17 April 2012

When Wound Becomes Gift

John 20: 19-31

Second Sunday of Easter/ 15th April 2012

The lectionary for the second Sunday of Easter often takes us to this text in John, to Thomas and his doubts. It’s the Sunday when preachers often explore the relationship between faith and doubt. Perhaps because we live in a skeptical age, which thrives on the suspicion of everything and everyone, that we assume what’s at stake here is the evidence of resurrection.  Thomas needed proof and in our scientifically minded age, certainly more than his, many want proof of resurrection.  Where’s the evidence? It’s easy to go there with this text.  But that’s not where I want to go – at least not immediately.

Instead, I want to talk about Jesus’ wounds. Three times in these verses there’s a reference to his wounds.  When Jesus arrived and said, “Peace be with you,” he “showed them his hands and his side.”  Jesus leaves.  Enter Thomas, having missed the visitation, says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  A week goes by and Jesus appears behind locked doors.  “Peace be with you,” he says.  And then he says to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”  So, yes, one could say that the nail marks and spear mark are there as evidence.  Jesus wants them to believe – and in John’s Gospel belief is more than just rational, intellectual assent, it means trust and assurance, it’s very relational.

            But what strikes me – and maybe you don’t see it the same way – what strikes me is that in these resurrected appearances Jesus still has his wounds.  The resurrected body is still wounded.   It’s not completely healed.  We often associate resurrection with having a new body, not the old body revivified with all its aches and pains and blemishes and nail marks.   Here, the wounds are still fresh and open.  Even after more than a week Jesus invites Thomas to put his finger in the hole in his side. This is not a pristine body without blemish, but a wounded body.

            That’s what strikes me.  It’s remarkable, really.  Jesus offers his wounds to Thomas.  He offers his pain and his suffering to him.  He offers wounds that haven’t healed but are still open.  In John’s Gospel everything, every detail, has meaning; nothing is extraneous.  So what do we make of this encounter?  What does this mean for us theologically?  What does this say about the Christian experience?  In other words, what does this mean for us that the resurrected body still bears the wounds of crucifixion?

            If one travels to Colmar in the Alsace region of France and goes into the Unterlinden Museum, one will find there a masterpiece of Renaissance art.  It is a triptych (a three-paneled) painting known as the Isenheim Altarpiece, painted by Matthias Grünewald (c.1470-1528).  It dates from 1515. When I was on sabbatical several years ago, I made a pilgrimage to Colmar just to see this work that I’ve admired for years.  On the back panel there is an image of the resurrected Jesus.  Having shattered the tomb, throwing the soldiers to the ground in fear, Jesus is depicted as rising victoriously in the air.  His head is surrounded by an aura of brilliant light, yellow and orange. His arms are uplifted, his palms open-faced, as if he’s saying “Peace be with you.” And on his hands are the nail marks.  You can see them very clearly; it’s as if he’s showing them proudly. The nail marks, the wounds, come with the resurrection.  Even paintings depicting Jesus’ ascension, weeks after Easter, still include the wounds in his hands and feet and side.

            We often hear, “Time heals all wounds.”  Don’t worry about the wounds, they’ll heal.  It’s an old proverb that goes back centuries, the earliest reference is from Menander (c.342-281 BC), in around the third or fourth century BC.  But is it really true? Jesus has all the time in the world, I guess, which means that in time his wounds too would heal. Do the wounds heal?  Should they?

            Rose Kennedy (1890-1995) was a woman who knew a lot of pain and grief in her long life.  Whether one agrees with the political leanings of her family or not, she at least deserves compassion as a human being.  Reflecting upon her life, she said, “It has been said, ‘time heals all wound.’ I do not agree.  The wound remains.  In time, the mind, protecting its sanity covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it never goes away.”

            There’s a lot of truth in what she says.  This is particularly true when it comes to grief.  Grief is a wound and if the love is particularly strong the wound never completely heals. 

            Now, I’m sharing all of this not to make us depressed or sad, although that’s maybe how you feel right about now.  Actually, I’m lifting this up in order to offer hope and assurance.

            You see, I’m grateful that the wounds remain. The wounds make Jesus who he is.  They’re part of his history and therefore part of his identity.  And I’m grateful for the notion that the wounded resurrected Jesus eventually ascends still bearing his marks of suffering.  He takes his suffering – and all of ours – with him into the being of God and thus changes the nature of God. It now becomes easier to perceive what has been God’s way of being all along; we see in Jesus’ resurrection that God desires to take into Godself the wounds of Christ.  And it becomes clear or clearer to us that God desires to integrate, incorporate human woundedness into the very heart of God.  Christ’s wounds – which are also humanity’s wounds – become part of God’s history and identity.  God identifies with and participates in human woundedness and knows what they feel like. 

