Friday, October 24, 2014

Garments as Symbols of Unity

One of the most powerful historical symbols of the unity of the Catholic Church has been the seamless garment worn by Christ at the crucifixion. The Gospel of John tells us that the garment Jesus was wearing at the time He was sent to the cross "was without seam, woven from the top throughout" (John 19:23). This signifies the "oneness" of the Church. The lack of seams means that the garment is a unity; it is not cobbled together from various distinct pieces. Just as the seamless garment of Christ cannot be divided without destroying it, so the Church of Christ can suffer no division.

The identification of the garment with the Church is very ancient. As far as I am aware, it goes back to St. Cyprian of Carthage in his famous work De unitate ecclesiae, "On the Unity of the Church." This is St. Cyprian's masterpiece, in which he explains the true supernatural unity of the Catholic Church and also becomes the father of Catholic ecclesiology. 

Of the bond of unity which makes the Church one, St. Cyprian of Carthage writes:

"This bond of a concord inseparably cohering, is set forth where in the Gospel the coat of the Lord Jesus Christ is not at all divided nor cut, but is received as an entire garment, and is possessed as an uninjured and undivided robe by those who cast lots concerning Christ's garment, who should rather put on Christ. Holy Scripture speaks, saying, 'But of the coat, because it was not sewed, but woven from the top throughout, they said one to another, Let us not rend it, but cast lots whose it shall be." That coat bore with it an unity that came down from the top, that is, that came from heaven and the Father, which was not to be at all rent by the receiver and the possessor, but without separation we obtain a whole and substantial entireness. He cannot possess the garment of Christ who parts and divides the Church of Christ" (On the Unity of the Church, 7).

As the garment was woven throughout from the top down, so the Church of Christ is established "from the top down", that is, from God the Father, and possesses an indivisible unity. Elsewhere Cyprian teaches that this unity is not a mere human unity based on the consensus of wills or on a common goal, but is the supernatural unity of the Trinity itself:

"He who breaks the peace and the concord of Christ, does so in opposition to Christ; he who gathers elsewhere than in the Church, scatters the Church of Christ. The Lord says, 'I and the Father are one; (John 10:30) and again it is written of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, 'And these three are one.' (1 John 5:7) And does any one believe that this unity which thus comes from the divine strength and coheres in celestial sacraments, can be divided in the Church, and can be separated by the parting asunder of opposing wills? He who does not hold this unity does not hold God's law, does not hold the faith of the Father and the Son, does not hold life and salvation" (ibid., 6).

The unity of the Church is the very same unity our Lord shares with the Father, as explained in John 17. The perfect sign of that unity is the seamless robe of Christ. This theme will be repeated by subsequent Church Fathers as well as the medievals. For example, the symbol is again employed in Boniface VIII's famous 1302 bull Unam Sanctam:

"He has called one because of the unity of the Spouse, of the faith, of the sacraments, and of the charity of the Church. This is the tunic of the Lord, the seamless tunic, which was not rent but which was cast by lot" (Unam Sanctam, 2).

Could it not, however, be argued that this is a kind of typology run amok? The Fathers and especially the medievals were fond of finding typological significations for Scriptural passages. Everything from the pillow of Jacob to the stones slung by David to the two swords carried by the apostles were eventually assigned typological meanings. And not every typological connection ever proposed by a theologian is accurate, much less infallible. The famous 15th century Biblia Pauperum proposes the house of Job as a type of heaven. That's right, the house of Job. The one that, due to the devil, collapses and kills all Job's children. Not the best type of heaven, in my estimation.

Perhaps the identification of the oneness of the Church with the robe of Christ is a similar fabrication, a sort of typological "grasping for straws" to find a theological justification for something with scant biblical support?

In fact, St. Cyprian is here only following an interpretive scheme that is found in the Bible itself. If Cyprian assumes that the garment of Christ signifies the unity of the Kingdom of God, it is only because in the Bible garments are always signs of the unity of a kingdom; conversely, the ripping or rending of garments is a sign of the dismantling of a kingdom. 

