The imperative to clothe the naked is spoken of in both the Old and New Testament. The prophet Isaiah exhorts us: “When you see the naked, clothe them” (Is 58:7). In the Letter of St. James we read: ““What good is it if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well," but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14-16).
One of the saints most emblematic of Christian charity is St. Martin of Tours, the Roman soldier who saw a poor man shivering in the cold and cut his cloak in two to share it with the beggar.
Clothing provides for two basic human needs: protection and dignity.
We probably do not see people very often who are literally shivering in the cold, but many poor and homeless people rely on charitable organizations for their clothing. One very direct way to carry out this work of mercy is to go through our own closets a couple of times a year and donate some of the clothing crammed into our closets. Better yet, perhaps we could develop the habit when shopping to buy some new clothing to give away – if you were in the position of someone who had to go to a thrift shop, wouldn’t it be a treat to find something new there?
There is a social dimension to this work, too: often our “bargains” are paid for by the sweat of people laboring in inhuman conditions here and abroad. We have a moral responsibility to take a peek behind the stylish logo of popular clothing and shoes and if we find that the item has been produced at the cost of the human dignity of those who made it, we should boycott that product and let the manufacturer know why.
Clothing is not only necessary for protection; we need it to maintain our human dignity. Contrast two scenes in the Gospel: when the prodigal son returns home, the father gives him his best robe, shoes on his feet, and a ring. These items symbolize the young man’s dignity as the father’s son, and show that his position has been restored to him. By contrast, in the Stations of the Cross we meditate on the stripping of Jesus; this act of humiliation was inflicted on him several times during his Passion. To take away his clothing was to steal from him any standing in the human community, and to humiliate him profoundly.
This work of mercy also challenges to confront the crime of sexual exploitation in our society, and in particular the plague of pornography. This multi-billion dollar industry is founded on the heinous act of stripping men, women, and even children of their basic human dignity. If it is a virtue to clothe the naked, it is a sin to strip the clothed.
In the first book of the Bible, God made garments to clothe Adam and Eve (Gen 3:21). In the last book of the Bible we are given a vision of the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband (cf. Rev 21:2). When the moment of glory comes, may we be among those who saw the Lord in our sisters and brothers, and clothed him (cf. Matt 25:38).