by Charles LaFond
“Touch. It is touch that is the deadliest enemy of chastity, loyalty, monogamy, gentility with its codes and conventions and restraints. By touch we are betrayed and betray others … an accidental brushing of shoulders or touching of hands … hands laid on shoulders in a gesture of comfort that lies like a thief, that takes, not gives, that wants, not offers, that awakes, not pacifies. When one flesh is waiting, there is electricity in the merest contact.”
― Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose
Jesus was touched and Jesus touched people a lot. Safe-church officers would have scolded Jesus roundly and the woman with perfumed oils. Religious leaders whispered about Jesus, lied about Jesus, plotted to kill Jesus, worked to undermine Jesus, used systems and institutions to try to foment all kinds of lies about Jesus; not only about Jesus but about His followers and then, later, about Jesus’ little movement. So many insider-leaders fomenting goodness in reforms have been attacked by ecclesial power- insecure and jealous of effectiveness or of love, and … more violently… when it is both.
Jesus never rose in the ranks. Moneyed civic and ecclesial foundations worked to place Jesus in their sights while buying clergy vestments with their other hands. The establishment did not want the authentic competition Jesus presented, and the church-climbers must really have loathed Jesus. Competition and envy in the church are its most insidious cancers, and they abound.
Patriarchy has prevailed for centuries and we still joke about “My Lord Bishop this” and “your Grace that” but fewer and fewer are laughing as the tides change and patriarchy begins to crumble beneath our church. For centuries people in our church were tortured and burned alive by our church. Forgetting that or pretending it away is dangerous. Lambeth Palace, the walled castle of the Archbishop of Canterbury had, for centuries, a torture chamber two floors beneath Cranmer’s study. I sat in both one day when I was staying in the castle’s mansion for a few days by the old, grey Thames. On wet stones, I listened to the silent screams of yesteryear as people were ‘touched” there by the two… TWO… torturers the Archbishop keep on the payroll … though part-time … so I guess its not so bad. There may be no more manacles, branding irons and racks, but there is just as much cruelty of other, more subtle kinds – rumor-mongering, betrayals, nepotism, manipulation.
And people touched Jesus a lot too. He was betrayed by a friend, one of the twelve. He knew, or suspected, the treachery and so he waited, and it came one night. “I love you.” I am sure he heard him say. “I love you.” and then he was betrayed by a kiss as the words hung in the air like flesh-smoke in a battle Glenn. His betrayer kissed him. Used a kiss to identify him. The establishment of his day – the high priests of Jerusalem, paid the betrayer silver for the betrayal. Fame too? A place in their hierarchy was at least implied. It would have been a good career move for Judas, on top of many maneuverings which got him to Jesus’ table in the first place.
Don’t you wish you were more like Jesus? I wish I were. I wish I had that inner ballast which sent Jesus into silence the moment he was betrayed. He went silent. He did not expose his betrayers, he called for peace. He did not speak of the nasty things the religious leaders did behind the woodshed or to him, or both. And that would be easy for a God-man who has ready access to databases denied access by mere mortals. Or perhaps not. If Jesus was a mere mortal, perhaps, like us, he simply had to trust his gut, in which God sits for us all. God sits in our gut with a brandy by the fires of our love, with a blanket on his lap – no a quilt – made with the patches of cloth from our lives – some with holes and snags, dark and light squares like my sister’s quilts in Virginia. A rich tapestry but only from a distance. Up close there are cigarette burns, and blood-spatter from Lambeth Palace’s dungeons, and snot from a few good cries.
Jesus went silent, “a wall of polite” as my spiritual director begs me to use when betrayed or abused by the church. The priests screamed at him after his friend betrayed him. The people stripped him. Are we allowed to discuss these things outside of Lent and Holy Week? They beat him. They spat on him and their saliva co-mingled with his blood’s rivulets. Water and wine. His close friends were away except for Mary and John. He was abandoned – almost.
I so love John for that presence-making at the cross. John was a real priest – for the work of a real priest is only presence-making…showing up…standing vigil with no solutions and no speeches. John was a certificate-less priest. And there are many Johns, now that I think of it. John the Baptist who died in a jail cell in order to point to Jesus, always faithful if really weird. John the Evangelist who wrote and wrote and wrote the story and knew even more that did not fit in the books. John who stood by the cross. John who was Jesus’ beloved and slept on his chest as plotting and planning swirled around him in the smoke of lamps. John who may be alive even today, among us. John whose visions haunt the narthex.
And nowadays, John O’Donohue who was so loathed by the church authorities for what he knew and who he was and what he wrote- that he left Her and took up residence in a small stone hut on Ireland’s green land as a green martyr, and wrote and wrote and wrote. John Philip Newell who now does the same. And David Whyte.
Jesus stood there and let it all happen to him. Pilate asked the only intelligent question in scripture. “What is truth?” And Jesus, without even a word, showed us.
Then they took Him down from that cross. They touched his body, sticky as it was with blood and coagulants, saliva and feces-tossed. Some urine, his and others’ and that of a few big dogs. They caressed Jesus’ body. A mother. A Friend. Some of their friends. They held it while it was so silent and everyone was at home hiding. Eyes open, staring into the cosmos, waiting, Jesus was. They closed those eye-lids I suppose. His mother, did she kiss each one? Did John kiss those feet, caress them the way friends do? Mary the Magdalene, did she kiss those hands?
They wiped that body down with water and more vinegar. They caressed it like friends and lovers caress bodies everywhere. They touched every part of God’s corpse, cleaning in little-seen crevices, scraping the crusty parts with small stones. Then they oiled and wrapped the body and nobody touched it again until breakfast on the beach – and then just the caress of finger tips serving fish, grilled to perfection with capers and olive oil, olives and toasted bread; fish and bread crispy on the edges. God making all things new. God busy.
The sour betrayals of touch and the counterfeit “I love you’s” will always linger on earth, doing far more damage than courageous, honest war, open fighting, direct speech. But in the silence of the Way of the Cross, Jesus seems to be hinting that other forces are also at work, busy. Perhaps angels. Kind fairy-folk. Cherubim. Seraphim. Brassy, bold Archangels even.
So we wait, hoping to feel even the slightest touch of feathers from those vast wings, whipping. We wait and we hope that things unseen, busy, will prevail over evils on earth – especially betrayal. And while we wait, we touch. And by touch, we heal. If we choose to be healed.