            If we’re honest, there’s a part of us that doesn’t like this emphasis upon wounds.  The truth is, we’re all wounded – all of us – some more than others. There’s an old proverb that I take very seriously: “Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”[1]  The most wounded people I know are usually denial about their state.  Many just want the wounds to heal, which often means to go away, to be rid of them, be over and done with them, so they can get back to a normal life like everyone else.  Let me just say that this is an illusion:  there’s no such thing as normal or abnormal life. There is just life. For some this life includes wounds that are too deep, too painful for words.  Some have very deep wounds, which are very painful – you know what they are, I don’t have to name them.  And some don’t just have wounds; the wounds have them, turning them into victims, causing individuals to become stuck in their pain and the grief.

            I would say that Jesus is not a victim to his wounds, they don’t have him; but he has his wounds.  And in some strange, bizarre, counter-intuitive way we wouldn’t want it any other way, would we? Would we want to remove his wounds from him?  If we removed them, made them go away, who would he be?  If we removed these characteristics of his life, he wouldn’t be who he is.  If he was the truly, authentically human one (that’s what is meant by references to him as the Son of Man), and this was true for him, why wouldn’t it be the same for the rest of us on our way to becoming human?  Isn’t this what Jesus’ life-journey has taught and is teaching us: we don’t have to be a victim of our wounds, but that in a bizarre and wonderful, grace-filled manner there is a way to honor our wounds, to claim them, accept them, even cherish them and value them, maybe as a badge of honor, because suffering through them has made us and continues to make us into the people we are meant to be by God’s grace. 

            I’m not saying we should run out and get wounded or become martyrs in order to be blessed.  That’s not what I’m saying.

            What I am saying is that, from my experience, the wound, when accepted with grace and received with compassion, can become a gift.  It can even become a means of grace; that is, an occasion to learn and discover and experience through it something of God’s grace active in our lives. 

            This is what Franciscan priest Richard Rohr is getting at when he says there’s always a wounding in our lives. Being faithful to our calling, like Jesus, will inevitably lead toward a wound. The walk with Jesus might actually expose a wound we have denied or run from. When we are seriously growing in the faith and walking in the way of Christ we will eventually discover what is known as the “spirituality of imperfection” or the “way of the wound.”[2]  When embraced by God’s grace the wound can become the secret key that allows us to discover who we really are and what we were created to be and do.[3]  It becomes sacred and holy because through the wound we discover who God is toward us.  It makes us who we are.  We see it in Jesus.  We also see it in Paul, in his “thorn in the flesh,” a wound, which he asked God to remove several times.  God never did (2 Corinthians 12: 1-10).  Yet, that thorn led him toward wisdom, to discover and be able to say with pride, “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12: 10).  He heard Jesus, the wounded savior, say to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12: 9).  There is a kind of power that is also perfected in being wounded, because the wound changes us and it can transform us, by God’s grace, into growing deeper.

            This truth is deep – very deep; it’s archetypal. It’s everywhere in stories, ancient and new.  Start with Homer’s Odyssey.  Odysseus, who, after his journey, arrived home and was recognized by his wife only by the familiar scar on his thigh.  In Greek mythology we have Chiron, the centaur, who uses the pain of his wound to heal others, and Prometheus, the fire-stealer, wounded by the eagle removing his liver each day.  We have Gulliver on his travels, wounded in his knee.  Cain is marked as a sign of his guilt, but also as a sign of God’s protection (Genesis 4).  Jacob limps away wounded after wrestling with God all night, forever changing the scope of history (Genesis 32). Thank God for that wound!  Think of the Legend of the Holy Grail and the story of the Fisher King. The King is the keeper of the grail of Christ and is sustained by it, but he has a wound that will not heal.  And in our day, Harry Potter has a wound, a scar, a mark that sets him a part and defines his life.  He would not be “‘the boy who lived’ come to die” without that scar.[4] Our wounds matter.

            I’ve been reading Jeanette Winterson’s extremely poignant memoir of growing up in Manchester, in the North of England, in the 1960s, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?  In it she reflects upon the wounds in her life and the nature of the wound in literature.  “…wounding seems to be a clue or a key to being human. There is value here as well as agony.  What we notice in [literature] is the nearness of the wound to the gift:  the one who is wounded is marked out – literally and symbolically – by the wound.  The wound is a sign of difference.”[5]

            Winterson knows this well.  Jeannette was adopted, raised by parents who never really loved her properly. Her father tried to love her.  Her adopted mother really didn’t love her.  She often told Jeanette that “the Devil led her to the wrong crib” in the orphanage.  Jeanette refers to her biological mother as mother.  She refers to her adopted mother as Mrs. Winterson, to stress the distance and estrangement in their relationship.  Mrs. Winterson was gun toting, cigarette hiding, Bible-thumping Pentecostal fundamentalist.  She punished Jeannette by locking her out of the house – over night, many times – or locking her in the coal basement under the house.  She was also severely mentally ill and depressed and never received the kind of care she needed.

