The Seamless Garment by Canon Jim Foley

The Seamless Garment by Canon Jim Foley

John 19, 23-26

A Meditation for Good Friday

by Canon Jim Foley

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus,

they took his clothes and divided them into four parts,

one for each soldier.

They also took his tunic;

now his tunic was seamless,

woven in one piece from the top.

So they said to one another,

Let us not tear it,

but cast lots for it to see who will get it.

This was to fulfil what the scripture says,

They divided my clothes among themselves,

and for my clothing they cast lots.

And that is what the soldiers did.

This strange incident took place at the foot of the cross on which Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. Almost unaware of what was happening around them, and certainly totally unaware of the deeper meaning of the events in which they were caught up, four Roman soldiers set about dividing up Jesus’ garments. They could lay claim to them as the duty officers to whom the crucifixion of Jesus had been entrusted. His outer garments were quickly divided among them but there was one garment left over, a fine linen tunic, all of a piece, woven from top to bottom. Even these vultures recognised its worth and realized it would serve no purpose to tear it apart. So they cast lots as to who should have it.

These four men were lost in the crowd.  Few would have noticed them at the time in the general confusion. We hardly notice them even now after two thousand years and more of contemplating Christ crucified. But they are the actors in a mysterious drama that is still unfolding today, the preservation of Christian unity and the fellowship of mankind. The evangelist Saint John invites us to join their company and listen to what they have to say.

Jesus’ outer garments had already been divided among the four of them. There remained a fine inner tunic that the evangelist describes carefully. First of all it is the inner garment that clung to the person of the Redeemer. It was made from one piece of cloth, woven from top to bottom. The evangelist notes also that ‘there were no seams in it’ and continues to note carefully that the soldiers were anxious not to tear it apart. Saint John has taken very careful note of that inner tunic and seems anxious that we should do the same.

The evangelist takes us even further into his confidence. He recognized in the fate of the inner garment something that had been foretold a thousand years before. Israel had, as part of its great spiritual tradition, a vision of an innocent man who would suffer at the hands of both friends and enemies alike. Even in death he would be stripped of his dignity and left to die naked and humiliated:

They divide my garments among them

and cast lots for my clothing.   (Psalm 22.18 and John 19.24)

The world at large saw no purpose in innocence. In fact it mocked the innocent and seemed inspired to crush them into the ground. There was something more to this than a simple act of tyranny. It is almost as if the mighty and unscrupulous could not rest till they had rid themselves of the very sight of good and just men and women. They were a living rebuke to them, their presence a constant challenge to their way of life.

The very sight of him is a burden to us,

because his manner of life is unlike that of others,

and his ways are strange.   (Wisdom 2.15f)

In time, the Jewish people came to understand at least something of the meaning of suffering where it seemed least deserved. Of course the innocent had done nothing to deserve this treachery but their suffering was not devoid of meaning. If they suffered it was not for any evil they had done but for the good of others, even of those who persecuted them. Suffering was a refining influence on the whole community. It was a kind of expiation for sin, an act of reparation.

As Israel thought and prayed about these things they came to look to the future when one man would act out this drama in an unprecedented way. He would be totally innocent of any crime himself, sinless and generous to a fault. He would be made to carry the burden of all human suffering as no other before him had done and, in this way, restore the destiny of mankind. Disobedience and rebellion stood at the head of human failure, obedience and love would restore mankind.

As we look upon Christ crucified we look upon this one innocent man whose cross was something more than the wooden tree on which he hung. His cross was the entirety of human pride and selfishness. It fell to the Prophet Isaiah to articulate this understanding of Redemption:

Surely he has borne our griefs

and carried our sorrows;

yet we esteemed him stricken,

smitten  by God and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions,

he was bruised for our iniquities;

on him was the chastisement that made us whole,

and with his stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;

we have turned every one to his own way;

and the Lord has laid on him

the iniquity of us all.   (Isaiah 53.4-6)

At the foot of the cross those four men acted out in a kind of drama the deeper meaning of the events they failed to understand. Deep down they really wanted to possess something of the Redeemer but it was a gamble, a game of chance that could go either way. The choice seemed to be either to fight over Christ’s garments or leave the outcome to chance. Yet some strange instinct told them they must not

tear apart the seamless garment. This would render it valueless. The evangelist Saint John has stepped back from the foot of the cross to reflect on the events he describes. Future generations are invited to do likewise and what better day to accept his invitation than Good Friday:

‘They will look on the one they crucified’ (John 19.37).

Our evangelist saw in the fate of the seamless garment an image of humanity redeemed and called to perfect unity, but constantly at risk of being torn apart, even at the throw of a dice. Like Jesus’ inner garment, the Christian Churches must cling to the body of Christ to preserve their unity in keeping with Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper. The irony of the scene at the foot of the cross lies surely in the fact that pagan soldiers stopped short of tearing it apart when, sadly, that is what we Christians have contrived do.

Symbols of the Passion from the Sacred Heart Altar, St. Augustine's.

Symbols of the Passion from the Sacred Heart Altar, St. Augustine’s.

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