Matthew’s gospel concludes with a worldwide vision for the Christian message — ‘Go, and make disciples of all the nations’. The evangelist celebrates the universal vision first given by Israel’s prophets to the exiles returning from captivity. Matthew responds to Isaiah’s cry ‘Arise, shine, for your light has come’ by telling us that the first worshippers of the infant messiah are foreigners, magi from the East.
The gospel is written for Jews who are being awakened to the challenge of bringing the Christian faith to other cultures. Jewish dietary laws and distinctive dress would not be sustained within a faith which sought to be universal. Perhaps also the threat of persecution under the Roman Empire might have made it inadvisable for believers to parade their faith too publicly by sporting distinctive clothes.
One legacy is that there is no distinctive Christian dress code required by all, akin to the Sikh turban, or the Jewish skull cap. Within Britain we can also point to the fact that for those who want to retain a dress code which identifies their faith, this is accommodated to the extent of allowing Sikh men on motorcycles to wear a turban in place of a crash helmet. The law clearly shows that although the majority see no necessity for a religious dress code, the wishes of those who find this an essential expression of their faith are respected.
The present controversies about dress codes seem to show that the Christian community in many places has little understanding of the value placed on such rules by peoples of other faiths. It is significant that it was the Protestant President of Germany who made the point that ‘If one bans the headscarf in schools as a religious symbol, it is difficult to defend the monk’s habit.’ The comment is a two edged sword. Is he defending distinctive religious dress in a country that has a large Catholic population, or attacking Catholics as well as Muslims?
It is dangerous territory in Germany. Banning Jews from wearing skull caps would be almost as much an act of anti-Semitism as it was to insist that in Nazi Germany they should wear a Star of David. But it is unthinkable that the Pope, on a visit to Germany, would not wear his white cassock. Perhaps the President was saying that this line of argument had no future.
It is easy to caricature the Muslim headscarf as being a sign of the repression of women, or a political statement. Perhaps the opposite view should be heard — in many schools it would be far preferable if all girls dressed more discreetly, instead of following the pressure of advertising to flaunt their sexuality at increasingly earlier ages. Isn’t the modest dress of Muslim girls far more appropriate school wear than the revealing outfits of others? Isn’t there a value for the headscarf wearer in displaying a public sign that she belongs to a faith which prizes faithful marriage above casual sex?
At this time when we celebrate the visit of the magi from the East, we should be building a society which welcomes cultural diversity and allows people freedom of religious expression. With diversity, they bring precious gifts.