“In me there is darkness,
But with You there is light;
I am lonely, but You do not leave me;
I am feeble in heart, but with You there is help;
I am restless, but with You there is peace.
In me there is bitterness, but with You there is patience;
I do not understand Your ways,
But You know the way for me.”
This prayer was written by Dietrich Bonheoffer and is in his book, posthumously published, called ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’. He was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian, arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis and killed on 9 April 1945 as the Nazi regime collapsed, just two weeks before Allied forces liberated the camp and three weeks before Hitler’s suicide.
Even though he felt that he was in darkness yet he could still say that with Jesus there was light. So much had been taken from him but he could still say of Christ, ‘You know the way for me.’ It is humbling. If I had my freedom taken from me, if I was shut up, denied almost everything, if I had my dignity taken could I be as faithful? I haven’t been there; I simply don’t know.
Jesus was at the place of execution, the place of crucifixion and the process began to get him ready to be raised on the cross for all to see. So they stripped him.
In the musical ‘Evita’ we see Eva Peron being prepared for her public. What she wore, how she looked was all part of the artifice. In the song ‘Rainbow High’ this is explained.
Eyes, hair, mouth, figure
Dress, voice, style, movement
Hands, magic, rings, glamour
Face, diamonds, excitement, image
I came from the people, they need to adore me
So Christian Dior me from my head to my toes
I need to be dazzling, I want to be Rainbow High
They must have excitement, and so must I.
Yet by the end of the show even Eva with all her styling is reduced to nothing as death takes its toll. But what we see in the musical is what so many people believe. The 1980’s, ‘Dallas’, shoulder-pads, power dressing, was all about using what we wear to establish who we are. We use it in church to great effect. The vestments we wear are not for glamour but to tell the story, what season, what service, what status, what role. What we wear speaks for us, of us.
So they strip Jesus. He is wearing a tunic woven from the top throughout. We know this because St John mentions it in his gospel.
When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. (John 19.23)
For a man who had lived a life of poverty it was an expensive and valuable garment. That was why when they had stripped him of it, rather than rip it to divide it they shook the dice and gambled for it. The Jewish first century historian Josephus writes at one stage about the robe that the High Priest wore and says this
‘This vesture was not composed of two pieces, nor was it sewed together upon the shoulders and the sides; but it was one long vestment, so woven as to have an aperture for the neck. It was also parted where the hands were to come out.’ (Josephus (Antiq., b. 3 chapter 8, Section 4))
There is something beautifully symbolic that Jesus, the true High Priest, as the Letter to the Hebrews describes him, was dressed with the tunic of the style of the High Priest. What he wears speaks to us of who he is.
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4.14-15)
In the verse immediately before this, however, the writer of the Letter says something so powerful as we look at Jesus now, stripped of the robe that he wore.
Before [God] no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. (Hebrews 4.13)
We cannot hide behind the Christian Dior, behind the tunic we wear, however symbolic. All will be stripped away and we will stand as we are. But as Adam and Eve discovered that is uncomfortable. Eating of the tree of which they were forbidden to eat they realise they are naked and so make for themselves aprons of ‘fig leaves’. And they hide from God as he walks in the garden and when God finds them he asks how they knew they were naked and why they were ashamed.
They had begun to hide behind the carapace that we can so easily develop, the hard shell that we imagine protects us, even separates us from God, and then, brutally, cruelly, it can all be stripped away and we feel that we lose our sense of identity, our sense of dignity. We lie in our hospital bed and someone else chooses what we will wear. In one of his second series of ‘Talking Heads’ called ‘Waiting for the Telegram’ Alan Bennett describes Violet, played by the late Dame Thora Hird, an elderly resident in an old people’s home. Speaking to the carer she says
‘This frock isn’t mine. Tangerine doesn’t suit me. Where’s that green little frock?’ She said ‘’Hilda kept wetting herself in it and its gone funny.”
Her dignity as well as her clothes had been taken from her. And what does my dignity rely on? What I wear, how I’m addressed, where I live, who I know? And you, what defines, describes, protects who you are? And if, as for Jesus, it was all taken away and someone threw the dice over it, what of you would be left?
they stripped you of everything,
yet you kept your dignity.
When my dignity is taken,
and clothe me in your love.