essay

whole cloth

In the Gospel of Luke, we find a teenage girl proclaiming the might of a God who establishes justice:

He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.

(Luke 1:51-53 ESV)

The prophet here is Mary, and her bold words celebrate the truth she received from an angelic messenger earlier in Luke 1: that she will conceive and bear the Christ, God Incarnate.

Artists throughout Christian history have depicted that angelic message (traditionally called “The Annunciation”), but my favorite version is a 1914 painting by John William Waterhouse. The violet-winged messenger has clearly interrupted Mary in the midst of her daily work. Still kneeling, she seems to have just turned from the book she has been studying, and she has just dropped her simple spindle — a tool that, for thousands of years, humans (and usually women) used to make each and every thread for clothing, bedding tents, sails, and more.

Scripture and spindle — I can think of no better emblems to interpret Mary’s role as prophet and Θεοτόκος (“God-bearer”). Her mighty song of justice echoes the thanksgiving of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10), and her work with her spindle calls to mind the joyful women of Exodus 35, who bring offerings of “blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen”(v. 25). These women are responding to God’s call for his people to create a tabernacle — a moveable sanctuary, a sign that God dwells among his people, even as they wander in the wilderness, waiting for their promised land. These women are not submitting to a forced collection, but rather, “All the women whose hearts stirred them to use their skill spun the goats’ hair” (v. 26).

And here is Mary, spindle in hand, heart stirring at the news the angel brings. The news is this: once again God will tabernacle among his people, pitching his tent in flesh and blood, and Mary will give not just the work of her hands, but her very flesh and bone for the tabernacle of Christ’s human body.

In Mary’s prophetic song, so many threads –of God’s story for and with his people, of human work and craft, and of the justice Christ will bring–come together with radical simplicity and integrity. They form a whole cloth, soon to swaddle a baby boy.

***

When I told my husband I wanted to call my work with textiles, storytelling, and justice “whole cloth,” his first comment was, “oh — like the seamless garment!” He meant the garment which, according to John’s Gospel, Christ was wearing at the time of his crucifixion: “When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom…” (John 19:23). With this detail — not recorded by the other gospel-writers — John links Jesus to the High Priest of the God’s liberated people, commissioned to model God’s plan for the world (cf. Exodus 39:22 and Jospehus, Antiq. b.3.8.4). More intimately, several commentators wonder if Christ’s precious garment might have been woven by his mother, who now stands at the cross, witness to her son’s execution.

I used to think that Mary’s silence at the cross complicated her prophetic words in Luke. Has she lost faith? Does she not see that her Son is fulfilling the promises she heralded as a young mother? 

What if, instead of doubting Mary, I imagine that her cloth speaks for her? The ancient women who spun yarns for the tabernacle and the priestly clothing were “women whose hearts stirred them,” and the weavers who crafted the priests’ seamless garments were “filled with [God’s] spirit of wisdom” (Exodus 35:26; 28:3 KJV).  Mary, being filled with the Spirit of God, once made a tabernacle of her body, and waited to see how–in her very flesh–God would bear hope into the world. Now, having made a garment with her hands, she waits again, longing to clothe and comfort the tortured flesh of her Son and her God.

***

As Advent heralds a new year in the Christian calendar, we find ourselves, like Mary, waiting. Some of us wait like the young, expectant girl, courageously calling the rich to tremble and the poor to dance. We feel hope growing in our belly, compassion stretching and strengthening our hands. Others wait like the grieving mother, silent as we witness the death of all we have built and nurtured, the theft of a garment we wove for one we love.

Dancing, stillness, grief, and the work of our hands: hope can take all these forms, and each one challenges the imperial glut of an American Christmas. As Advent dawns over a new year, may we remember Mary and the humble, vital work of making cloth, as emblems of our hope. As we open our hearts to God’s wisdom, our minds to His scriptures, our hands to work, we are called, like Mary, to clothe Christ’s body for the sake of the hungry, hurting world.

  1. http://biblehub.com/commentaries/john/19-23.htm See esp. the “Pulpit Commentary” and “McLaren’s Expositions.”

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