Clothing the Naked

Father Rosario Messina

Vestire-gli-ignudi-e-visitare-gli-infermi-sette-opere-di-Misericordia-Caravaggio‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return’ (Jb 1:21). This famous phrase of Job makes us reflect on the initial and final reality of each one of us: somebody clothes us when we are born and another person clothes us when we die, almost to announce to us beforehand that life, every life, should be spangled and marked by acts of tenderness. The first humans to experience this were Adam and Eve, as we are told by the Bible: ‘The man and the woman were both naked, but they were not embarrassed (Gen 2:25). Only after sin, after betraying their friendship with God through disobedience, did they realise ‘that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and covered themselves’ (Gen 3:7). But the Lord God, even though he punished their sin, by a very human act ‘made clothes out of animal skins for Adam and his wife, and he clothed them’ (Gen 3:21, thereby making them experience their frailty, even though it was enveloped in His divine mercy.

It was again the Lord God, with the passing of time and through His gradual revelations, who chose ‘Israel as His people’ and demonstrated increasingly special interest in the innocent and humiliated nakedness of the poor, of victims, of the marginalised, of slaves and of the mentally ill. Amongst very many, here is a dramatic text from Job: ‘At night they sleep with nothing to cover them, nothing to keep them from the cold. They are drenched by the rain that falls on the mountains, and they huddle beside the rocks for shelter…But the poor must go out with no clothes to protect them; they must go hungry’ (Jb 24:7-10). We seem to witness the same scenes taking place today before our very eyes, in lands and seas that are near to us: with the sinking of boats of migrants, crowded with desperate woman and half-naked children; with people thrown into the sea without pity and then swallowed up by the cold and the waves. And this is not to mention those lands where there are earthquakes, floods, wars, drought and all kinds of destruction.

In relation to these and other sad and painful situations, the Lord God asks from us ‘compassion for bodies’ which is expressed not by an invitation but by an explicit command: ‘Give…clothes to people in need’ (Tb 4:16). And this not as an act of charity but an act of justice: ‘Suppose there is a truly good man, righteous and honest…he feeds the hungry and gives clothing to the naked…he is righteous and he will live’ (Ez 18:5-9). God points out explicitly the kind of fasting that He really wants: ‘The kind of fasting that I want is this…Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear’ (Is 58:6-7). With the fulfilment of history, Jesus himself, the Son of God, after wanting to share the whole of our human condition except sin, wanted to experience the humiliation of not having clothes with which to cover himself, thereby experiencing nakedness. This took place not only when he was born in the grotto of Bethlehem in the cold and frost but also during the trial that would lead to his death. Pilate handed Jesus over to the Roman soldiers who took off his clothes and put on his shoulders the cross on which he would be crucified. He died, naked, after three hours of agony.

Today the crucified Christ on the altars, in addition to reminding us of the supreme act of love of Jesus who died for each one of us, must help us to discover and recognise his presence and his nakedness in the very many poor people who do not have the wherewithal by which to clothe themselves, if we want one day to hear addressed to us those sweet and comforting words: ‘come you that are blessed by my Father…for I was naked and you clothed me’ (Mt 25). The early Church understood very well how to live the commandment of love spoken by Jesus. From very many splendid examples, I would like to remember the moving account of the Acts of the Apostles when Peter raised Tabitha of Joppa from the dead: ‘all the widows crowded round him, crying and showing him all the shirts and coats that Dorcas had made while she was alive’, for she ‘spent all her time doing good and helping the poor’  (Acts 9: 36-39).

We may remember acts of love and charity performed by Popes, bishops, priests and the ordinary faithful down the centuries that constitute the finest history of the Church founded by Jesus. But one edifying episode has remained chiselled in the minds and the hearts of very many believers – that described by Venantius Fortunatus in his ‘Life of St. Martin’, the Bishop of Tours: ‘To a poor men whom he had met at the gates of Amiens who had turned to him, he divided into two parts the shelter offered by his short cloak and with fervent faith he placed it on his frozen limbs. One took a part of the cold, the other took a part of the warmth, and the warmth and cold were divided between the two poor men; the cold and the warmth became a new object of exchange and one poverty was sufficient, divided between two people’. Only charity can work such marvels!  Thus to share clothes with a poor person – and not so much the impersonal collecting of clothes to be sent to the poor of the third world – becomes a concrete act of charity and free giving, an exchange in which the person who deprives himself of something is not impoverished but, rather, is enriched by the joy of gift and encounter.

Clothes with which to cover oneself is a need that is essential for human life, like feathers for the birds of the sky or lairs for foxes. This work of mercy, in addition, today can find many other spaces which go beyond the gift of a mere piece of clothing. In almost all parishes, by now, there are elderly people who are on their own or who are sick and who do not so much need an article of clothing but someone who will help them to get dressed, or perhaps wash as well.  In addition, the outskirts of our cities are by now invaded by people from outside the European Union, above all by women and children,  the victims of hunger and wars, but above all else exploited, abused and raped women who ask for clothes, bread and work, but who above all else yearn to be rehabilitated in their dignity as women, as people who are worthy of esteem and respect, as we all are. Let us remember, as believers, that they, too, like us, are the ‘flesh of Christ’, a flesh that asks to be clothed in beauty, even that of a flower retrieved from what has been thrown away.