In the days of Saul, the king was commanded by God to destroy the Amalekites but King Saul spared their king and took spoil for himself and his men. The prophet Samuel comes to rebuke King Saul for this disobedience, which will lead to Saul losing the kingdom. Note the symbolism of the episode:

"And Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned; for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, I pray, pardon my sin, and return with me, that I may worship the Lord.” And Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you; for you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.” As Samuel turned to go away, Saul laid hold upon the skirt of his robe, and it tore. And Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you" (I Samuel 15:24-28).

The unity of the kingdom of Israel was signified by the robe of Samuel. When Saul tore this robe, it symbolized that the kingdom was being "torn" from him.

We see a similar episode in the reign of Solomon. When Solomon sinned by worshiping foreign gods, the Lord promised to tear the kingdom away from him: "Because thou hast done this, and hast not kept my covenant, and my precepts, which I have commanded thee, I will divide and rend thy kingdom, and will give it to thy servant" (I Kings 11:11). And how does God signify this rending? In the following passage, the prophet Ahijah goes to the rebel Jeroboam son of Nebat to tell him that God will bestow a kingdom upon him. Pay attention to the prophetic imagery:

"And at that time, when Jeroboam went out of Jerusalem, the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite found him on the road. Now Ahijah had clad himself with a new garment; and the two of them were alone in the open country. Then Ahijah laid hold of the new garment that was on him, and tore it into twelve pieces. And he said to Jeroboam, “Take for yourself ten pieces; for thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Behold, I am about to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon, and will give you ten tribes; but he shall have one tribe, for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem (I Kings 11:29-32).

The rending of the garment signifies the destruction of the unity of the kingdom. Though it is not specifically stated, we could also note that the destruction of the robe of Joseph by his brethren (Gen. 37:29-32), who rent it and splattered blood on it, signifies the disunity of the House of Jacob.

So it is a thoroughly biblical principle that the garments tend to represent houses or kingdoms. The rending or destruction of the garment signifies the rending or disunity of the kingdom; similarly, the integrity of the garment symbolizes the unity of the kingdom. Thus Cyprian and the Catholic Tradition are following very biblical lines of thought when they see in the seamless robe of Christ a type of the Kingdom of God, the Church, and its dynamic inner unity. Cyprian is treading on very firm ground with his comparisons.

For more on St. Cyprian of Carthage, I highly recommend the The Complete Works of St. Cyprian of Carthage by Arx Publishing. This was a work I helped edit and which Ryan Grant wrote the foreward to. It contains apologetical footnotes and a great topical index for navigating the copious works of the Father of Carthage. A great resource!

Also related: The Problem of Catholic Unity (Part 1) and The Problem of Catholic Unity (Part 2)


BM said...

I'm not familiar with the passage from the "Biblia Pauperum" about Job, but I have seen it suggested in other places that the house of Job is a type of Heaven. However, they meant the house after it was restored by God at the end. That interpretation doesn't seem far off at all. Is it not possible that the Biblia intends the same?

Boniface said...

I have a copy of the Biblia in question. The reason it says the house is a type of heaven is because the people of Job's time were pastoral people who spent a lot of time outside. Being outside signifies the pilgrimage of this life, while being in the house signifies the "stability" of being "at home" in heaven.

And it does not mean after the restoration, because in the illustration it shows all Job's sons. JOb after his restoration did not have sons.

Anonymous said...

I, of course, have never given this much thought.

But, It brings to mind two things:

First, Cardinal Bernardin's "Seamless Garment" that has been an excuse for all sorts of heretical foolishness.

Second, Christ's garment was gambled away at the time of His Crucifixion. Who is gambling it away today...and how close is the Cross for His Church...?

Ethan Hayes said...

In the Biblia Pauperum, it is indicated that the house of job in question is that prior to its destruction saying,
"We read in the first chapter of the book of Job that his sons held feasts in their houses, each in his own house, and they sent for their sisters to eat and drink with them. The sons of Job are the righteous men who keep daily feasts, sending for those who shall be saved to come to the eternal happiness, and forever to enjoy God. Amen."
It is seen how this is not an excellently crafted allegory and the the accompanying text is not well worded as the children of Job did not forever enjoy God but rather were eventually destroyed. The allegory stands to a point but breaks down quicker than is appreciated.