Bodily Mortification is Quite Scriptural

“Gird yourselves with sackcloth”

Andrea Vaccaro (1604–1670), “Jonah Preaching to the Ninevites”
Andrea Vaccaro (1604–1670), “Jonah Preaching to the Ninevites” (photo: Public Domain)

Mortification has a long history of use in the Catholic Church, as most people are aware. But is there any biblical justification for such a thing?

The answer (as usual) is yes. The most obvious parallel is the biblical motif of sackcloth (Hebrew, saq; Greek, sakkos). What was this? Was it simply a burlap bag, such as the kind that holds potatoes? Not quite. It is much more like the “hair shirt” that is often thought of as synonymous with this sort of penitence.

The well-known Protestant reference, New Bible Dictionary (edited by J. D. Douglas, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1962, “Sackcloth,” p. 1112), provides a basic introduction to biblical sackcloth:

A coarse cloth . . . usually made of goat’s hair . . . Sackcloth was worn as a sign of mourning for the dead . . . , or of mourning for personal or national disaster . . . or of penitence for sins (1 Ki. 21:27; Ne. 9:1; Jon. 3:5; Mt. 11:21), or of special prayer for deliverance . . .

The form of the symbolic sackcloth was often a band or kilt tied around the waist . . . it was usually worn next to the skin (2 Ki. 6:30; Jb. 16:15; 2 Macc. 3:19), and was sometimes kept on all night (1 Ki. 21:27; Joel 1:13) . . . Sometimes the sackcloth was spread out to lie on (2 Sa. 21:10; Is. 58:5) . . .

Prophets sometimes wore it as a symbol of the repentance which they preached (Is. 20:2; Rev. 11:3).

Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich and translated and abridged in one volume by Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1985, pp. 995-996, “sakkos [sackcloth]”) elaborates:

The word originally means “haircloth,” i.e., the coarse fabric, mostly of goat’s hair, out of which tents, sails, carpets, etc. are made . . .

In the Semitic world sackcloth is from early days the garb of mourning and penitence. It is also prophetic garb in the OT. Originally perhaps a mere loincloth, it becomes a lower garment fastened with a cord or girdle and worn over the naked body. . . .

It signifies self-abasement (along with ashes and sometimes self-disfigurement) either before God (2 Kgs. 19:1) or others (1 Kgs. 20:31 ff.). It is also worn at night (1 Kgs. 21:27). Personal crises (Ps. 30:11) and times of national emergency (Esth. 4:1-2) or imminent eschatological destruction (Joel 1:13) are occasions for its penitential use. It has become a rite in Neh. 9:1 etc. . . . Fasting often accompanies it (Ps. 35:13). . . .

sakkos is a sign of conversion and penitence in the saying in Mt. 11:21 and Lk. 10:13, whether in the sense of the garment or the penitential mat. Jesus perhaps has Jon. 3:4 ff. in mind; but clearly conversion itself, not the external sign, is what matters.

A few anti-Catholic Protestants, with whom I attempted dialogue, tried to make the argument that sackcloth was simply a Semitic custom of those times (using the secularist, anti-supernaturalist “anthropological” approach that theological liberals are notorious for), or that it was for mourning only, and in no sense prescribed by God.

It was asserted that I failed to note the “rudimentary distinctions between what the Bible describes, prescribes, proscribes, and permits.” I was told (what I already knew) that the Bible frequently describes ancient near eastern customs, and that the ancient Jews sometimes forgot God’s prohibitions and “reverted to the social customs of the day.” Sometimes, yes: but not in this case.

Isaiah the prophet, speaking on behalf of God (as prophets are wont to do), recommends (“prescribes”?) the wearing of sackcloth (Is 32:11). Jeremiah does the same (Jer 4:8; 6:26). Ahab’s use of sackcloth, fasting, etc., is seen by God Himself as evidence of his humility before God (1 Ki 21:27-29), as is the similar behavior of the Ninevites, when they repented (Jonah 3:5-10). Isaiah reports (Is 22:12; RSV, as throughout) that God Himself prescribed sackcloth and other similar customs: “In that day the Lord GOD of hosts called to . . . baldness and girding with sackcloth.”

Likewise, Jeremiah has God proclaiming, “Gird yourselves with sackcloth” (Jer 49:3). The prophet Joel brings the following “word of the LORD” (Joel 1:1): “Lament like a virgin girded with sackcloth . . . Gird on sackcloth and lament, O priests” (Joel 1:8, 13). The prophet Amos quotes God in the same vein: “I will bring sackcloth upon all loins” (Amos 8:10). This all sounds awful prescriptive (not just permissive).

Likewise, it is God (not mere Babylonian or Assyrian or Persian custom) Who commands the prophet Ezekiel to lay on his left side for 390 days, so as to “bear” the “punishment” of Israel (Ezek 4:4-5), and then on his right side for another 40 days, to “bear the punishment” of Judah (Ezek 4:6). Then God tells him: “I will put cords upon you, so that you cannot turn from one side to the other” (Ezek 4:8). 

Even much later, at the outset of the new covenant, our Lord casually refers to sackcloth in association with repentance, with no hint of condemnation (Matt 11:21; Lk 10:13). Jesus knew that the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Joel had all prescribed and thoroughly condoned the practice, as had God the Father, as reported by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos.

Finally, St. John reports in inspired Scripture that God proclaims in the period near the end of the age: “I will grant my two witnesses power to prophesy for one thousand two hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth” (Rev 11:3). God again prescribed or sanctioned the ancient custom, several thousand years after it began.

In the second part of this two-part examination, I shall cite a great deal of Scripture, so that Catholics (particularly during Lent) can produce them for any Protestant who questions whether our penitential practices are biblical.