By Donald Schell
My dad was born in 1921, delivered by C-section two months premature because his mother was dying of a brain tumor. The one time my grandmother held her newborn son she asked, ‘Is he beautiful?’ The brain tumor had already taken her sight. She died two weeks later. My grandfather, a physician grieving his twenty-six year old wife of less than a year, wrote to Gerber baby foods urgently asking what to feed his pre-term son. Somehow Dad survived and grew, though while still quite young he contracted scarlet fever, damaging a heart valve and giving him a life-long heart murmur.
‘How our bodies mean?’ is an Easter question, actually a Good Friday/Easter question. What we know of bodies, of living and of dying helps us hear resurrection proclamation.
When he was preaching Good Friday or Easter my friend and colleague Rick Fabian regularly referenced John Dominic Crossan’s claim that Jesus’ body was almost certainly taken down from the cross and thrown on the city garbage heap to be devoured by dogs. After the cruel death, Romans meant their denial of burial to shame the crucified criminal and his family.
Year by year Rick and I took turns preaching Holy Week and Easter through thirty-one years of shared pastoral leadership. Two preachers couldn’t tell the story more differently. When parishioners didn’t hear Rick draw on Crossan’s conclusions, they often heard me say that I think that the Shroud of Turin is Jesus’ burial cloth, the cloth John’s Gospel says Peter and the other disciple discovered in the empty tomb. Part of our Easter proclamation was irreconcilable stories and a mystery – one preaching from Jesus’ empty tomb and the other Jesus’ body savaged on the garbage heap. What we both preached was thanksgiving for Jesus’ living presence with us in the community that gathers to share his body and blood in bread and wine, God’s love that was stronger than death.
It’s Jesus alive and with us that makes us Christian. The ‘how’ of the mystery of resurrection matters because it points toward Jesus and also makes us talk as well as we can, as much as we understand about bodies and selves, the incarnational demand of finding words to preach Jesus’ ‘resurrection from the dead’ and the promise of our own resurrection.
The Boston Women’s Health Collective 1973 book title Our Bodies, Ourselves is closer to the ancient Christian creeds than easy talk of “our immortal souls.” We can’t go very far talking Christian faith without talking about how bodies mean and how persons are embodied. Touching another’s living flesh or even taking a breath is personal.
Here at the Episcopal Café in Holy Week Ann Fontaine posted four series of Stations of the Cross. The Salvadoran stations in that series are charcoal drawings of naked bodies, some tortured and still living, but many dead. These Stations join Christ’s fearless suffering for us to horrific memories and untold stories of the tortures and executions of El Salvador’s bitter civil war. I was glad such brutal drawings were in black and white.
The artist didn’t ask to look suffering “in the face.” Most of the bodies were drawn facing away from us, presenting us not with suffering faces, but with wounded backs and buttocks and thighs. Picturing damaged and lifeless flesh, the artist invited us to see how death squads brutalizing human bodies are really attacking personhood.
In a 2002 my son Peter worked in El Salvador for a year between university and seminary, serving as lay assistant to a recently ordained priest who had been a banker during the war. Like many Salvadorans, Peter’s mentor had family and friends on both sides of the conflict. Fr. Ramiro took us on pilgrimage to the chapel where Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot and killed while saying mass. We saw his bloodstained chasuble shot-through with bullet holes. Then we drove to the memorial shrine and museum at the University of San Salvador where six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter had been slain. We stood speechless before a glass case containing a relic of one of the teacher-theologians martyred that night– a copy of Moltmann’s Crucified God punctured with bullet holes and soaked with the blood.
I think I’d baptized Sara Miles about a year before our trip to El Salvador. In her book Take This Bread, A Radical Conversion. Sara describes her long evening conversations in the Jesuit residence with Ignacio Martin-Baro just six months before he was killed. Sara laughs when I use the church’s official word from baptismal instruction, “catechesis” to describe her frustrated, impassioned late-night theological and political conversations with her Jesuit friend, but his patient hearing and fearless encouragement of all her questions when she was still an atheist war correspondent did start Sara on the road to baptism.
