The Anglican Cathedral of Second Life

See in this white garment

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On 19 June, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 42, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

This week it is the thirteenth birthday of Second Life. Second Life had its beginning as Linden World in 1991. At first it looked like a video arcade game but later tools were provided to allow the world to be created and adapted by those who inhabit it. In June 2003, Second Life became open to the public with just 1000 members. It now has tens of millions of accounts although the suggestion is that only around 600,000 active users exist. Of course, if Second Life didn’t exist, Anglicans of SL would never even have been thought of and many wonderful relationships that have built up over the six years of our existence would not have happened. We owe a lot to the vision of Philip Rosendale whose brainchild SL is.

One of the wonderful outcomes of giving tools to residents is the creativity that has been unleashed in world. There are landscapes of great beauty, animals, plants, trees, buildings, clothes, avatars, so many things. Shopping in SL, particularly for clothes, is a popular pastime. It’s possible to choose many different styles of clothing – the formal evening wear, beach wear, party clothes, uniforms, outrageous and unlikely outfits, with wings, tails, tattoos and halos to enhance the effect. What we wear creates an image for others to see and conveys a message about us to those we meet in world.

The same can be said for our offline lives as well as our in-world lives. What we wear helps us to make a statement about ourselves and affects how others see us. There are those who power-dress to bolster their standing in a group of people. Uniforms help us to detect which group a person belongs to and usually speak of some form of authority such as the armed forces, police or other emergency services or of members of the Scouting movement. Members of royal families may dress in splendid robes and wear crowns to set them apart from others. Special dress does much the same in the Church. Particular clothes show that people belong to religious orders of various kinds – Franciscan, Benedictine, Missionaries of Charity and so on. Chasubles, stoles, cassocks, dog collars help us to locate the leaders in a particular church. They allow us to find those who have authority within the church although not all denominations set their leaders apart in this clear way.

Here on Epiphany Island we ask those who are not ordained or of a religious order not to wear clothing which might suggest that they are. We don’t want anyone here to be misled by what they see. It was for that reason that I was very unsure about wearing any robe at all when leading services here. I am not ordained, though I do have authority to preach and lead given to me by Bishop Christopher Hill. However, a person who used to come to prayers regularly once said that any baptised Christian was entitled to wear a white alb. I didn’t know that but I found out that it’s true and now, as you may have noticed, on very special occasions I do wear a white alb to lead services.

I found that the wearing of a white alb as a Christian came from the earliest days of the church when new Christians were baptised by full immersion in water. This happened on the night before Easter Day. It was traditional to be naked when coming to the pool, effectively leaving all that belonged to the old life behind. Going down into the water symbolised dying like Christ; coming out of the water symbolised rising to new life. On rising, those baptised were anointed with oil of chrism and then clothed in a white garment. This was the garment they then wore to go to church for the rest of that week. The Sunday after Easter was called Dominica in albis, Sunday of the white garments, and was the last day the robes were worn until Pentecost which was also called Whitsunday or White Sunday. When this baptismal tradition is recalled during a baptism nowadays the words which are said to the one receiving a white garment are: “See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity. With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.”

Just as clothing can convey a message, so can nakedness. Often nakedness is used as some kind of protest against society. Prisoners have refused to wear clothes when trying to get the attention of the authorities. ‘Streakers’ may appear at events to disrupt them, or possibly just to get themselves noticed. Within SL nakedness can be a tactic of griefers who are trying to shock people.

For the man in the country of the Gerasenes, a Gentile area, nakedness seems to show his alienation from his people and from normal life. He wore no clothes, he lived where no one else would want to live – in among the tombs – and he was out of control, defeating any attempt to restrain him. The gospel passage ascribes the problem to an evil spirit within the man. Perhaps we would describe it differently as some mental illness, some deep and devastating distress which had driven him from his former life in the city to this wild place. Evil spirit or mental illness, the man was not experiencing life as good in any way.

Once Jesus entered the story, everything changed. In common with others who were described as demon possessed, this Gentile man or the spirit within him recognised who Jesus was – the Son of God. Notice that now, instead of evil having the upper hand in the man’s life, it was the unclean spirit’s turn to feel powerless, begging Jesus not to be sent to the abyss. Needless to say, Jesus healed the man of his affliction. When they people of the city came to investigate, it was the sight of the man clothed which told them something amazing had happened. Maybe the man wasn’t clothed in a white garment, but his being clothed showed that he had been healed, renewed, accepted into the family of God. He was also in his right mind. Seeing something so incredible, seemingly impossible, left them very afraid. The man, meanwhile, was willing to follow Jesus and was commissioned to go and spread the good news of what God had done for him.

Paul also writes about clothing in his letter to the Galatians. He sees people before they met Christ as prisoners, with the law to control them. However, once Christ came it was faith not law that became the governing factor in the lives of believers. On being baptised they are clothed with Christ. Here you can sense the white garment, even if it’s not explicit. There are many associations in the Bible with a white garment. In Psalm 104 we read that God is “clothed with majesty and honour, wrapped in light as in a garment.” When Jesus was transfigured, seen as he really is, Matthew tells us that “his face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white.” Putting on Christ and putting on a white garment are very similar ideas.

Just as the white garments traditionally used for baptism were all the same, Paul points out that once believers are clothed with Christ, there is no longer any distinction made between them. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

It doesn’t matter whether at your baptism you were actually clothed in a white garment or not. It is a symbol only. If you have been baptised the old life subject to the law has gone to be replaced by faith. You are clothed in Christ and in your right mind, just like the man we read about today. At the end of time we – from every nation, tribe and people – will all stand together before the throne of the Lamb as part of a great multitude, robed in white, with palm branches in our hands and praising God. What a wonderful thought!

Helene Milena – Lay Pastor


Author: Helene Milena

Teacher, retired counsellor, wife, mother and grandmother.

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