Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Raised in Naked Glory

In the gospel of John, the “hour” of Christ’s glory is the completion of his mission at his crucifixion, when he is stripped naked and lifted up on the cross. At his death and glorification, Jesus offers to believers his Spirit, and from his wounded side flows the living water and blood of the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist through which believers are born anew and receive eternal life.

Paul reminds us: “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, we too may walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6:3-4)

During the Easter vigil in some churches throughout the world, new members will be baptized, and thus the time-honored tradition of linking Easter with baptism will go on. This linkage is beautifully described in the ancient rite of baptism by immersion.

In the early churches, candidates for baptism or catechumens shed their clothes and go down naked into a pool of water. Their nakedness and their immersion symbolize their death. The catechumens strip themselves of a former way of life. For many of them, their baptism was their death in the eyes of their pagan relatives and friends who refused to associate with them once they became Christians.

The catechumens descend into the waters, the waters that can cleanse, nourish, or kill. By their symbolic death, they experience the death of Christ. When they rise naked from the waters, they put on their baptismal robes, and then join the expectant community, which joyfully welcomes them as new partakers in the life of the Risen Lord.

In the gospel of Mark (16:1-8), when the women entered Jesus' tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side. The presence of this young man in a long garment becomes more significant if we recall the story of the arrest of Jesus in Mark 14:51-52.After Jesus was led away by armed men, Mark mentions the strange emergence of a young man wearing nothing but a linen garment. He tried to follow Jesus, but when the armed men seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.

This flight in nakedness is a graphic display of the weakness and vulnerability of the disciples, who all fled and deserted Jesus. One is reminded of these lines of a poem of Jean De La Ceppede (1548-1623):

Often I have tried to follow you, my life
Along familiar paths your mercy shows
But always, but always your several foes
Have seized me by the sheet, my strength borne off.

Jesus was disgraced, mocked and forcibly stripped. In the gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus was all alone to face death, bare of clothes and bare of friends. This declaration of the upright Job applies fully to Jesus: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall depart” (Job 1:21).

At the tomb of Jesus, the women find a young man. It seems that the young man who earlier fled in nakedness has now returned dressed in a long garment. He proclaims that Jesus has risen, and he instructs the women to tell Peter and the disciples. But the women flee in fear and say nothing to anyone (Mk 16:8). It was a shock to be told of the Vindication of Jesus (see 11 April 2009 blog entry) who is now clothed in holy power and glory.

Christ rose naked, as he left the strips of linen and his burial cloth in the empty tomb. He rose not in the nakedness of his former mortal body but in the naked glory of his risen body. As Adam of St. Victor (d. 1192) says in his hymn “Ecce Dies Celebris” (Behold, the Glorious Day!): “Christ’s flesh, once like sackcloth torn, is now a royal robe victoriously worn.”

The women and the other disciples, however, were afraid because they abandoned their master and friend when he needed them most. They disgraced themselves and revealed their naked weakness. They were ashamed of their infidelity and cowardice, and they were afraid to face the new power of Christ. Like Adam and Eve after they ate the forbidden fruit, they wanted to hide from the divine presence.

The original nakedness of Adam and Eve involved no shame, but this innocence was lost because of lust, not lust for sex, the standing serpent, but lust for power. They wanted to be like God, being able to do everything. In contrast, the shamefully condemned and crucified Christ was raised in naked glory because, despite the adulation of crowds at his powerful deeds and words when he went around in Galilee, he emptied himself of selfish ambition and became a complete servant of God and God’s people even in the face of death on the cross.

With their abandonment of their master and friend, the disciples wrestled with their shameful nakedness, and they were only able to withstand it once they stopped blaming one another and started forgiving. Then they began to see the merciful gaze of Christ, and once they saw this forgiving look, they began to realize that Jesus was not imprisoned in the past. Christ is present, Christ is future, Christ welcomes us back. Their shameful nakedness is now covered in love, and new life is born.

Shameful nakedness does not imply that the human body is a contemptible object. The body is precious, for it offers our primary opening to others and to the world. It is through the body that we are able to develop or destroy deep relationships. Our gaze can animate or kill. Our tongues can wound or heal. Our touch can assure or deceive. Christ’s resurrection testifies to the value of our bodies, for Christ rose in a body. In the Apostle’s Creed, we proclaim our belief in the resurrection of the body.

The body is the bedrock of deep relationships, and thus, we believe that God will resurrect the body because God wants to immortalize deep relationships. In contrast to commercial advertising, the primal beauty of the body does not rest on its shape, its size, or its youth, but on its ability to produce or nourish deep relationships.

The priority of deep relationships is something that many contemporary people are neglecting especially among the middle and upper classes. They do not primarily seek and sustain expressive relationships but prioritize the accumulation of money, or prioritize workaholism in order to acquire more, consume more, and waste more. Consumerism and productivism have trivialized emotive and ethical matters such as intimate friendship, sexual relations, and the respect for wildlife. The body, friendship, sex, and wildlife are being turned into commodities.

God resurrects the body because God wants to immortalize deep relationships. Christ has been raised from the dead because he has the deepest relationship with God and others. The depth of his relationships enabled him to withstand the shameful nakedness of being cruelly stripped, mocked, and punished, while his disciples abandoned him. In clinging firmly to his deep relationships, the shameful nakedness of Jesus was converted into a lovingly shared nakedness, a powerlessness and vulnerability in solidarity with the poor, the defenseless, the excluded, human wrecks, and the refuse of the world.

When Christ resurrected covered in holy power and new life, he did not hesitate to offer the protective cloak of forgiveness to his anxious disciples. We can prepare ourselves for our Lord's warm cloak of compassion by humbly standing before him in prayer as the naked selves we truly are. Then we can pray in these words of the 12th century theologian and mystic, William of St. Thierry:

"Having cast off the garment of skins that you made for Adam to protect him from his shame and confusion, I show myself to you, naked, as you created me. Behold me, Lord, not as you have made me but as I have made myself, because I have fallen away from you."

In our commemoration of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, let us also reflect on our nakedness, our personal vulnerabilities, limitations, and deficiencies. With the help of Christ’s Spirit, let us reflect on how we can turn our nakedness into an opening so that the nakedness of others can find sacred rest and relief in the presence of our own nakedness. Or do we prefer to exhibit the shameful nakedness of our egocentrism, anxiety or indifference?

How do we strip ourselves of our greed and selfishness so that we can practice this injunction of St. Jerome: "naked follow the naked Christ"? How do we strip ourselves especially in prayer and contemplation so that, in the words of the 14th century spiritual text, "The Cloud of Unknowing, your intent is nakedly directed to God"? How can we share this nakedness so that others will experience forgiveness, hope, justice, and the dignity of the sons and daughters of God?

Let us pray for one another and for the whole naked humanity, as we remember Christ’s naked death and the naked glory of his resurrection. May we receive the power of his new life so that we can accompany one another in our naked immersion in the river of life from which we hope everybody will rise with naked intent unto God and put on the supreme baptismal robes of final innocence and divine life.

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