            Mrs. Winterson allowed only six books in the house, including the Bible, because she was suspicious of books, fearful.  “The trouble with a book,” she said, “is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.”  Jeannette was not allowed to read fiction. Mrs. Winterson did enjoy reading murder mysteries, primarily because you know what to expect, a body shows up some place.  Mrs. Winterson read the Bible, the King James Bible, aloud every night for years. She started with Genesis and read continuously each night to Revelation – reveling in the gory images of the apocalypse – and then she started over again with Genesis 1.  Jeannette grew up with an ear for language. She went to the library as a refuge and began reading on her own, starting with the A’s:  Jane Austen.  She also brought murder mysteries home for mother to read. In the E-section she came across a title, Murder in the Cathedral, by a certain T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), not knowing who he was, and brought it home, also not knowing it wasn’t a murder mystery.  Before leaving the library she opened to the first page; when she read these words they broke her heart and caused her to cry:  “There is one moment,/ But know that another/ Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy.”

            Jeanette eventually got a job and saved her money to buy books.  She carefully wrapped each one in plastic and hid them under her mattress so that they wouldn’t be found.  In time her mattress started to rise from the number of small, paper-books she was keeping there.  One night, while Jeanette was asleep, Mrs. Winterson came in with a flashlight (as she usually did) to check on her.  The corner of one book, by D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), was sticking out.  Mrs. Winterson woke her up, lifted up the mattress, opened the bedroom window, and then proceeded to throw all seventy-two of her books out the window into the yard. Mrs. Winterson picked up the little paraffin stove used to heat the bathroom, went into the yard, poured paraffin all over the books and set them on fire. “I watched them blaze and blaze,” Jeanette writes, “and remember thinking how warm it was, how light, on the freezing Saturnian January night.  And books have always been light and warmth to me.”  She relates, “In the morning there were stray bits of texts all over the yard and in the alley.  Burnt jigsaws of books.  I collected some of the scraps.” “I had been damaged and a very important part of me had been destroyed” that night; however, Jeanette refused to be a victim, “on the other side of the facts was who I could be, how I could feel, and as long as I had words for that, images for that, stories for that, then I wasn’t lost.”  She writes, “…standing over the smouldering pile of paper and type, still warm the next cold morning, I understood that there was something else I could do” with this pain, this wound. She realized she could do something.  She didn’t need those books.  She said, “I can write my own.”[6]  And so she became a writer.

            Trying to prove the historical veracity of the resurrection is impossible and a waste of time, but maybe – just maybe – there’s some evidence to the power of the resurrection in our lives when our wounds somehow, some way become bearers of God’s grace.  How we use our wounds – how God uses them – might give witness to the power of God at work in us.  They just might give some evidence that Christ is risen – risen indeed.

Image: Matthias Grünewald (c.1470-1528), "Resurrection" panel, Isenheim Altarpiece (1515),  Musée d'Unterlinden,  Colmar, Alsace, France.

[1] Falsely attributed to Plato (424/423-348/347 BC) and Philo of Alexandria (20 BC-50), it was probably articulated by the Scottish minister John Watson (1850-1907), through his pseudonym, Ian Maclaren.
[2] Richard Rohr, Falling Upward:  A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2011), xxiv.  Here he is referring to Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) and Francis of Assisi (1181/1182-1266)
[3] Rohr, 18-19.
[4] This overview is taken from Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Grove Press, 2012). In a chapter titled “The Wound,” she explores the connection between wound, identity and creativity in religion and literature, 220-221. Cf. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, particularly Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007).  I’m grateful to my friend, the Rev. Dr. Derek Browning, minister of Morningside Parish Church, Edinburgh, Scotland, for drawing my attention to Winterson’s memoir. Consider also C. G. Jung’s (1875-1961) exploration of the Amfortas wound – the wound that wouldn’t heal – in his analytic theories.  Murray Stein, Jung’s Treatment of Christianity:  The Psychotherapy of a Religion Tradition (Wilmette, IL:  Chiron, 1986).
[5] Winterson, 221-222.
[6] Winterson, 39-43.

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