Meditating on metal (Fractured Prayer, Part 4)

Has anyone else spent much time thinking that John 19:36 (“none of his bones shall be broken”) and John 20:25, 27 (“unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands…put your finger here and see my hands”[presumably to touch the nail holes]) cannot both be factual?

Having seen five separate sets of x-rays of my right hand over the last six months or so, and looking at the scar which will fade but be with me forever, this is what strikes me during Holy Week.   I’m pretty convinced that a nail sturdy enough to hold even a smallish adult male to a wooden cross could not be inserted even by a skilled surgeon without breaking any bones.  I would think it impossible to be done by a jobbing carpenter such as the guy with the hammer most likely was.  Even if, as some argue, it would have been done through the wrist rather than through the palm of the hand, the hammer blow alone would have created a distal fracture, let alone the damage caused by the violent, clumsy insertion of hardware.

So, either nails and marks and broken bones, or no marks, nails,  broken bones.  It cannot be both ways. Another one of those fascinating biblical paradoxes that cannot be resolved.

I suppose it matters little–most of our devotional art and music surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection involves those holes and those marks. Saints throughout history have mysteriously acquired the stigmata on their own bodies, the marks of the Passion of Jesus Christ, as a sign of their own sanctity. In some way, it signals that these holy women and men shared in the pains of the Savior at his time of deepest distress.

The point of forcibly inserting metal into a person’s body, without anaesthetic, under unsanitary conditions, is to cause pain and limitation.  There was no such thing as humane capital punishment in the first century of the common era.  The point was to make the process as painful and humiliating as possible, and to make sure the condemned could not fight back. I can only imagine.

The wound in my wrist, the disability in my hand, is not a badge of sanctity or the result of a punishment meted out by an unjust barely-legal system.  Mine, painful and limiting as it has been and will continue to be, is just a garden-variety fracture.  But I have a mark in my wrist, and a lot of subcutaneous metal, at about the same spot where a nail through the wrist might have pierced Jesus. However it gets there, hardware in hands has the potential to serve as a potent symbol for those formed in the Christian tradition.

As Paul Ricoeur said in The Symbolism of Evil, “the symbol gives rise to thought”. And thus, I think.

This week, I think about the betrayal, investigation, arrest, and trial of Jesus.  I think about who was behind it more than the people who actually came to the Garden.  Or who escorted him under guard to the Place of the Skull. Or the man who stood at Golgotha, with a hammer and a handful of nails, waiting to transfer the nails he voluntarily picked up into the hands of one who would receive them–also, as tradition holds, voluntarily.

All of these people are not just un-named , but in some cases, their very presence is unacknowledged–despite the fact that without their playing their assigned roles, the story could not have unfolded.  Jesus must have been under guard on the way to Golgotha (who else would have conscripted someone to help carry the cross?); there had to have been someone equipped and ready to actually carry out the execution of the condemned men.

But that was last year’s meditation. 

This year, I am drawn by the very biased investigation and evidence.  I am drawn by the characters in the story (Caiaphas, the “chief priests”) who had the most to gain by a predetermined outcome which found Jesus guilty.  The gain was not so much material wealth (although there might have been some pecuniary benefit), but the security of their prestige and status, the protection of their positions of authority and power in their religious community.  The religious community that Jesus was a part of, even if at the margins; the community that Jesus’ public critique of the religious systems, rituals, hierarchy threatened.

This is the week when the Church forgets what happens when those with religious power try to silence those who speak difficult truths to their cozy assumptions.

This is my point of identification with Jesus.  Not the meek and mild Jesus that tradition has tamed beyond redemption and beyond effectiveness. Not the impossible-to-discern, over-simplistic “What Would Jesus Do?”

I am like Jesus because I say things that religious functionaries don’t want to hear.   I say things that challenge cozy assumptions; I say things that, if taken to heart, might make it difficult to keep the status quo ticking along until the Church is no more than the whitewashed tombs and dirty vessels against which Jesus warns.

Any time the Church silences those who militate for change, critiques its structures and attitudes–the Church once again crucifies Jesus.

It’s a tough, painful place to be.  I am in it because I loved the church greatly, and great love means great risk.  Great risk doesn’t always pay off, but it still has to be taken by someone.

I loved the Church enough to let it damage me and cause me tremendous pain.  And nothing is ever the same after that happens.  I can’t go back to church-as-it-is, as it insists on being. All I can do is say uncomfortable things which might help, but which religious functionaries would rather not hear.

But, look what happens when you silence those who speak uncomfortable truth to the cozy assumptions of those in power.  First, those who hold religious power try to eliminate them.  But the presence of those who speak is so strong that it cannot be erased, their voice continues to be heard after they are silenced.  And a few people begin to understand that the silenced ones might have had some important things to say.

I’ve been damaged and silenced by the functionaries of my religious institutions.  But, the One who went before was as well.  I’m in good company.

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