Re-clothed at Easter: Recollection and Promise
by Elliott Wright
Easter when I was a child growing up in a series of North Alabama parsonages was a thoroughly religious celebration centered in the church. One of few concessions to cultural practice was permission to dye, hide, and hunt eggs. My sister and I could display the eggs in small baskets held over from year to year but were expected to eat them, or return them for kitchen use, before they spoiled. We were never heard anything at home about the Easter Bunny and we received no stuffed Easter animals, colored chicks, or chocolate rabbits.
But we always had new clothes for Easter Sunday. When I was four or five years old I really thought you couldn't--at least shouldn't—go to church on Easter unless you were wearing new clothes. No one ever told me that new garb was required, but it was such a common practice that I took as religious necessity. For me there were new shirts and dress pants from J.C. Penney's or Belk-Hudson's.
Those new clothes were a world apart from the dyed eggs and the Easter candy sweets we could see in the stores. There was, well, something religious about them, but I had no idea as to why at that time.
The clothes and shoes of my early Easters were new, but not fancy, and expected to last a long time. They were special, the best clothes. "Wear your Easter shirt," my mother would say as we got ready for a visit from the district superintendent. There was definitely something extraordinary about Easter clothes.
After I went away to college, then seminary, and did not continue the traditions of childhood, I occasionally wondered why my mother was so conscientious about new Easter clothes. Was it that she, as the preacher's wife, did not want to be seen as neglecting a cultural expectation; didn't want people to say, "those poor little preacher's kids have no new clothes?" Or was there a more profound, a theological motivation?
Nobody in the primary Sunday school class ever told me that the origins of new Eastern clothes lay deep in Christian practice, dating back to a time when people baptized on Easter were given new garments as they took on the mantle of faith. I learned that at Birmingham-Southern College. It would have helped me, I think, had someone told me as a child that in earlier days of Christianity friends and family of those being baptized also wore new clothes to both honor the new church members and to remember their own baptism.
Easter, of course, is not about wearing new clothes even for symbolic reasons, a practice that could easily become a garish act of works-righteousness. Easter isn't about our own efforts to transform or decorate ourselves. It is about God's offer of new life in Christ, a gift that become ours when we accept it. The tomb is empty: "He is not here….He goes before you." "Follow."
In faith we accept God's free gift of undying love; at Easter we celebrate the reality of being made new in Christ, re-outfitted for lives of discipleship and mission, a committed sealed in baptism.
When worn with theological awareness, new Easter clothes are a good symbol that we have gotten the message, are ready to accepted God's grace and forgiveness offered in crucifixion and resurrection. To deliberately, self-consciously wear new clothes to Easter worship is a statement that we come prepared receive God's gift anew, and then leave the sanctuary transformed inside and looking good outside. I think my mother, and perhaps many other mothers in Austinville and Collinsville, instinctively knew the importance of the new Easter chambray shirt and the shinny new loafers.
This Easter, 2008, I am going to wear something new to church. I won't spend much on it but it will be a garment I have never worn anyplace before. And like so many years ago, the shirt, or a tie, or a pair of slacks will become my "best"—best because they clothed me when I was yet again baptized by Christ's love and said another "yes" to God's grace.
*Elliott Wright is the information officer of the General Board of Global Ministries.
Date posted: Mar 19, 2008