Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Original "Seamless Garment"

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus they took his garments and made four parts, one for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was without seam, woven from top to bottom; so they said to one another, "Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be." This was to fulfill the scripture, "They parted my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots." - John 19:23-24
This is familiar scripture at this time of the year, as we hear the Passion according to St John. But when I hear it I often wonder, what is a "tunic woven without seam, from top to bottom"? John uses the Greek word chiton (χιτών) for this garment.

This garment is special - it is not the usual item you would expect to find on an itinerant preacher.  This fact, I think, is expressed in the Gospel by the soldiers obvious surprise and reaction to the item. The were Roman soldiers in an occupied, restless country and probably often presided at executions - they were used to taking the rags their victims were wearing and reselling them for a little extra cash. Rags were almost certainly the things they found clothing their victims.

But this garment, this χιτών, is most certainly not a rag. It is, in fact, the seamless garment worn by the High Priest of Israel! Tradition says this tunic is woven from top to bottom, with no seam, of only a single (obviously very, very long) thread.

In practical terms, this is very interesting. Where would Jesus have acquired such a tunic? The Gospel says He had friends among the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem (Nicodemus, who came to him in the night (John:3) and Joseph of Arimethia, his secret dsiciple) - perhaps they gave him this expensive present. His friends from Bethany, Martha, Mary and Lazarus were obviously not ordinary peasants - remember the perfume worth a years wages, and the large number of hired mourners wailing over Lazarus' death. Maybe his tunic was a gift of joy for the life of Lazarus.

In religious terms, there is much to consider here. Our Lord wears to His death the traditional garment of the High Priest. The priestly class in Israel had only one function - to offer sacrifice for the sins of the people. Jesus is also the High Priest, offering a sacrifice for the sins of the people. But this is not the vicarious animal sacrifice of the Temple - this High Priest offers himself as sacrifice - as foretold by Abraham in Genesis: "God will provide himself the Lamb for sacrifice".

The long, single thread of the garment represents the church - single, whole, and intimately related to Jesus. And, in the end, it remains uncut, un-torn, as He promised.

His clothes show, to those who will see, who He is. They were even foretold in the Psalms, as is referenced in the Gospel. The garment was fitting for the Man, and the task He came to accomplish.