Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Derby Cathedral Holy Week: Monday Compline

 He was despised and rejected by others;
    a man of suffering[a] and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces[
    he was despised, and we held him of no account.

The Christian re-membering of Christ is a constant practice of making ‘present’ and yet it is a disappearing act. The embodiment of Christ in organic matter – in bread and wine – is a constant re-inscription of fragility. Christ is not made to be cast in bronze or gold or stone like an idol. Christ is precisely not the Golden Calf. To encounter Christ is to encounter a body that might be bruised, used and exploited. It is holy precisely because it is so very vulnerable and so easily marred. When we draw close to the holiness of the body – ours and others, the way they mark the image of God and gesture towards Christ’s likeness – we are in a place where we know that the holy can be turned into so much meat, so much skin; it can be reduced to bones and to object.
In 2013, the South African artist Paul Emmanuel’s work ‘The Lost Men of France’ was selected to be included in France’s official commemorations for the one-hundred-year anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War. Erected at the Thiepval Memorial on which 72,000 names of missing British and South African servicemen who fought at the Somme with no known grave are inscribed, the memorial art work comprises a 600m stretch of "large, fragile, semi-transparent silk banners". It includes the names of black and white South African servicemen and the names of soldiers from the other Allied Forces as well as those of German soldiers who died in battlefields all over the Western Front.
Why is Emmanuel’s work so striking and shocking? Because one of the distressing facts about Edward Lutyens’ 45-metre-high brick Thiepval Memorial – which dominates the old Somme battlefield for miles around – is that the names of missing black South African soldiers are themselves missing. It inscribes a profound act of forgetting or erasure. It reminds us that the Great War was an imperial war in which many not only went missing, but were systematically forgotten. As Emmanuel adds, ‘The Lost Men of France’ was intended as "an anti-monument, it does not glorify war but asks questions about masculinity and vulnerability…It questions the exclusion of certain people in traditional memorials - in particular black South African servicemen." Emmanuel’s work raises profound questions about how the body can be used and exploited; it asks, how can that which has gone missing be reclaimed? His artistic technique entailed photographing the names of the missing after they were pressed into the artist's body using dye and paint, without reference to rank, nationality or ethnicity. The banners were hung in the landscape and "left to the wind". When I visited the Thiepval Memorial in Spring 2016 there were no banners left.
           In the Cathedral right now are sculptures by Jane Falconer. Of them she writes, ‘My practice is a narrative journey of personal discovery, from an autobiographical collection of shoes, an archive of photographs to a body of intimate porcelain forms distorted through process, observed as sensuous female vessels containing repressed sexuality. My shoes are contained within the clay and destroyed in the kiln as a process of transformation, a practice of creating absences; a physical process with comparable actions to the female hysteric, with implications of emotional and sexual repression. The absent spaces from the shoes create vessels, which explore the approach of ‘woman the weaker vessel.’  
Of all the bodies one might consider during Holy Week, no other body has been as serially objectified and exploited as that coded as ‘female’; the bodies of women and girls have so often been weaponised against themselves. These holy bodies have been seen as so terrifying that the only safe thing to do is cover them up and hide them away; they have been so fetishized that they become metonyms for flesh, sex, sin, skin…just another body to use and be used. Thompson’s use of the shoe in conversation with clay – clay, of course, what the Bible says we are formed from – brings out the way women’s bodies are coded as dangerous in our religious iconography. Women are set up by our faith to always be problematic.
Bodies signal our fragility and precariousness; as matter they expose us to non-negotiable truths – birth, death, the way we are always at risk of trauma. We are so readily torn apart. Roberta McGrath suggests,
Death is what we most fear in ourselves. This is what lies beneath the skin, what threatens to break through and destroy life. It is our bodies which in the end give up on us […] It is little wonder that we both love and hate the body, and that we project our desire and fear on to others. In the meantime, there are diversionary tactics: we try to contain or at least limit the progress of death by making more humans; we try to thwart death by making objects.[1]
Phyllis Sheppard goes further,
‘We need to consider “the body” in the context of a society where certain bodies are exploited to create a desire for commodities, regardless of the need or ability to afford them; where the color of our skin continues to greatly influence our quality of life, our experiences of society, and our economic locations … where sex and sexuality, used to sell “entertainment”, is infused with violence. We need to hear what the body has to tell us about being created in the image of God.’[2]

And there is so much goodness in bodies. I say this in resistance to a misunderstanding in so much of patriarchal Christianity which has led to fear of bodies and of women’s bodies and black bodies and queer bodies, especially. Our theological panic around flesh has demeaned the body. It has led to so much loss. Western Christianity has not had a good track record around the body, leading many people to believe that Christians hate the body and all its ‘filthy’ works.
Bodies stink. Bodies sweat. Bodies decay and wrinkle. Bodies wobble. Bodies are toned, taut systems of cells. Bodies are incredible and beautiful and remarkable. Bodies hold the power to destroy themselves. And, as Janet Morley says, ‘The bodies of grownups/come with stretchmarks and scars/faces that are lived in/relaxed breast and bellies’[3]. Bodies are the theatres of our lives. Give me bodies – wobbling, wrinkly, stretch-marked, even surgically enhanced bodies. Bodies enjoying themselves. Bodies unfrightened of their possibilities. God has no fear of bodies. This is the truth at the heart of the incarnated God. The idea of God emptying him or herself into fragile flesh is one of the great shocks of Christian theology. In so many ways it is an offence against the other Abrahamic traditions. And it is a great affirmation of the goodness of bodily existence – of a god who is prepared to enjoy the company of friends at a wedding, who eats and drinks and weeps at the death of a friend. Ultimately this is defined and demonstrated in the Passion of Christ. This is a god so in love with our incarnational fragility that she seeks to redeem us through a willingness to be broken in body. A particular, embodied existence stands for all and, in her faithfulness to love, shows us the way to live.
Gilles Deleuze says, ‘We do not know what the body can do.’ Someone might be afraid of just quite what the strength and power of their bodies might be capable of; they might be afraid of the violence that lies within them. Or someone else finds their body disgusting, believing that they are too fat or too thin or feel that unless they work-out every single day their body simply isn’t good enough. Or someone will have endless surgery until they feel their body conforms to who they really want to be.
We walk this week into the Body of Christ. Into mystery. The Hebrew Scriptures say, ‘he was despised, and we held him of no account.’ Our Jewish sisters and brothers would be inclined to read this profound passage from Isaiah rather differently to us. We must always be alert to the way in Christianity has co-opted ancient texts to its own ends. And yet, there is something almost unutterably startling, beautiful and terrifying about this work of co-option. For it is work of revolution. The Shalom of God, the Saviour, the very presence of God, the Blessed Body is in solidarity with the faceless, with the bodies of those turned into meat and bone; who go missing from the honour rolls. God is among the forgotten; she does not have her name carved onto memorials for she is held of no account. She is wiped clean from the earth and yet she cannot be wiped out. A bruised reed, God’s body is a marred body, wiped of distinction. Anonymous and silenced. Exploited and problematized. The clay of God is beautiful but we cannot see this; our need for power and authority, our exploitations distort it. We make our victims and we blame them for our transgressions. Yet, the anonymous are embedded in the Word, in the bone, the DNA of God’s body; God’s body holds the missing, the anonymous, the others; the bodies that do not fit the shape of power. Who are considered unworthy of memory. And God is raging…

[1] McGrath, p. 10.
[2] Phillis Sheppard in Pamela Lightsey, ‘Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology’ (Eugene Or: Pickwick, 2015), pp. 49-50
[3] Janet Morley, ‘All Desires Known’ (London: SPCK 1988), p.113

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