Putting on the Mantle of Christ
Last Sunday of Epiphany, Year B
22 February 2009
What is a mantle? A mantle is an outer garment worn over underclothes in biblical times. The mantle of Elijah may have been animal skin, but most were made of some heavier cloth and usually woven. They were an essential part of life, enough that the Law commanded that you could not keep a mantle overnight as collateral for a debt.
But a mantle was more than clothing, it was also an identifier. Your identity could be seen in your mantle, whether you were rich or poor, from the desert or farmland or mountains. The priests wore a specific mantle in the temple that was blue and seamless. Kings wore the same mantle in Israel. And according to a couple of verses, prophets may have worn a blue mantle as well.
When Elisha takes up the mantle of Elijah, he takes on his identity in a way. It says in the story that he prayed and received two-thirds of his spirit.
But we are not a people of mantles. We do not like to take on anything that limits our choices.
Ingrained in our philosophy is this elevation of choice which we call freedom. Individual choice is venerated to the point that everything must be chosen, and we are very uncomfortable with any identification that limits our choices.
I picked up a book that my brother-in-law had left at Amy’s parents called The Tyranny of Choice that really hit on this chord. We have moved to such extremes of choice that it is limiting to our lives. I don’t know how you are, but I had an existential crisis the first time I went to Ikea. There just shouldn’t be 40,000 lighting options.
We want all options available. But taking on a mantle means that some choices are not ours to make. Some of who we are is determined by the mantles we wear. And we, as Christians, have taken on a mantle, whether we realized it our not.
It is right there in our liturgies of baptism and eucharist. We have taken on the mantle of Christ.
In baptism, we normally wear white to show that we are the redeemed, washed in the blood of the Lamb. But more to the point because of the Transfiguration, we see putting on white as putting on the mantle of Christ. With him we are buried in likeness into death, and with him we are raised in likeness to new life. So we wear white to show that we are in Christ.
The liturgical party in our services wears white as a sign of baptism and their identity with Christ.
Every week we not only put on the clothes again of our identity, but we also reground ourselves in that reality in the eucharist. We come to the table not to merely receive the Body of Christ, but to be the Body of Christ, to remind ourselves of our identity in Christ. We do not come as Prayer C says “for solace only, and not for strength.” We are to be Christ in the world, continuing his work of redeeming the world.
The only place in Scripture where it is recorded that Jesus put on an article of clothing is at the last supper in John when he put on a towel to wash his disciples’ feet. And he commands us to do the same. The way the world should know us as carrying on the mantle of Christ is through our service, our love made present in our work for others.
So as we gather at the table, let us remind ourselves that we wear the mantle of Christ.