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By Jerry Windley-Daoust,Gracewatch Media

“Why do we need to dress up? God cares more about our heart than how we look!” Ever hear that argument from your kids? They’re right…but that still leaves three good reasons Catholic kids ought to dress up for church.

I’m the only guy in my high school yearbook who didn’t wear a suit for his senior picture…out of maybe 300 guys. “Artificial,” I said. “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.”

I never did get with the program. Yeah, I wore a suit to my wedding, and I wear a suit to family funerals, but that’s about it. (People see me in a suit and tie and their first question is, “Who died?”)

So you’d think I’d be a little more relaxed about my kids’ Sunday going-to-church attire…and I probably am, relative to most families. But I do insist that we “dress up” for the occasion. And like my teenage self, my kids sometimes push back. “God cares about what’s in our hearts, not what we wear,” they sometimes say.

“True, true,” I reply. “God certainly cares what is in our hearts more than what we wear. But….” And then I launch into One of Dad’s Five-Minute Answers to a Simple Question. Here’s what I say.

1. Dressing up is an act of prayer

When I quizzed my daughter about why she thought I was making her go back to put on something dressier, she thought for a moment, then replied: “Because God is like a king, and you dress up to see a king?”

It’s a pretty good answer, but I’d nuance it a little. God is unlike any earthly king or president; Christ showed us that when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey rather than a warhorse. Earthly kings and presidents “need” us to dress up for them, because it’s one of the many ways we affirm their supremacy and their authority over us.

God doesn’t need any such acknowledgment, but we need to offer it. In this sense, dressing up for worship becomes a sort of prayer. As Catholics with a sacramental sensibility, we ought to appreciate that worship is as much about our bodies as our spirits…and that begins with what we choose to clothe ourselves with.

2. Dressing up helps us be intentional about our special role

When and why do people dress up in everyday life? Judges wear robes; police officers wear blues; doctors and nurses wear whites; and priests wear vestments. Even servers at fast food chains put on special clothes to designate their service role.

People dress up when they take on special roles or tasks. Their clothing sets them apart, gives them authority and a special (if temporary) identity.

When we participate in the public worship of the church, we exercise the common priesthood of the faithful…the priestly identity we received in baptism. Dressing up for church prepares us, in a real and concrete way, to exercise that role with appropriate seriousness. It reminds us that we are preparing to enter a special time and space; indeed, we are participating in the heavenly liturgy. So our “church clothes” are an echo of the white garment we receive at baptism, and a foretaste of the “white garment” we’ll receive when we are clothed in the glory of Christ in heaven.

3. Dressing up respects our fellow worshipers

There’s another reason for dressing up, one that’s more prosaic but no less important: we dress up to show respect to our fellow worshipers. At a minimum, we want to avoid distracting others from prayer (whatever that might mean in our context). More positively, we dress up out of respect for the dignity of our fellow Christians, much like we would dress up if we attended a special party or event in their honor (like a wedding or funeral or graduation).

What constitutes “dressing up” will vary from place to place. In our household, it means wearing special clothes that we aren’t everyday; other families dress in the very best clothes they own.

Welcoming all

After giving these three reasons, I add a caveat (remember this is One of Dad’s Five-Minute Answers…I’ve got to milk it): While our family has a “dress your best” rule for all the reasons I listed above, that doesn’t give us leave to judge others at church. For one thing, we don’t know people’s circumstances. Some people might not have nice clothes. Others might struggle just to show up. For all we know, the person we’re judging may have been moved to “try out” church again (or for the first time) on this particular morning; he or she may already feel out of place.

And for another thing, like the kids say, God cares more about what’s in our hearts. All the fancy clothes in the world are no substitute for a generous and welcoming heart!

Follow Jerry Windley-Daoust:

Publisher, Gracewatch Media

Jerry Windley-Daoust is a writer, editor, and father of five. He writes essays and stories at Windhovering and is the show-runner for Gracewatch Media, a small Catholic publisher. You can follow his latest publishing projects at gracewatch.org.