Ugly Christmas sweaters* and moral progress
What does it mean to "put off the old man" as St. Paul instructs us? How could it possibly relate to Christmas sweaters? Read on to find out!
It's no secret that mortal man has his shortcomings. In the world of describing the disparity between these shortcomings, versus the spiritually regenerated man’s perfect conformity to God’s nature, biblical analogies abound. Earthly and heavenly houses. Tares and wheat. Old and new wine bottles. But if there’s one that bears particular relevance during the holiday season, I think it’s St. Paul’s discussion of the old and new man.
In his letter to the Christians at Ephesus, he writes about our need to put off the old corrupt man, to be renewed in the spirit of our minds, and to put on “the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). And this always makes me think of ugly Christmas sweaters.
*Disclaimer: I have no actual negative opinions about Christmas sweaters. I've just had fun working with this analogy since it came to thought.
THE OLD MAN
In the same way that we can think about the tares (literally, false grain) representing an erroneous mortal nature as distinct from our true, fruitful spiritual identity, the wheat—we can think about the old man St. Paul mentions as an ugly, scratchy, Christmas sweater we need to swap out for our native loveliness.
Believe it or not, there was actually a time when the term “ugly Christmas sweater” was not used to mean “any Christmas sweater.” This didn’t mean that some of them weren’t ugly or tacky. But it did mean that, in general, people accepted them as a natural, festive part of the holiday season without passing judgment on them one way or the other. You might say everyone was simply comfortable wearing them, and with seeing others wear them. In terms of Paul’s analogy, we might look at this as the state of the “old man” prior to his moral awakening. Being accustomed to the old man, and not yet having recognized his moral deficiencies, we’re completely at ease with all his shortcomings; his immoral thought and activity simply don’t bother us, so we don’t give them any thought at all.
BEING RENEWED IN THE SPIRIT OF YOUR MIND
Now, at some point, people started thinking of all these sequin-embellished, reindeer-appliquéd sweaters as tacky. As “ugly.” Suddenly, they were no longer perfectly acceptable holiday garb (never mind the current trend of wearing them ironically). This, of course, is a matter of personal preference. But when it comes to moral regeneration, there is no denying that the “old man…is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts” (Eph. 4:22). As one of my favorite Bible commentators puts it, “All sinful desires are deceitful; promising the happiness which they cannot give” (John Wesley commentary available on e-Sword). So, in a sense, awakening to the realization that Christmas sweaters are tacky, is like recognizing that the “old man” has nothing good to offer us. And once we recognize that, we’re no longer comfortable wearing him. It’s as if he suddenly becomes a scratchy, ugly sweater we are very eager to “put off.”
And that’s why Paul says we need to be “renewed in the spirit of [our] mind[s]” (Eph. 4:23). The only way we’re going to be willing to put off the old man, or the ugly, scratchy sweater, is if our thought about it changes.
PUTTING ON THE NEW MAN
What renews the spirit of our minds where right thought and activity are concerned? It’s the Christ! In the Christian Science textbook, Mary Baker Eddy explains that Jesus embodied the Christ, “the true idea voicing good, the divine message from God to men speaking to the human consciousness. The Christ is incorporeal, spiritual, — yea, the divine image and likeness, dispelling the illusions of the senses; the Way, the Truth, and the Life, healing the sick and casting out evils, destroying sin, disease, and death” (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p. 332). So, it’s the Christ that wakes us up to the erroneous nature of the old man, shows us the way to holiness, and persists in renewing our minds until they have been wholly regenerated. (Jesus gives a great analogy about this process: the parable of the leaven. You can find it in Luke 13:20-21 and Matthew 13:33.) This purified mind is the “new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Eph. 4:24). This is the man made in God’s image and likeness, who is holy because he reflects the holiness of God. (See Genesis 1:27 and Leviticus 19:2.)
So, if this whole process of being renewed is actually brought about by the activity of the Christ, why does Paul instruct us to do this putting off?
I think he's showing us that our willingness—our positive desire—to put off the old man, is a sign that our minds are being renewed. And he’s indicating that we must demonstrate our ongoing regeneration by continually putting off whatever we recognize as vain—false, empty, worthless. As sincere followers of Christ Jesus, it’s both our privilege and our duty to do this.
But what if we should encounter a brother or sister in Christ who doesn’t yet realize that she’s wearing an ugly Christmas sweater, or else is holding onto it with clenched fists? Well, we can't substitute our own spiritual awakening for hers and force her forward somehow. Instead, we can trust that the Christ is speaking directly to her, showing her how to put off that ugly old sweater, as well as creating in her the willingness to do so. And we can remain as joyfully expectant of her moral progress as we are of our own.
Had St. Paul lived in the era of Christmas sweaters, he might very well have summed up our struggle for moral progress as follows:
For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our sweater which is from heaven . . . For we that are in this ugly Christmas sweater do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life (2 Corinthians 5:2, 4...ish).
Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope it brings you delight in the simple and silly things, and a renewed sense of God’s great love for you, as demonstrated by Him sending His Son to be the Saviour of the world.