From the Prophet Jeremiah:
Thus said the Lord to me, “Go and buy yourself a linen loincloth, and put it on your loins, but do not dip it in water.” So I bought a loincloth according to the word of the Lord, and put it on my loins. And the word of the Lord came to me a second time, saying, “Take the loincloth that you bought and are wearing, and go now to the Euphrates, and hide it there in a cleft of the rock.” So I went, and hid it by the Euphrates, as the Lord commanded me. And after many days the Lord said to me, “Go now to the Euphrates, and take from there the loincloth that I commanded you to hide there.” Then I went to the Euphrates, and dug, and I took the loincloth from the place where I had hidden it. But now the loincloth was ruined; it was good for nothing. Then the word of the Lord came to me: Thus says the Lord: Just so I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own will and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth, which is good for nothing. For as the loincloth clings to one’s loins, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the Lord, in order that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory. But they would not listen.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Jeremiah 13:1-11 (NRSV) – March 9, 2013.)
According to Wikipedia:
Loincloths are being and have been worn:
- in societies where no other clothing is needed or wanted
- as an undergarment or swimsuit
- by the farmers in paddy fields in Sri Lanka and India, especially when they are working with mud
The loincloth or breechcloth is a basic form of dress, often worn as an only garment. Men have worn a loincloth or breechcloth as a fundamental piece of clothing which covers their genitals – not the buttocks – in most societies throughout human history which disapproved of genital nakedness. The loincloth is in essence a piece of material, bark-bast, leather or cloth, passed between the legs covering the genitals.
As a metaphor for the relationship of God and God’s People, this has to be one of the most bizarre. We can readily understand the spousal metaphor of Hosea, the body metaphor used by Paul in First Corinthians, or Peter’s spiritual house. We’re familiar with shepherds and their sheep, gardeners and their fig trees, vine dressers and their grapevines, hens with their chicks, parents with their children, and princes and their people; they all make sense as ways to understand our relationship to God. But underwear? Seriously? Underwear???
The beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (still going strong at nearly 94 year of age) wrote a poem about underwear (entitled Underwear) published in 1961:
I didn’t get much sleep last night
thinking about underwear
Have you ever stopped to consider
underwear in the abstract
When you really dig into it
some shocking problems are raised
Underwear is something
we all have to deal with
some kind of underwear
The Pope wears underwear I hope
The Governor of Louisiana
I saw him on TV
He must have had tight underwear
He squirmed a lot
Underwear can really get you in a bind
You have seen the underwear ads
for men and women
so alike but so different
Women’s underwear holds things up
Men’s underwear holds things down
Underwear is one thing
men and women have in common
Underwear is all we have between us
You have seen the three-color pictures
with crotches encircled
to show the areas of extra strength
and three-way stretch
promising full freedom of action
Don’t be deceived
It’s all based on the two-party system
which doesn’t allow much freedom of choice
the way things are set up
America in its Underwear
struggles thru the night
Underwear controls everything in the end
Take foundation garments for instance
They are really fascist forms
of underground government
making people believe
something but the truth
telling you what you can or can’t do
Did you ever try to get around a girdle
Perhaps Non-Violent Action
is the only answer
Did Gandhi wear a girdle?
Did Lady Macbeth wear a girdle?
Was that why Macbeth murdered sleep?
And that spot she was always rubbing—
Was it really in her underwear?
Modern anglosaxon ladies
must have huge guilt complexes
always washing and washing and washing
Out damned spot
Underwear with spots very suspicious
Underwear with bulges very shocking
Underwear on clothesline a great flag of freedom
Someone has escaped his Underwear
May be naked somewhere
But don’t worry
Everybody’s still hung up in it
There won’t be no real revolution
And poetry still the underwear of the soul
And underwear still covering
a multitude of faults
in the geological sense—
strange sedimentary stones, inscrutable cracks!
If I were you I’d keep aside
an oversize pair of winter underwear
Do not go naked into that good night
And in the meantime
keep calm and warm and dry
No use stirring ourselves up prematurely
Move forward with dignity
hand in vest
Don’t get emotional
And death shall have no dominion
There’s plenty of time my darling
Are we not still young and easy
There are observations in that poem that help me get into prophet’s metaphor:
“Underwear can really get you in a bind” — God talks about the loincloth clinging. Our relationship with God is to be intimate; we are to be closely bound to our Creator; we are to cling to God tightly.
“Underwear is one thing men and women have in common” — Boxers or briefs or bikini panties, tightie-whities or long-johns, underwear is a shared experience, although for each wearer there are unique peculiarities. Our individual relationships with God, our personal spiritualities, are like that; there is a commonality of experience, but there are also profound differences. We learn about God as we share and discuss those likenesses and unlikenesses.
“Underwear on clothesline a great flag of freedom” — Anglican prayer books include a collect for peace which, in its modern form in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church petitions, “O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom . . . .” (pg. 99) The last phrase is derived from the Latin cui servire, regnare est, “whom to serve is to reign,” attributed to St. Augustine. This metaphor as a flag of freedom reminds me that “if we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.” (2 Tim. 2:11-12)
While I don’t expect God’s underwear to make it into the next prayer book or the next liturgical supplement the way other biblical metaphors have done, it’s one I could wish had more exposure. It’s certainly startling and thought provoking.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.