Monday, February 14, 2011

Red Shirt

Normally, I would let Valentine’s Day pass without comment. In many ways, this “holiday” represents the fullest example of something pagan being mixed with something Christian and resulting in something purely commercial. For more reading on this, check out the NPR piece on the origins of the holiday, which can be found here.

As eager as I usually am to skip over Valentine’s Day, something in the Old Testament reading this morning (Isaiah 63:1-6) caught my eye and drew me back into the holiday. As the passage begins, the prophet asks, “Who is this that comes from Edom, in crimsoned garments from Bozrah, he that is glorious in his apparel, marching in the greatness of his strength?”

This morning, I got my son dressed. Whenever that happens, I always try to get my wife’s opinion on my sartorial selection before I actually put the clothes on his body. Too often, I have picked out what to my eye is the perfect outfit only to learn that I have chosen pajamas for my son to wear to school. So I yelled across the house, “What should I dress him in?” only to answer my own question in a mocking tone, “Yeah, yeah, I know: ‘Something nice enough for school.’” Helpfully, my wife mentioned that some of his blue jeans and shirts were fresh out of the dryer and still sitting in a laundry basket. I fished out an outfit but paused…I wonder if he has something red to wear. It is Valentine’s Day, after all. Just because I prefer to ignore the celebration doesn’t mean that I should deny my son the opportunity to “fit in” with his classmates by wearing appropriately tinted clothes.

I chose a bright red long-sleeved shirt that was way too big. I bought the shirt from Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve last year in an attempt to provide something red for him to wear underneath a winter-white jumper to that night’s service. It was the only red shirt Wal-Mart had even close to his size. When I proudly produced it for my wife to see what I had accomplished, she confirmed my fears—unwearable. It’s still too big, but it’s not as bad as it was in December. I took a risk and put it on him without first checking with the boss. She didn’t reject my selection, rolled up his sleeves, and took him off to school wearing a shirt that declares, “I’m ready for my Valentine’s Day treats!”

God, too, it seems is wearing a crimson shirt today. In his answer to the prophet’s question, God declares, “It is I, announcing the vindication, mighty to save.” Not knowing the reason why God has chosen to wear red garments, the prophet inquires and receives this reply, “I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood is sprinkled upon my garments, and I have stained all my raiment.” Apparently, God’s clothes are blood-red…literally. At this point in Judah’s history, they have returned from exile and have begun to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, and their principal enemy is now known as Edom. And in dramatic fashion, God has marched through the enemy’s city (Bozrah) and trampled upon its people, splattering their blood on his clothes.

How can the God of love, whose limitless mercy extends throughout the whole world (and even universe), be described as having slaughtered so many? How can we put onto God’s lips the words, “I trod down the peoples in my anger, I made them drunk in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth?”

Last night, as my daughter was picking out which Valentine’s Day cards to give to particular classmates, I flashed back to my own childhood, when certain people received favored cards from their peers while others received the leftover expressions of affection (or no card at all). Though I don’t think my daughter is old enough consciously to prefer one friend over another, she has already begun to discriminate—at least enough to decide that Friend X would like an Ariel card while Friend Y should get a Jasmine card.

For the people of Israel, God is their Valentine. They choose him and hope that he chooses them back. So, when they write down their history, they talk about God as I might have described my Valentine from elementary school: “She gave me the biggest Valentine of all and didn’t give one to anyone else because she loves me best of all.” Isn’t that what the prophet is saying? God is wearing a crimson, blood-stained shirt because he loves us most of all. It doesn’t matter that he actually loves the whole world and everyone in it, but we want to be God’s Valentine.  

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