakedness, as I wrote above, is potentially humiliating. It is also potentially quite provocative, sexually provocative for the most part. It is understandable that human beings would want to limit that provocation so as to be able to live and work in community without the sexual tensions becoming unbearable and sexual approaches intolerable.
It is more likely that our natural modesty is being repressed within a culture that insists upon personal exhibitionism—we see this in our culture that encourages people to disclose so much about themselves via social media, stripping away all sense that human beings need to have a private and inner life that is only shared with discretion.
It is because of our natural shyness that today adult baptisms are done in most parish churches in a manner far from what the early church did. For most of the Church’s history, adult baptism did indeed require being stripped down to little more than a loincloth to enter the baptismal waters, either of a stream or lake, or in the large baptismal tanks the churches all had long before these were supplanted by the birdbath-sized fonts that are really only appropriate for baptizing babies.
Indeed, because of that “bare” requirement to enter into the ritual of rebirth, you will find in any tour of the great churches of Europe that there are baptisteries—these being either rooms off the main body of the church, or separate buildings entirely from where the mass and other sacraments are celebrated. The candidates would remove their street dress, enter the font, emerge on the far side, then be dressed in robes of white, anointed with chrism; now members of the body of Christ, they would then enter into the church proper, there to receive for the first time the Eucharist, the body and blood of our Saviour (to paraphrase our patron, St. Augustine: in the Eucharist they receive what they are to be).
The events of recent days and months to the south are illustrative of what happens to people when they choose to clothe themselves in their politics, and to act out unashamedly their aggression under the illusion that they are justified by the righteousness of their cause.
One side has justified months of rioting, looting, destruction of public and private property, and defiance of all reasonable civil authority because of a belief that “the system” is rigged against racial minorities, women, etc. The other side see a global elite rigging “the system” against the average, tax-paying, law-abiding and largely apolitical citizenry, and so have violated the very precincts of their democracy that are to be preserves of civil debate and non-violent contention. Disagreement with their respective outlooks is proof of villainy. Their counterparts exist here in Canada, and throughout what we have hitherto called, “the West.”
No serpent has been whispering in an unguarded ear this time, but whole populations are in the thrall of media, both social and corporate “news” outlets, that feed into grievance and stoke fear rather than fulfil their professed vocation of providing information and social connection. The derangement is there for all to see. Yet, if we too fall under the same spell, we won’t see it, but also come to regard ourselves as having the Godlike knowledge of “what’s really going on” and then incautiously acting on our presumptions, clothing ourselves in the national flag or political party, or worse: the darker shades of anarchism, the blood-stained garb of revolution. So enchanted, we will rationalize our convictions such as to fit our Christian faith, or rather cut our faith down to size to fit in the pocket of our now fashionable dress. (If this assertion rankles, perhaps it is time for a truly prayerful and thorough examination of conscience.)
Baptism is the putting off of the world’s fashions, and clothing ourselves in the plain garment of holiness. In our sacramental theology, the Eucharist is the one repeatable part of our rites of initiation. You can only be baptized once, only confirmed once, but each Eucharist recalls us to that initiation, that putting off of the world and putting on of Christ.
I write to you as a recovering political junkie; as an individual who was once immersed in the world of media, politics, messaging and manipulation (what was once called “propaganda” and respectfully so).
When a person protests to me, “but Father, didn’t you see on the news…” or “but Father, I read on this website that…” Well, I know, I know, but how do you know it’s true? It takes some time for truth to emerge from events, for the real pattern of things to make itself apparent.
When I was just a kid at the Carleton University School of Journalism, one of the first books assigned was The First Casualty by Philip Knightley. It did quite a lot to undermine the naivete with which I viewed the news industry. The production of news and information is not a disinterested activity, and the shaping of narratives to guide the thinking of people is rarely by accident. Knightley, in his history of war reporting, made as much painfully clear, and this is not restricted to international news but permeates the whole information industry including hallowed “science” and somewhat frivolous sports.
There is not space enough to write, nor I imagine, an inclination on your part to read a lengthy rehearsal of how the media has gotten so much so wrong and as a result contributed to so much dissension and suspicion among us.
As Catholics we are called to a healthy scepticism toward the messaging of the media, both in news and in entertainment; we must guard against the call to outrage for causes yet verified, for reasons yet proven sound.
The world is “the system” and it is, indeed, “rigged” against us all. We cannot cast out its evils by its power—Christ cast out demons, not as his accusers claimed, by demonic power, but by the power of God, by allowing the Spirit to rest upon Him.
We must with humility acknowledge our limitations and dependence upon God; that we see the world imperfectly, as in a glass darkly, and rely upon God’s good guidance in this life, so that we may eventually enjoy the clear sightedness of the saints who dwell in light.
I leave you with these words of God as I could scarcely do better:
A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.
The tongue of the wise dispenses knowledge,
but the mouths of fools pour out folly.
The eyes of the Lord are in every place,
keeping watch on the evil and the good.
A gentle tongue is a tree of life,
but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.
The lips of the wise spread knowledge;
not so the minds of fools.
The mind of one who has understanding seeks knowledge,
but the mouths of fools feed on folly.
Those who are hot-tempered stir up strife,
but those who are slow to anger calm contention.
The mind of the righteous ponders how to answer,
but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil.
The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom,
and humility goes before honour.
Proverbs 1-4, 7, 14, 16, 28 & 33