Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture. Except this Wednesday. This week, S.D. Kelly is the Holy Relics Guest Writer.
The choir robes at my church are crimson in color, made of polyester. The robes are practically indestructible, or at least, impossible to wrinkle. A choir member could throw off her choir robe and leave it in a heap in the corner of the choir room in an effort to flee the service as quickly as possible, and the next week — if she shows up again after that sort of behavior — she could waltz in just before the choir number, throw on the robe, and find that it hangs perfectly, each pleat falling in precisely the place it was designed to fall. No sign of distress or neglect would be evident — the robe awaits its wearer, always at the ready.
Polyester fabric may not be beautiful, but it is functional, useful to the one wearing the robe. And this is no small thing, since the choir robe means nothing if it is not worn. The wearer gives the robe meaning, but even that alone is not enough to make the choir robe matter. A choir robe only begins to matter if the person wearing it stands next to a group of other people wearing similar robes. Men and women, young and old, large and small — all blending together in a sea of crimson polyester, their faces nearly interchangeable.
That’s the thing about choir robes. Singly, they look out of place, lost, without a context. But put a whole bunch of people in a whole bunch of choir robes and suddenly, you’ve got a gaggle, a flock, a gathering, a something to pay attention to. And we do pay attention. We see the choir members file in, silently, music folders uniformly carried under their right arms. They gather, pause, wait for direction, sitting down and standing up on cue. Opening and closing their mouths on cue, making sounds together on cue, in accord. With one voice.
Or at least, that’s the goal. Anyone who’s been part of a choir — or wished they weren’t — knows that things don’t always work out so well when it comes to living up to the notes transcribed in a particular piece of sheet music. All the good will and the practicing in the world will never quite do the trick in making some choirs come together; there are just too many disparate voices, or not enough skill, or both. But the choir robes are there to fill in the achievement gaps. The robes exist to let the listening congregation know: Hey! We are trying up here. We are trying to come together, trying to make melody as unto the Lord. We have stepped into the church and laid aside our distinctions, our assertions of self, our very individuality, and put on these garments of praise to show that we are willing to literally cloak our differences — all for the sake of the community.
The choir robe is a symbol of conformity, representative of an individual voice joining a crowd of voices, subsumed. When this happens, something greater than each voice — yet composed of each voice — begins to resonate throughout the house of God. The music crescendos, the sopranos do their bit, the altos, the tenors, the basses, all God’s children do their part. A choir member stands next to another choir member, and another, and so on — all of them clad in wrinkle-free polyester. Each one sings, sometimes transcendently, sometimes painfully: Brother, sister, I am like you and you and you. We are standing shoulder to shoulder in this sea of crimson, this blur of red, the people of God, His ministers to the world.