How do bodies mean? These are all hints -
– a father’s premature birth and a grandmother’s death at twenty-six
– a young University graduate making his home in a garden shed to work with the poor in El Salvador,
– political assassinations
– old blood on a ruined book
– my hand pouring water from a rock font over my friend’s head in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The naked bodies of the Salvadoran Stations were emphatically not “nudes.” A painter friend of mine says every painter must return again and again to life drawing class where the joy of drawing and painting the human figure keeps revealing how ‘all bodies are beautiful.’ Beyond carrying out execution orders, the soldiers who did the violence these Stations of the Cross portray disfigured, punctured and tore people’s bodies in the killing and after it. Witnessing to beauty destroyed, the artist shows how violence depersonalizes people’s bodies. Even in death, these bodies cry out for respect and tenderness, promising beauty’s return.
When poet-theologian Janet Morley’s imagines Mary Magdalene speaking of Good Friday her words point to something similar -
It was unfinished
We stayed there, fixed, until the end,
women waiting for the body that we loved;
and then it was unfinished.
There was no time to cherish, cleanse, anoint;
no time to handle him with love,
Since then, my hands have waited,
aching to touch even his deadness,
smoothe oil into bruises that no longer hurt,
offer his silent flesh my finished act of love.
(Janet Morley, All Desires Known)
Morley’s poem feels like Passion Sunday at St. John’s Cathedral in Los Angeles this year. Watching three vested laypeople carried Jesus’ cross through the congregation, I wanted to hold and comfort my Lord Jesus so he wouldn’t be ‘naked and cold in death’ as the Orthodox Good Friday hymn laments.
Love is part of how our bodies mean. Our desire to touch tenderly is part of the ‘how’ of resurrection. Remembering Jesus, feeling the shattering death of our Friend, I thought of my dad dying in his sleep six months ago when I was 3000 miles away. Since my dad’s death, mother talks about the silence of the night and dad’s empty space in her bed.
At home drifting off to sleep after Holy Week liturgies and the Easter Vigil, I listened to Ellen’s breathing and thought of the first times we’d touched thirty-five years ago, and the many, many moments of tenderness, comfort, passion, and peace we’d shared since. Ellen’s parents died young – in their sixties. I’m sixty-two. I pray for more years. I want to know that ‘love stronger than death,’ but wanting won’t make it so. Partly because it was Holy Week, as I lay so close to her achingly beautiful warmth and smoothness, I wondered which of us would die first.
In our joyful Easter phone calls to the children, the distance was palpable. Our son the priest is a continent away from San Francisco in Washington, D.C.; his oldest sister is even further, a continent and an ocean away in Spain. Phone calls can join us mind-to-mind and soul-to-soul, but I wanted to be close enough to feel their breath, to see them in the flesh, to touch them.
This Good Friday when we joined our whole congregation touching and kissing the burial icon of Christ on the altar and mounding flowers around it, my fingers tingled with the memory of touching my dad’s face after the burial society had laid him out and ‘arranged the features’ of his face to an expression none of us had ever seen. When I touched dad’s face, that touch, my living finger touching his dead forehead, joined the body before me with the father I’d known and loved.
In 1944 my dad enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Did the army physician pretend not to hear his heart murmur? He passed the physical, got through flight school and got his wings, and until the war ended flew a B-17 bomber in daylight raids out from England, over the North Sea to bomb German munitions factories. He came home from the war saying he’d seen and done more than enough killing for a lifetime. The war changed his course vocationally, and he went to medical school to become a physician like my grandfather. He became a healer, touching people with hope, saving lives. In 1980, a few years younger than I am now, his heart valve was giving out and he had open-heart surgery to replace it. Then in his mid-70’s he’d worn out the replacement valve and had open-heart surgery again to put in a new one. When he died just short of his 87th birthday, my wife (a nurse like dad’s mother had been) said, ‘Your dad cheated death again and again to live an amazing long life.’ Of course she was right, but until the last year, his body always seemed as substantial and strong a presence as any living thing could be.
Love, we hear in the Song of Songs, is stronger than death, and in Easter we feel that living power in Christ who lives with and in us. Sometimes. And when we don’t he lives in our aching and hoping to feel it. Easter afternoon, basking in the sun after a glorious Easter Vigil the previous night, “Christ is Risen from the Dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life,” reverberating in my memory and every cell of my body, I wanted to hug my dad again.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.