“The Lord showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, whie Satan stood at his right hand to accuse him. And the angel of the Lord said to Satan, “May the Lord rebuke you, Satan; may the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this man not a brand snatched from the fire?” Now Joshua was standing before the angel clad in filthy garments. He spoke and said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy garments and clother him in festal garments.” He also said, “Put a clean miter on his head.” And they put a clean miter on his head and clothed him with the festal garments. Then the angel of the Lord, standing, said, “See, I have taken away your guilt.” Zechariah 3:1-5
I read this passage in the Office of Readings on the Wed, the 17th of Oct. The reading struck me in an incredibly powerful way as I read it, the way poetry does. It hits on a subconscious level first, the imagery resonating, saying, “Pay attention. This is Good.” Only later does the conscious mind begin to access the richness of what was said. As it was, I read this and then re-read it, and then re-read it again. I finished the rest of the reading and then came back and read this section again. It struck me so strongly that I copied it out in an email and shared it with someone before leaving for work.
All day long I turned it over and over in my head. The first thing that crossed my mind was the fact that the names “Jesus” and “Joshua” are the same name in Hebrew. “Yehoshua” meaning “Yaweh is Salvation.” In my Vulgate the passage actually says, “Jesus the High Priest.” This is most wonderful, for it lends an incredible prophetic significance to this passage. Joshua the High Priest was the High Priest called by God to rebuild the temple after the Babylonian captivity, (Haggai 1) just as Jesus is the true High Priest who said, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up again.” (John 2:19) Jesus, who took upon himself the filthiness of our sins that we might clothe ourselves in His Righteousness as a wedding garment. (Isaiah 61:10) Actually, the whole of Isaiah 61 is speaking of Jesus in this context as our savior. The man at the banquet without a wedding garment (Matthew 22:12), the description of Baptism as having “put on Christ” (Galatians 3:26-28), the image of those who have washed their robes in the Blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:13-15), and the Church adorned as the Bride of the Lamb (Revelation 21:2) all flashed through my head, called up by the image of the High Priest, representing all of His people, standing before judgment and being clothed in white robes.
I thought of what it would be like to be stripped of all my filthy garments, and clothed in a white wedding garment. The image of dirt and filthiness contrasted with cleanliness is a powerful one. On the one hand I thought of a beautiful woman dressed in her wedding gown, cleaned, groomed and smelling of vanilla or lavender or some such beautiful thing: fresh and happy, clean and pure inside and out. On the other hand I thought of some of the patients I had in the ER on rotations: street people, homeless people, some of whom had not changed their clothes in weeks, months or years. I have heard of homeless people, mentally ill, addicted, sick and disgusting in mind and body who had not changed their clothes or showered in over a decade. Perhaps not since they were children, and maybe not even then. At that level of filthiness the clothes are literally adhered to the patient’s flesh, and the flesh underneath the clothes is macerated, necrotic and rotten. When the hospital or clinic staff, or the Missionaries of Charity, remove that person’s clothes, sheets of rotten, gangrenous skin come with it. I thought of a diabetic patient who had fallen asleep in an abandoned building and had his lower legs eaten away by rats, but he couldn’t feel it because of diabetic neuropathies.
Just hearing about this sort of filthiness is enough to put most people in the fetal position. I have a strong stomach and it makes even me nauseous. But I want you to visualize this degradation on one hand, and contrast it with the bride in her wedding gown on the other hand. Both are human beings. Both were created in the image and likeness of God. Both were created for an infinite weight of beauty. Who could look at the crack whore on the street, toothless, emaciated, sick in body and mind, and see her one day dressed in white, radiant, healthy, holy and happy? Who could love like that? What man would be willing to take her into his heart, into his home, into his bed?
But God does love like that. This is what my soul looks like in mortal sin. Habitual sin is like that homeless man whose clothes are so rotten that removing them takes the skin with them. The rottenness extends even into the soul itself, so I cannot feel the teeth gnawing away at the deadened parts. This is where some are, where some of us have been, and where all of us would be except for the grace of God. Most of us aren’t there, but we are still not clean. I may not wallow in my own filth day in and day out, never going to confession, never praying, never showering and changing my clothes, but I have been known to go to confession on a Saturday and be right back at my sins on Monday. I have been the dog that returns to its own vomit (2 Peter 2:22). Thanks be to God for never ceasing to forgive, for never getting tired of taking me back.
God is there. He sees us as we are, filthy, addicted, toothless, mumbling strange nothings in our senseless fears, and He loves us. He does not just love us, but He is in love with us. He stands ready to take us back, not just waiting at the door but running to meet us (Luke 15:20). He waits with a steaming bath, clean clothes, hot tea with honey, chicken soup, and crisp clean sheets, all ready and waiting for us.
This is why I don’t understand Catholics who don’t go to confession. Even when we don’t wallow in the cesspool, we still get dirty. Except by a miracle no one walks through this world without getting a little dirty from time to time. Not going to confession regularly makes about as much sense to me as only showering once a year, only changing my clothes every other month. I cannot put on clean clothes if I am not willing to strip off the old nasty ones and make myself naked.
The cleanliness of Heaven is a terrifying thing. The fact that God wishes to betroth us to Him, (me, with all my dirt and sins and failures glaring me in the face) and is willing to do whatever it takes to make us clean, even take our filthiness upon Himself, is a frightening thing. Most homeless people I have worked with didn’t want to change their clothes, or take a bath. They were attached to their ways, and couldn’t understand the joy of clean sheets in a warm bed. In the same way we are attached to much that is wrong and dirty — perhaps sin, perhaps the shame and guilt attached to past sins, perhaps just failures and regrets. God wants to remove them from us, but we have trouble letting go. We must look as ridiculous to Him as the homeless man looks to the nurse who wants him to take off his overcoat before he gets into bed. But God is patient. You might say, he is patient with His patients. (See what I did there? Sorry, couldn’t help it!)
He’s patient, but he is also determined. He doesn’t rush us, but there is a time limit. Eventually we must trust Him and surrender or die of our filthiness. He will not settle for half measures, for merely not being totally disgusting. In the end nothing will do for Him but for us to be radiant and glorious, adorned as a bride for her Lover.
The wedding night is coming! Alleluia!