Taking Off Our Outer Garments: Healing Our Divides

November 15, 2020

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer garment, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was around him.  ~ John 13:3-4

Thanksgiving is just around the corner. I remember with fondness our family getting together with the Sewells and enjoying a sumptuous meal together. Some years we went to Grandma’s house and the whole family—aunts, uncles, and cousins—sat down together to enjoy turkey, ham, stuffing, and mashed potatoes with gravy. It is good to remember moments when we all sat and ate together as a family.

I also remember so well the splinters in my rural high school in Texas. We had the jocks, the band nerds, the druggies, the goat ropers, and the brains; and we sat in separate areas in the cafeteria. We never really shared a meal together. No one bridged the divides, so there was little or no communion.

What do our communities and families look like today? “We live in a world in which various groups stay away from one another: liberals and conservatives, Jews and Arabs, Natives and non-Natives, black and white races, pro-life and pro-choice groups, feminists and traditionalists.” The world quite often mirrors the high school cafeteria I grew up in. Fortunately, God calls us to a deeper maturity and spirituality in which we “radiate the compassion” of Christ and reach across the divides that separate us, but this is not easy.

We struggle to have meaningful dialogue with individuals or groups who have different opinions than our own. We distrust one another, demonize on another, and we see danger in every difference. So how do we respond to our differences? Father Ron Rolheiser says, “We either actively oppose one another or simply steer clear of one another and caution our loved ones to steer clear as well.”

Rolheiser writes expansively about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. This act models the compassion of Christ that Jesus calls us to emulate. The Gospel of John describes Jesus taking off his “outer garment” which implies more than just stripping off some physical clothing. In order for Jesus to wash his disciples’ feet, including Judas who will betray him, Jesus must, Rolheiser says, “strip off a lot of outer things (pride, moral judgments, superiority, ideology, and personal dignity) so as to wear only his inner garment.”

What outer garments do we wear that keep us from forming relationships with the other? What outer garments do we wear that separate us? What do we wear that prevents us from seeing the image of God in our neighbor? Rolheiser writes, “We wear more than physical clothing to cover ourselves up and separate ourselves from others. We cover ourselves with our political affiliation, religious identity, status, our possessions, ideology, a set of moral judgments, and a whole gamut of private wounds and indignations.” Our outer garments divide us. What outer garments do we need Grace to help us remove?

What is Jesus’ inner garment? Our inner garment?  “Deep down, beneath our race, gender, religion, language, politics, and personal history (with all our wounds and false pride)” our inner garment is the same as Jesus’.

Our inner garment is the image and likeness of God inside us, our divinity. We are carriers of God’s love, joy, peace, and compassion. We are God’s angels or God’s children. When Jesus takes off his outer garment, he has the courage and the compassion to wash his disciples’ feet including the feet of Judas who will betray him. Jesus reaches across every kind of divide that separates us from one another. Are we willing to follow his example?

When we strip off our outer garments and get in touch with our true selves “we can find the strength to wash one another’s feet across any divide: liberal or conservative, Muslim or Christian, black or white, man or woman, gay or straight, and we begin to feel sympathy for one another beyond our wounds and differences,” says Rolheiser.

When we seek the Grace of God to take off our outer garments, we are vulnerable. Exposed. And we are in touch with the divine love, joy, and peace within us that gives us strength to heal and to mend the divides that separate us.

May we live into a deeper Christ-like maturity.
May we put away our outer garments and see one another as brothers and sisters.
May we embrace in compassion someone separated from us.

Blessings and peace,