Religious tattoos

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by Maria L. Evans

“you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever. Amen.”–Holy Baptism, p. 308, Book of Common Prayer.

A recent article reminded me of how people don’t always understand the most intimate of physical signs that accompany some of us on our faith journey–the religious tattoo. Although the article was written from a Roman Catholic point of view, I think there are parts of it that will resonate with people from a variety of denominations and faiths.

The religious tattoo is perhaps one of the oldest known expressions of faith, dating back as far as first and second century Egyptian Christians. Body art was already long a part of the Egyptian culture; it was a natural progression. It was also a natural progression of any pre-Christian culture that attached a status of protection to tattoos–the Celts, the Polynesians, and many pre-Columbian cultures in the Americas, just to name a few. I would venture to guess that the Christian cross is one of the most popular tattoos in America, if not the most popular one.

Yet large tattoos, even religious themed ones, at the very least, are often given a diffident sniff in polite society, and even called an abomination in others. Their owners, at times are accused of everything from vanity for “wearing one’s faith in a showy way,” to devil-worship. I know personally, people often find mine puzzling at the least, because I’m a bit older than that 18-to-40 age group where the latest studies show roughly a third of them have at least one tattoo.

But what the article points out is a very important part of many faith journeys–many times there is a story behind that tattoo–a deep and intimate story–of hardship, thanksgiving, faith, or answered prayer. Even the ones that were drunken mistakes have a story and a new meaning may evolve over time. Perhaps even a story of transformation is in there, when one of those mistakes is re-configured as a new tattoo by a skilled body artist.

I know with my own tattoos, I was searching for exactly what we proclaim when a new baptismal candidate is sealed with holy oil and the sign of the Cross–a way that every time I saw it, I knew in my heart of hearts I truly was marked as Christ’s own. I didn’t always believe that. I still have some days where I lose sight of that. But the mirror doesn’t lie. My tattoos will never “officially” qualify as sacraments in our canons, but at a very personal level, they will always be for me a visible and outward sign of an inward spiritual grace.

How might Christ be calling us to the margins in the inked margin of someone else’s tattoo? How do we proclaim the Good News in Christ with our own tattoos?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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