You haven't used that word lately have you? But if you are age 55 or more you probably know what I'm talking about. When I received my first Holy Communion in 1949, we were prayed over and received a scapular, a small piece of brown wool at each end of a cord that goes around the neck. On one piece is the image of Mary and on the other a promise: “Whosoever dies wearing this scapular shall not suffer eternal fire.” This promise was made by our Lady of Mt. Carmel when She appeared to St. Simon Stock and gave him the scapular, asking him to spread the practice of wearing this Sign of belonging to HER. She literally promises those who wear this scapular with faith and love that they will go to heaven!! I don't take HER words lightly for She is the Mother of God!!
Why wear such a strange article (as if a promise of heaven isn't enough)? Our Catholic faith is Incarnational. That means that when the Son of God became man, all things human and natural took on a whole new dignity. It is possible for them to be signs of God's very Presence in our midst. That is why our Church is full of holy stuff; we call them Sacraments and Sacramentals. Knowing that we are human, with a need to see, hear, touch, smell and hold the Sacred in our hands God became visible in Jesus. He gave us the Eucharist. We see and touch the bread. We see and smell the wine and we consume His very Presence within us. The other Sacraments and Sacramentals extend this tangible sign of His Presence and His Love.
From antiquity garments have signified more than clothing. After the Fall, God clothed our first parents as a sign of His mercy and forgiveness. Elias passed on the ministry of his office as prophet by passing on his cloak to Eliseus. In the early Church the hermits on Mt. Carmel wore a scapula, a garment of wool that fell to the ground, front and back, worn over their heads, as a sign of our Lady's protection and love. (The scapular is a miniature form of this garment). We read in Scripture: that Christ clothed Himself in human flesh; Christ compared grace to a wedding garment; St. Paul tells us to put on Christ and to clothe ourselves in virtues. Mary clothed the infant Jesus in swaddling, that She had lovingly prepared, and later wove the seamless garment that HE wore all the way to Calvary. I'm sure Christ remembered His mother's love every time He put on His garment.
We are not the only faith that wears a sign of consecration or dedication. The Mormons have special sacred garments they wear under their clothing as “an outward sign of an inward commitment.” The Jews wear prayer shawls and tassels on their clothing. This comes from a command in Deuteronomy:”Make yourself bound tassels on the four corners of clothing with which you cover yourself.” And in Numbers 15:37-41 “Hashem told Moses, Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them that they should make "tzitzis" on the corners of their clothing. This pertains to all generations of Jews. …You will have these tzitzis, and when you see them you will remember all the Commandments of Hashem and you will do them, and you will not pursue the desires of you hearts or eyes.”
As Mary clothed Christ, she wishes to cover over our spiritual nakedness with her merciful love. “The thought that, from the first moment She spreads Her garment over us (the scapular), Her special love envelops our whole being should be the greatest force for good in our daily lives....She has never ceased to show Herself as mother to those who have gone to Her for help... Our Lady is the Virgin Most Faithful; She will keep Her promise. She has stooped down to bring us the peace, of her scapular promise.” (from the Scapular of Mt.Carmel by E.K. Lynch)
In a magazine by the Columban Congregation I read the story of Father McGrath who was a missionary to China when communists were coming to power. He had great devotion to Mary, had made an Act of Total Consecration to Her and had spread devotion to Her through the Legion of Mary in China. When he was put in prison for teaching the faith they would strip him naked every morning and take everything he had. For three months they stripped him and never saw the scapular around his neck. Then one day they saw and took it from him. He took that little miracle as a sign that she would protect him throughout his imprisonment. He survived three years in prison and was released to spread the news of God’s mercy and Mary’s protection.
Recently, someone gave me a black and white photograph of several young men standing around in a quarry, stripped to the waist. One of them had a scapular around his neck. That young man was Karol Wotyla whom we now know as St. John Paul II.
The scapular is a sign of our Lady's love, protection and promise. Go to the website below to find our more about the scapular and get a free one. Then ask a priest to bless it and enroll you in the Confraternity of the Brown Scapular (the enrollment is found in the Roman Ritual that every parish has). It's a little thing to do out of love, that helps us to keep Her in mind, to remember that we are consecrated by our baptism and that wearing it in faith holds great promise.