When we were baptised, we would have been clothed in a white robe. For children this christening gown is sometimes an ancestral heirloom, passed down in the family from generation to generation. As modern parents insist on postponing the baptisms of their offspring for ever more frivolous reasons, gowns that were created for Edwardian babies often seem in peril of bursting at the seams when occupied by the strapping limbs of incipient toddlers.
After the Baptism itself, the child is covered in another white garment, such as a shawl or a bonnet. This is a visible sign of an invisible reality. It symbolises the life of grace which now animates the soul of the Christian. In Baptism a great change comes over us. Before Baptism, God looks on us and He sees that we are made in His image, with a mind and a will. After Baptism, He sees that in addition to this image which belongs to us by nature there is a supernatural likeness. We call this ‘Sanctifying Grace’. It is what we are talking about when we talk about someone being in a ‘state of grace’, and it bestows on us a participation in the very life of the Blessed Trinity.
Fresh from the waters of supernatural regeneration, the newly baptised Christian is enjoined to carry his baptismal garment without stain throughout his life until reaching the judgment seat of Jesus Christ. This reminds us that the outcome of our particular judgment – the judgment that occurs immediately after our death when our soul finds itself before Our Lord Jesus Christ – will depend on whether we are in a state of grace when we die. If, pray God, we are, then our eternal destiny will be everlasting blessedness in Heaven, very possibly after a period of purification in Purgatory. If, heaven forbid, we are not in a state of grace, then Our Lord has warned us in St Matthew’s Gospel of an eternity of weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Reading the twenty second chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel, we might be unsettled by the treatment given to the wedding guest who sits himself at table improperly dressed and is subsequently thrown out, having been bound by his hands and feet. Surely it is not his fault if he could not afford to kit himself out in a morning coat at Moss Bros? The message of this Gospel obviously refers not to outward appearances but rather to the interior state of our souls. The wedding banquet is a symbol of Holy Communion, when we, as members of the Church which is the Bride of Christ, receive Our Living, Risen Lord at the altar rails.
Following the Gospel, the Church has always taught that we must be in a state of grace before we receive Our Lord in Holy Communion. This means that if we have committed a mortal sin – a sin that is called ‘mortal’ because it kills the life of grace that is infused into us in Baptism – we must first have that grace stored to us in Penance. If we were knowingly and deliberately to receive Holy Communion in a state of mortal sin, then we would commit a further grave sin of sacrilege.
Sceptics sometimes mock Catholics for treating the Sacrament of Penance as a sort of spiritual laundrette. Actually, the deep-cleansing that takes place in a top-of-the range German washing machine is quite a good analogy for what happens in Confession, where the stains of sin are removed from the white robe of our Baptism, and it is restored to brilliance and newness. The grace that is infused into us in the Sacrament of Penance gives to our souls a dazzling splendour which is beautiful to the eyes of God the Father, because it is the very life of His Son.
The white christening robe reminds us that it is always important to be in a state of grace before receiving other Sacraments. Children making their First Communion and Confirmation also dress in white, which symbolises the state of grace received when they were made living Temples of the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament of Baptism, and restored, if lost, in the Sacrament of Penance. Traditionally brides also wear white for their weddings, reminding us how crucial it is for both parties to be in a state of grace to benefit from the blessings being bestowed in that great Sacrament.
The image of the marriage feast holds great importance for all Christians. Once baptised into the Church, we are members of the Bride of Christ. At Mass, we all stand together as we pray towards the East ‘Thy Kingdom come.’ We, the Church, are the Bride, awaiting the return of the Bridegroom Whose presence will fill the skies from East to West when He comes again in majesty and power to judge the living and the dead. We wait for that day in joyful expectation. We do not know when it will be. It could be soon, or it might be many millennia in the future. Meanwhile it is our job to beautify the marriage garments of the Bride of Christ with our humility, our chastity and our charity, so that when He does return He finds His Bride radiant and prepared.
Fr Julian Large