The Lenten Collar
This post by Fr. Warwick Fuller is part of our 2023 Lenten pastoral reflections on Scripture.
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.
I am usually in uniform, either as a Chaplain in the United States Army, or as a Priest. Greens or collar are a staple of my wardrobe. I’m stationed currently at Fort Hamilton, located at the very bottom of Brooklyn. I do not think I have ever worn my Army uniform outside the gate, but the collar comes out at least once a week and into the city. Both elicit different responses when out in the world.
The collar has its own persona signaling to the world my vocation and identity. Once on, it’s hard to deny its effect. As I walk through Manhattan all collared up, I am often asked for directions. Sometimes in Spanish. The assumption is that I’m a local. No tourist would wear a collar. When someone is on vacation, they put their vocation away.
Apart from knowing where the Statue of Liberty is, I am often engaged on the subway. Any self-respecting New Yorker knows that the first rule of the subway is “do not make eye contact.” The collar draws the eyes of others. And then they meet my eyes. My typical response is to give a warm greeting and then go back to reading my book. But sometimes I am drawn into someone’s life...
He was more tipping over than falling. He would sway back and forth as the train turned and moved south. We were on our way home and I was tired. And I was collared. I did not know if he was drunk, but everyone was keeping a wide berth of him as he tottered like a ship. And everyone just watched him, more to keep out of his way than for his safety. I saw him, but I know he did not see me. He did not see anyone, facing the doors and clinging to the silver railing. Another gentlemen slid to my side. “Aren’t you going to help him?” The thought had crossed my mind. But what did this stranger mean by help? I had bigger questions: where was this man going? What did he want? Did he have a safe place to go? And who would help him get there? I was racked with my own thoughts of what to do that I did nothing. And still the man lists, clinging for stability. The well-meaning man was not asking me though. He was asking the collar. I was not the only chaplain on that train. There were three of us. But I was the only one marked as a minister of the Gospel by clothing choices. I looked at this steady gentleman. “Anyone can help him,” I said. I said it and still knew that I was going to be the one to help. Not just on behalf of the people on the train, but in light of who the Church is.
When we read the Colossian text, we see the heart of a minister who is willing to be put in public shame and put in harm’s way to demonstrate the supremacy of Christ's identity. And only the Church, both universal and local, can benefit from those actions. As present ministers of Christ, there is no better example for Christ’s preeminence than what we are willing to give up proclaiming the better King.
Considering the text as a whole, St Paul wants the Colossian Church to grow and be encouraged. And he points them to himself, as the minister and model of Christ. What he does, he does not do as if he thinks that the works of Christ are left wanting. St Paul is not re-crucifying himself. He can only, as a minister, reflect and model the sufferings and choices of Christ, always pointing to the hope of the Savior.
George Herbert, in his opening paragraph of The Country Parson, says of these verses that they demonstrate the character of the priesthood in both duty and dignity:
“(T)he dignity, in that a priest may do that which Christ did, and by his authority and as his viceregent; the duty, in that a priest is to do that which Christ did, and after his manner, both for doctrine and life.”
We are not called as ministers to do anything other than carry on the work of Christ in our bodies. Priests in Christ’s Church should honor that the collar we wear signals the heart of our own repentance, and our desire and choice to give up those things that keep us comfortable and clean. If we have found him such a great Savior, then there is nothing for us to fear in the public eye. The answer the world has been waiting for has now been revealed, and to the utmost in his priests.
This Lent, let us pursue giving up any pretensions of our own worth and set the example to the Church we serve, and the world who watches. Let us pursue Christlikeness, and give up those things that hold us back from showing him worth it all, in collar and out.