Lessons from a Dirty Alb

December 19, 2010

The other day I reached into the washing machine and pulled out my alb, the white robe that we priests wear underneath the vestments at Mass. I had let the thing go way too long without being washed, and it had gradually gotten pretty funky around the collar and bottom hem. Being a typical man, it had taken me a while to even notice it (“Isn’t that how it’s supposed to look?”). But as I turned the newly-washed alb over in my hands, I was amazed at how sparkling white it now looked, fit to star in its own Tide commercial!

I started thinking that I had a great spiritual metaphor in my hands, ripe for the plucking, but then I realized that the baptismal rite already beat me to it. At Baptism we are clothed in a white garment, symbolizing how we had been washed clean from original sin and made adopted children of God. The minister proclaims, “You have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity. With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.”

Spiritually speaking, we can imagine ourselves still dressed in such a white garment. This garment represents our relationship with God as his adopted children. When we sin, we allow stains to discolor and darken our baptismal identity. When we commit a mortal sin—a serious sin chosen freely and knowingly—it is as if we took a pail of black paint and splashed it all over ourselves! We have chosen to use our freedom to separate ourselves from our Heavenly father, like a child who runs away from home. But we still have the garment on, no matter how unrecognizable it gets, because we remain God’s adopted children whom he tenderly continues to call home.

Even though my alb wasn’t covered with black paint (that I would have noticed!), it had still gotten pretty filthy. There were a lot of little marks, easy to miss, which built up gradually over time. These are like our venial sins, the smaller sins which we commit every day against God and neighbor. These sins aren’t as devastating to our spiritual lives as mortal sins, and yet they are still noticeable stains upon the white garment of our Baptismal identity. If we aren’t careful, all of those seemingly insignificant sins can start building up. Before we even realize it, our white garment can start getting pretty nasty!

Thankfully, God gave us a beautiful way to get all washed up and good-as-new: the sacrament of Confession. Every time we make a sincere confession, Jesus himself is there to heal us and make us clean again! We can walk in with every square inch of our baptismal garment covered with black, crusty stains; yet, when we walk out he has made it as sparkling white as the day we were baptized! (Beat that, Tide!) Why not celebrate our Lord’s birth this Christmas by visiting him in confession, letting the King of Kings wash you white as snow?

(First published in the our diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Miscellany.)

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