Tearing Their Garments

[November 19, 2019]

You know how, in the Bible, sometimes it says people tear their garments? Matthew 26:25, “The high priest tore his garments and said, ‘He has spoken blasphemy!’.”

I always thought that the women present must have breathed a quiet “Noooooo” at that moment. Think of how hard it is to weave fabric. Look at the sleeve of whatever you’re wearing, and notice how many horizontal lines it takes to make up even an inch of vertical fabric. In that high priest’s time, a person (probably a woman) would make such a garment at a wooden loom, passing a thread carefully over and under, back and forth, through the lengthwise threads. Making any kind of fabric took forever!

(By the way, while researching this I learned it is still the Jewish custom that, when you lose a family member, you make a tear in your shirt, over your chest. You cut to the left for a parent, to the right for someone else. There are demonstrations on YouTube about how to do this. It did say that women are allowed to safety-pin the torn place together, for the sake of modesty.)

But think what that process is like, weaving the threads back and forth, back and forth, slowly building a length of fabric. What would it be like, if everything you’re wearing was made that way, by someone who loved you. Every stitch passed through her hands, and now it covers you like a mantle of her labor and love.

In fact, before the modern era, almost everything around you would have been made by hand, probably made by someone in your village, someone you knew. Everything you touched had a resonance of connection with them, even after they passed away. Think of how rich that life would be, surrounded by things that had been made by human hands.

The material world today is, in comparison, emotionally impoverished. Just about everything we touch was made by a machine, or by underpaid strangers far away. (Looking at distressed jeans, I often think, “People in China must think we’re crazy.”) At one time the most valuable thing was one that showed no imperfections, that looked like it was never touched by its artist; now we want everything to look handled and worn, because we think it’s “authentic” that way.

I think what we’re really seeking is a way to connect to this particular pair of distressed jeans, to mark it as our own, just as time would do if we actually wore these jeans for five or ten years. When everything comes from a store, and every product interchangeable with every product like it, it’s hard to feel like anything is real. If I break my phone, I can buy another so exactly like it that, as far as my use of it goes, it’s the same phone.

It’s uncomfortable living like that, feeling like we are in a world of interchangeable, identical things. It makes the things seem unreal, even if we’re paying thousands of dollars for them. It seems like they evaporate out of our grasp. Something that has been visibly injured or distressed looks, at least, like it had contact with a human being at some point. It’s a lot less than wearing clothes made inch-by-inch by hand, by someone who loves you. What a different world that was.

Frederica Matthewes-Green

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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