Jesus Corpses

Much Christian theology claims to be about a divine incarnation. It is also, and perhaps more emphatically, a speech for managing that incarnation by controlling its awkward implications. Some particularly awkward consequences can only be managed by passing over members of the body of God in prudish silence. Looked at in this way, the history of Christian theology can be seen as a long flight from the full consequences of its central profession. The big business of theology has been to construct alternate bodies for Jesus the Christ - tidier bodies, bodies better conformed to institutional needs. I think of these artificial bodies as Jesus' corpses, and I consider large parts of official Christology their mortuary

Take as an emblem for the management of this awkward incarnation a typical Catholic crucifix. On it, a man wearing a loincloth is nailed to a cross. The representation is "realistic": the muscles on the body are sharply defined, nails poke through the strained skin, and the head lolls to one side in agony or exhaustion. If the crucifix before us is an older one from southern European or Latin American churches, the "realism" will be greater still. Vividly red blood runs over creamy skin - runs down from a minutely crafted crown of thorns, from nail punctures, from a bruised and swollen cut just below the ridge of ribs. The face itself is filled by agony, with beseeching eyes and a moaning or screaming mouth. The depiction is strikingly and perhaps appallingly realistic. Or is it? On one antique Mexican crucifix that hung in my mother's home, a corpus of this kind bore only a flimsy bit of parchment as its loincloth. When the paper fell away after one too many moves, it was revealed that there was nothing underneath. The corpus on the crucifix was shockingly detailed, except in the lower abdomen, which was as smooth and abstract as an old-fashioned manikin.

Imagine for a moment a more completely incarnate practice of carving crucifixes. The carver would take special care to carve equally realistic genitals on each corpus, whether or not a miniature loincloth would soon hide the work. The genitals would be considered - as they were in some periods of Christian painting - a powerful sign of the fullness of incarnation.5 The penis would be circumcised in conformity with scriptural evidence and as a sign of Jesus' obedience to Jewish law. But it would be neither exaggerated nor minimized, fetishized neither as a commodity to be chased nor as a disgrace to be repudiated. We might even imagine a tradition of special prayers or meditations for attending to this extraordinary consequence of an eternal God's love for us perishable creatures, who must reproduce to survive as bodies. The genitals would be carved reverently as a profound teaching inscribed on the surface of the body of God-with-us.

To my knowledge, we Catholics have not had such a tradition for carving crucifixes. On the contrary, we have expected, when we have not required, that genitals be left off a crucifix's corpus, no matter how "realistic."6 We have also traditionally insisted that Jesus not be shown naked in paintings of the crucifixion. At various times, nakedness on the cross has been explicitly refused even though it was conceded to be more historically accurate.7 Jesus most probably was naked on the cross, but we cannot show him that way. You can catch here not only a curious disregard for history, but a refusal to accept divine providence. God did not prevent what Catholic art wants to prohibit. God let Jesus hang naked on the cross; our crucifixes cannot. Indeed, and with few exceptions, Catholic art has refused to allow any hint of a penis underneath Jesus' loincloth. The loincloth must cover a vacuum.8

Nothing underneath the loincloth - take that as an emblem for our thought about Jesus' body. The loincloth is not so much a rag as a magic cloth that makes things disappear. Why do we need the magic? That is a complicated question, to which I will give several answers. The first of them begins this way: Ask yourself what you have been feeling while reading through the last half dozen paragraphs. Is it recognition and insight? Calm and reasoned rejection? Or have you perhaps been feeling some distaste, embarrassment, disgust, repulsion? Have you been feeling that His genitals shouldn't be talked about - much less imagined as seen? If so, you may understand that we need that loincloth to keep ourselves from being ashamed. The cloth covers part of Jesus, which means that it helps us not to look at ourselves. His loincloth is made to cover our eyes.

Here is the beginning of a second answer: Imagine, again, the tradition for carving detailed genitals onto each and every crucifix. Who is doing the carving? If it is a woman, she might be presumed (in a male-centered theology at least) to be sexually aroused by such detailed attention to images of a penis - unless, of course, she is presumed not to know anything about them. If the carver is a man, he is supposed to be entirely disinterested in the genitals - except that the soul of every believer is Christ's spouse, is as a bride to Jesus considered as spiritual bridegroom. It might even be in some rare cases, in the overheated workshop of an undisciplined monastery, that a pious male carver would begin to find the carving of those members oddly - no, we cannot begin to think that. It is not enough to cover them up. We have to prevent their being carved in the first place. Think of the scandal to (and from) the carvers.

On many traditional readings, sexual shame began in Eden after the fall into sin. "Then the eyes of both were naked: and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves" (Genesis 3.7). Adam and Eve made loincloths because they had sinned. Why do we make loincloths for our images of Jesus, in statues or in paintings? Because we sin. We have to cover him up because of what we have become in our fearful denials. Certainly it is not God who is ashamed of human genitals - or God who pulls back from the shame meant to be inflicted on Jesus by crucifying him naked. We are the ones ashamed both of human bodies as created and of what we do to human bodies when we want to humiliate them. We are afraid of how we might respond to a naked savior. We are afraid of what we do to each other when we use nakedness as an insult.9

There are many connected questions to be posed about Western iconography of Jesus on the cross. For example, is it surprising or predictable that an officially homophobic doctrine would take as its central image an almost naked man being tortured? Do we understand that "choice" as the eruption of the repressed or the cultivation of erotic indifference towards male beauty - as a continual revenge on the threat of male attraction? Again, if the most important male body is standardly represented almost naked under torture, suffering apparently the threat or the effects of castration, how does that alter a culture's general conventions for picturing violence, desire, and masculinity? These are important questions, but I set them aside to say again the most basic thing. For the most traditional Christian theology, it would be a sign of full redemption to represent Jesus naked on the cross.10 His nakedness would be a sign of a redeemed - that is, a humanly mature - community of believers. But we are afraid to look at the body of God as it was. So our typical "Jesus" -as corpus, statue, painting - only adds to the series of Jesus' corpses. The corpses are mutilated. We cannot let Jesus' body be whole, either in death or in life.

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