What is it to tell the truth about a human body? Is it the truth of a medical chart or an autopsy report? The body is described with its age and weight, medical conditions, signs of traumatic injury or inward decay. The body is reported science. Or is the truth of a body more like a fashion spread in a glossy magazine? The body has been bathed and prepared with namable products for its skin and hair, new perfumes and make-up colors. It has been regimented or surgically altered to the prevailing type. It will be further tailored with the photo software. The body is a billboard.
For Christians, the truth about Jesus' body would be neither of these - and not just because there was neither plastic surgery nor modern autopsy. The believer's truth about Jesus is always a truth told in love. How do you tell loving truths about a body? We sometimes pretend as if the most loving truth is a truth that lies about bodies by making them more attractive than they are - or than any body could be. Parents dote over their infant children, as those freshly in love gush about the unique and complete beauty of their new amours. We discount descriptions given by new parents and new lovers. To us, the infant looks pretty much like any other, and the new girlfriend or boyfriend has a funny nose and unconvincing hair. Love lies about bodies, we conclude. Or should we rather say: love discovers another way to talk about truths in bodies?
Some older Christian writers held, from reading Isaiah 53.2-3, that Jesus was in fact ugly.17 Most Christian writers on the Passion have stressed that Jesus was made ugly on the cross. Some representations of the crucifixion seem to vie in representing his deformity - the twisting of the emaciated limbs, the gouges and tears in the flayed skin, or the inhuman agony of the jaundiced and blood-shot eyes. Often this sort of meditation has been linked to claims that Jesus' suffering was absolutely unique in its intensity, that he has suffered the woes of all humanity combined, and so on. I find it more helpful to think of Jesus on the cross as right in the middle of human suffering. Not everyone is executed in public for political or religious crimes, but then crucifixion is an easy way to go in comparison with many other forms of political and religious torture. So I conclude not that Jesus' body on the cross was the most deformed body of suffering, but that it looked worse than some and better than others. Whatever suffering his body showed when it was taken down, other bodies have shown far worse. Indeed, if Jesus had been executed in a more gruesome fashion (say, by being flayed and burned), would traditional iconography have been able to accomplish the transformation of an execution into a generic symbol? The availability of the cross as an image is an indication of his relatively moderate suffering - though also of our culturally induced insensibility to the suffering of that particular body
What makes the ugliness of Jesus' crucified body important is not that it was the greatest physical ugliness, but that we are asked to see through it to the unspeakable beauty of
God. The crucifixion inverts our ordinary bodily aesthetic by claiming that the radiant source of all beauty was disclosed to us in a scourged, crucified, dead body. Bonaventure says it succinctly: if you want to understand the presence of goodness in this world of bodies, there is no other way than by walking the streets of Jerusalem on the way to Golgotha (Bonaventure 1993: 39).18 Julian of Norwich describes it more graphically - too graphically for some readers. The head of Jesus, bleeding from its crown of thorns, is held over her while she suffers her own passion, and she looks up at it as most beautiful.19
Beautiful because desired, because loved? Both and neither. Paradoxical assertions about Jesus' beauty on the cross invite us to learn that bodies can be beautiful in ways we hadn't expected - or were perhaps afraid to think. A body can be beautiful even after rites of humiliation or pain not because those rites produce beauty, but because its beauty escapes those rites. How much more, then, might a loved body remain somehow beautiful no matter what. The height of sentimentality? Or an insight into the beauty that lies in human bodies being what they are? If the notion of the beauty of Jesus even when crucified is too much at present, or too suspiciously morbid, might we at least learn from it that a desired body can be complete, and so endowed with capacities for the erotic, even when it appears as ugly?
Some Christian theologians have claimed that eros couldn't fit with agape because eros was particular in two senses: it was directed at a specific object and it was choosy in its attractions.20 This is a polemical notion of eros. We are used to having our erotic tastes put into tiny packages for a number of opposed and collusive reasons: to keep them confined, to keep them out of sight, to make them amenable to marketing. How are you going to sell beauty as a commodity unless you can make eros a form of commodity fetishism? But couldn't we take eros out of those packages to think about how it might not be confined to particular notions of beauty or particular acts and objects? And shouldn't we do so if we regard Jesus' body as a teaching about embodiment in every one of its moments? He shows us a body in which desire is not only for the predictably beautiful and in which eros can outlast even well-calibrated humiliations.
In each moment, Jesus' body is a complete human body. Meditate on how to represent that. We need as an emblem for Jesus' body neither the unsexed corpus of a crucifix nor its necessary opposite - a body with gigantic genitals. We don't want to replace the mutilated corpse on the crucifix with a Christian version of one of the ancient satyr statues, in which the body is dwarfed by an engorged phallus. Indeed, our representations of Jesus' body should show us most vividly how a body can be erotic without being only or obsessively erotic. We should learn from it how a body has sex without being just sex. We learn this, not coincidentally, from a divine body that is unafraid to be naked even when it is supposedly humiliated. Here Jesus trumps Nietzsche's Dionysus. Jesus is so divinely erotic that he need not be ashamed of either his "beauty" or his "ugliness." He is thus the god to teach us why our sexual shame really was a product of sin.
We should learn from the unashamed Jesus that our erotic reactions to him, whether we call him beautiful or ugly, are far from being a cause of shame. They are indispensable in our love of God. I am not thinking here again of the familiar and yet mysterious dependence of "mystical" language on the erotic.21 Nor am I thinking of recent attempts to rediscover the sexuality latent in our theology of God.22 No doubt our encounters with the divine must actualize our deepest capacities for joy and for intimacy, along with the highly charged sexual languages we have made to describe them. No doubt, too, our Scriptures record how many ways our deepest psychological formations have projected themselves onto representations of God. We have in the incarnation not only a concession to our bodily life, but a vindication of it.
After all, and on the most traditional teaching, our bodies are not something we Christians expect to abandon with a relieved or desperate "Good riddance!" We get our bodies back again and stay with them for eternity. We get them back as the best human bodies there are, which means, as bodies with genitals. Unless you regard human genitals as a sort of cancerous affliction, a disease, a deformity, that came upon us after sin, then you cannot regard them as something that will be missing from our bodies after resurrection - any more than you can hold that Jesus' resurrected body was a eunuch's body. Here again, take the organs as emblem of deeper powers. The erotic powers with which we were created were given not only for this world, hence not only for reproduction. They were given as instruments and enactments of intimate union. That union culminates in union with God.
This might seem a rather pious conclusion to a scandalous meditation. Love of God is also not a cause for shame. Nor is the love of Jesus, as completely embodied. But then I want to insist that we come to the piety only after what seems a scandalous meditation on Jesus as erotic. Indeed, I want to argue more generally that we come to tell loving truths about Jesus only after we have forced ourselves to tell truths about our loves. At the decisive moment of this meditation, Jesus doesn't want you to enlist for his side because you are infatuated with his nobility. He wants you to look at your body with newly loving eyes because you have seen him as humanly beautiful even without nobility.
At the end of our meditation, we can reverse the familiar pronouncement that Christian agape defeats, excludes, or totally redoes "pagan" eros. The meditation teaches that there is no way into a full language of agape except through the language of eros. Meditating on our multiple shames before a sexed savior may help us a little out of shame, into salvation, which is wholeness. Meditating on Jesus' beauty even when crucified may help us a little towards a less fetishistic notion of beauty and its eros. Certainly meditating on how we speak of our desire for Jesus will show us something about how to talk of his desires for us. Truth telling about eros comes before - and remains with - truth telling about agape. No other place to start Christian truth telling than face to face with Jesus.
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