Anointing the Body

By: Melissa Capers

When we begin to imagine God relies entirely on us to get God's point across, we risk promoting idolatry, rather than relationship. When we forget that God is alive and still creating, we can leave God out of our worship and lock God out of our church. When we begin to lose our faith like this, even central tenets of our religion can become our stumbling blocks. I fear that we may have come to such a place with Easter, and with homosexuality.

Confident that they know how the story ends, Christians on both sides of this debate push forward, striving toward that final chapter. We forget that we are not just heirs to Christ, we are descendants of the apostles. Of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who seemed to share with their mother ambitious visions of messianic majesty and power. Of Peter, whose loyalty to his messiah kept him arguing against God's plan, and kept him, at first, from identifying with this plan - or his messiah - as events inexorably unfolded.

We may be even descendents of Judas, who some suggest was impatient for a revolution he might understand, whose vision of a new creation unfurled more quickly than this guy from Nazareth seemed willing to pursue.

Our God can still surprise us; we forget this at our peril. We worship a God who sometimes tears a sea apart, so we may pass through on dry land. A God who sometimes offers us a hand instead, an invitation to step out in faith and join him on the waves.

I go back to the story. Not just the grand finale, the glory and relief of Easter, the high point of the year. I go back to the chapter that we celebrate at every Eucharist, the day-to-day remembrance of sacrifice and crucifixion. I go back also to the days between.

But let's begin with crucifixion. Death by crucifixion is torturous and long. The wounds aren't quite enough to kill you - if it weren't for sun and heat and pain, you might survive more than a day.

But imagine, for a moment, a day on nailed-through feet. Because holding yourself upright - placing your weight against those nails - is the only way to stay alive upon a cross.

When the body sags, and every body sags eventually (or else they break your legs to make it so), the arms - fixed so impossibly apart - close off the lungs. A person crucified will die by suffocation.

And isn't this, somehow, familiar to us all? When it comes to homosexuality - whether ordination or marriage or entrance into heaven - the positions of the members of this body of Christ, the church, seem fixed, seem so impossibly apart. How can we breathe between them?

How many of us stand uncomfortably within the pews these days? Flinching for what is, or has been, or may be said on any given Sunday. Sometimes we interrupt a sermon; sometimes we simply leave. Most times, I believe, we simply stand there, bleeding, as if nailed to the spot.

So what to do and how to bear it and, as the psalmist cried, "how much longer, O God?"

I go back to the story, and remind myself that we are heirs of Christ, and descendents of his followers. I think of what they did.

Most simply ran. They hid, they scattered, they abandoned, they locked themselves in upper rooms. Many of us have chosen this route, well paved by pillars of our church, including James and Peter. History tells us this path is not irredeemable; the gospels tell us that it simply doesn't work. The word of God - even the Word made flesh - gets through.

But this path of most resistance is not our only choice. Other paths are mapped within our gospels. Routes taken, not by superstars, but by the quiet heroes, the most stalwart witnesses, the models I believe we need these days.

There are the women bearing witness - and what a burden it must have been. The disciple Jesus loved was there, we're told. Their model is simple, and staggering - despite the risk, despite the agony to self, they would not let Jesus die alone. And joined in this task, they pledged themselves to one another - accepting bonds as strong as family between believers.

This is no small task. It is not compromise; it may not even include acceptance. This call to stand and witness calls on us today to recognize that something in the Church is dying. We may not be able to predict just what will fall away, but all of us are losing something that we love. This gospel challenge is to face that.

Facing that, we are also called to turn to one another. We are challenged to consider one another family. And just like in our families, we are called to love each other - flawed and irritating, hurt and hurtful as we each may be.

There is the man who made arrangements. Joseph of Arimethea claimed Christ's body, found for it a temporary home. Families and churches who have someone to take this role are lucky - this is the one who shows us, not the whole way, but the clear next step. And the next step usually is clear: we act with respect, we bind the wounds, we do what we can. These quiet leaders can often be overlooked or disregarded - but even Moses couldn't take his people all the way.

There are the women who arrived the morning after Sabbath. The gospel stories differ on their purpose - Matthew and John speak only of the women coming to the tomb; Mark and Luke make it clear that they are going to anoint the body. I tend to trust the details Mark and Luke provide, to imagine John and Matthew flinching just a little at imaging this task.

Remember the fear, when Jesus called Lazarus out of his tomb. There'd be a stench, the people said. These women weren't deterred. Armed with only ointments and spices, they came to offer their love - in the face of their grief - to the only part of Jesus they had left.

We are called, as they were, to master our revulsion, and to love. We, too, are called to bring our care, our touch and our affection to whatever shell of church still speaks to us. We might only show up on Sundays, or iron the altar clothes. We might keep up our pledge, or hold a space for silent meditation. We might take communion to the sick, or volunteer for childcare. We can do what we can do to demonstrate our love.

Some of us, out of love, will push for change. Some will push against it. We do what we must - but perhaps we might do what we can. It may best be outside debate -around an altar, or at a bedside - that God can soften hardened hearts.

Sometimes - as in marriages and families - love doesn't fill us up. Sometimes it seems we're running low; sometimes it seems we're empty. That's when duty, custom, habit, obligation - those stringy kinds of love - can get us out of bed some Sunday morning, can put us on the path to resurrection.

It is a faithless kind of forgetfulness - or a deadly kind of pride - to imagine this struggle, this slogging toward Jerusalem, is not part of our journey. To imagine we might hurry it along - whether we seek to close the books on this debate, or blast open the doors of our churches. God works in God's time - and we should work in ours. Not just to plead our cause, to prove the other wrong, to drag our version of the resurrection forward. But to witness the loss, to join in the grieving, to love through our fear, and to believe in a new Easter, in a God filled with surprise.

Melissa Capers lives with her partner and writes in Alexandria, Virginia. She is keeping an online journal of the "spiritual journey" she's undertaking this year; it's at www.melissacapers.com/thetrip

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