The very first recorded activity human beings undertake together is the making of clothes. And this is done not as a practical response to a drop in the temperature, but in order to deal with shame. It is also the first activity recorded after the introduction of division between people, and between people and God, enters our story. As such, making clothes is a profoundly ungodly thing to do. We see this still today, in the exploitation of workers in sweat shops; and in the use of clothing to identify us as distinct from – separated from, and often hostile towards – other tribes, or communities.
Yet in God’s response – to make more durable clothes for the man and the woman – we see that this human activity is an example of our being made to share in God’s nature: that we are creative because God is creative. As such, making clothes is a profoundly godly thing to do.
Throughout scripture, the image of putting on clothing is used to describe an outward expression of an inner understanding of our identity. People are described as being clothed, by God, with salvation (being saved from a situation); with joy; with gladness; with righteousness (living in a state of right relationships with God and neighbour); with strength and dignity; with power from on high (Jesus’ description of his sending the Holy Spirit on his disciples); with an imperishable body, after our present body dies; with our heavenly dwelling (in the future); and with Christ himself. These all flow from God himself being clothed in splendour and majesty.
In contrast, the images are used of being clothed in shame and disgrace, with terror, with despair, with gloom. All these describe the state of living in separated autonomy from God – again picking up on the very first instance of clothing.
The twentieth century heralded many time-saving devices in the home. Washing clothes is no longer the chore it used to be – although I am not convinced that we are happier and less-stressed as a result, or that our experience is of time being freed up: it is merely consumed by other things. Nonetheless, even the loading and unloading of the washing machine can become a spiritual act, in which we bring any experience of shame or disgrace to God with the dirty laundry as it goes into the machine; and ‘clothe ourselves’ or intentionally take upon us joy, righteousness and dignity as we unload the clean laundry.
If you live with others, you might pray along similar lines for them, too. My children generate a lot of laundry. Despite how little effort it requires, it can be easy to resent that: instead, I can choose to use it as an opportunity to pray for them, and not least in regards to their highs and lows at school (every school is a breeding ground for shaming, and every child needs someone to take a stand against that in prayer).
Advent: making room for Jesus – in the washing machine.