If an alien de Tocqueville came to a Christian church to write a “Religion on Earth” book, he would probably conclude that two major tenets of Christianity are dressing up and showing up. And the holier the occasion, the more the commandments “thou shalt dress up” and “thou shalt show up” are followed.
For a long time, I was deeply annoyed by this – obviously the clothing we wear has no religious value (“the body is more than clothes”), and usually serves as an advertisement of wealth and status in a way that meshes very poorly with the Gospel. The clothes that Jesus and the disciples probably wore day in and day out would be enough to cause a scandal in your average church pew – which is a satire on our superficiality if there ever was one. How many “Christians” would desire the Real Presence if it came complete with real poverty and real smells? And as for showing up – attendance – what does that matter if you don’t get any real instruction or experience of beauty from it (which, as a general rule, you don’t)?
So I followed a “come as you are” and “when you want to” policy when it came to church. This is fine. Insofar as I felt the commandment “thou shalt dress up” as coming from outside, and from a superficial source that had no particular spiritual significance, I was pleased to disregard it. In fact, this loyalty to personal experience, and scorn for the “temple system,” I regard as one of the stages leading to real religion. It’s John the Baptist – “of those born of women, none is greater than John the Baptist.” And yet – “but the least in the kingdom of heaven are greater than he.”
I feel different this year. Dressing up for Christmas Eve and Christmas has been a pleasure. But now it has nothing to do with commandment and law, but entirely with desire and delight. And that is an entirely different experience. The principles of dressing up and showing up admittedly have little to do with the relationship between creature and Creator. But they are the principles of celebration, which puts things in a different light. The experience is not that the superficial idiots in the pews need to be appeased by avoiding fraying collars, but that God is capacious enough to accept even our happiness – as petty, vain, and silly as that can be.
How difficult Christianity is to understand – things which from the outside appear precisely the same can come from entirely different sources. But I know that is the goal – to make desire and delight, and inner authority, the ultimate guide. And the end result is something that resembles the original state – and is experienced, in Joseph Campbell terms, as a return, but to a transformed place of origin.