WIT welcomes Jessica Pegis as a guest poster. Jessica studied philosophy, theology, and English literature at the University of Toronto. Her work has been published in The Toronto Star, The Financial Post, eye weekly, and Xtra, Canada’s LGBTQ news portal. She is also the author, along with Sylvie Webb, of Project Media and the co-owner of girlswithglasses editing. She currently lives in Toronto with her daughter, Simone.
One of my favourite icons is Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet, a feast celebrated on Holy Thursday. I admire it because it displays something often lacking in the male clerical class: humility; nurturing; service. The British Museum informs us that Peter touches his head to let Jesus know he also wants his head washed. Notably, the gesture appears in every version of this icon. However, the touching of the head was also the gesture of divine epiphany in ancient Greek culture—something Byzantine icon painters would have been familiar with.
But what could the epiphany be about?
Probably everything to do with this particular encounter with Christ, so close to his arrest, starting with the riddle of last as first and first as last.
I was thinking about that icon when a reflection penned by Gerald Kicanas, former bishop of Tucson, appeared in The National Catholic Reporter. Kicanas is shown passing out Communion over a border fence in Arizona. Those anxious to receive the Eucharist are invisible with the exception of outstretched hands. I’m not even sure the bishop could see who was at the fence. He knew they were human hands, nothing more. And then it hit me:
Hands and feet.
The Gospel is loaded with them. We cannot visualize the Nativity or the crucifixion without them. They are washed; they are anointed; they are pierced. They are shown to assure the doubtful; laid on to comfort and heal; placed (imaginatively) on the chopping block to illustrate the deadly nature of sin.
Hands and feet.
“Christ has no body on earth now but yours,” wrote St. Theresa of Avila, “no hands but yours, no feet but yours.”
“We joined hands through the steel barriers separating our people,” Kicanas wrote. “I saw the Christ with arms outstretched trying to bring our two worlds together. I could almost hear the angels singing, ‘In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide world.’”
This image of the body of believers as the hands and feet of Christ—or as a cosmic chain of humanity encircled by Christ, rendering directionality moot—is expansive, both deep and wide, and resonant for the 21st century. Note that “yours” has no gender and that there is no discussion of whether the man hands are doing man things or whether the woman feet are doing woman things, or whether these activities are “complementary” and “God-designed.”
Now compare that language and imagery with the spousal symbolism of the church as the bride of Christ. Pope John Paul II elaborates:
In speaking of Christ as the Bridegroom of the Church, Saint Paul uses the analogy of spousal love, referring back to the Book of Genesis: “A man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). This is the “great mystery” of that eternal love already present in creation, revealed in Christ and entrusted to the Church…. The Church cannot therefore be understood as the Mystical Body of Christ, as the sign of man’s Covenant with God in Christ, or as the universal sacrament of salvation, unless we keep in mind the “great mystery” involved in the creation of man as male and female and the vocation of both to conjugal love, to fatherhood and to motherhood. [emphasis mine]-Letter to Families from Pope John Paul II, 1994
Side by side, the two visions of the church barely talk about the same thing. As symbolism goes, the first widens but the latter contracts. The universe (evidenced by the reference to creation) is 100% heterosexual, either married or planning to marry. In this sense, the imagery fails to reflect the modern world, where the non-married are often as numerous or more numerous than the married. (In my own country, the most popular household type is the one-person household.) Christ’s love is now married love, not loving service in the broadest sense of the word. And the body of Christ has been boiled down to one form of relationship, spouse and biological mother and father, not the great cosmic chain of hands joined across the world … or the fence.
Now and then, Francis reaches for his imagery too, usually when talking about marriage and family. But recently, in characterizing the clerical sexual abuse crisis before a gathering of Roman clergy, he noted that no one should be “discouraged” because “the Lord is purifying His Bride. … He is blowing his Spirit to restore beauty to his Bride, surprised in flagrant adultery.”
Here we sense an embarrassing gap between the reality of helpless children set upon by sinful clerics and an infidelity trope that feels ripped from the Worst of the Old Testament B Movies. Bad enough that it’s the stale adulterous woman motif—the most serious problem with this language is that it sheds no light whatsoever on the “thing” being discussed. How is clerical sex abuse like an adulterous bride? (Horrifying, to be sure, that it begins to sound like a joke.) Where is the transgression? Where is the victim? Where are the enablers? For that matter, where’s the cover-up? This bride was not just caught; she was caught in the act.
And while we’re on the subject, why is the body of Christ just like a heterosexually married couple? Humanity did not emerge from one human couple; it arose from the common ancestors of apes and humans who lived millions of years ago. Male-and-female did not exist at the beginning of time but evolved as the two hardiest reproductive strategies. The flesh and bone attached to each one is still something of a mystery. We are neither two species nor exactly the same. We are not “ordered” toward each other, to use the hierarchy’s word, in the dependable way gravity is ordered toward objects or energy. Sometimes we surpass the categories entirely.
The “nuptial” is but one way, an imperfect way, to describe the relationship of Christ to his church. It is a metaphor created in an ancient world where marriage was key to survival. But the reason it became the ascendant metaphor is because one pope decided it was the best one. Why is the body of Christ just like a heterosexually married couple? Because John Paul II said so. It must be pointed out that this metaphor also codified the roles of men and women in a false way and locked women out of the priesthood.
Hands and feet…
At the present moment, we could use more hands and feet and less phantasmagorical marriage talk. The purpose of a church is not to channel people into relationships it intends to elevate. The purpose of a church is to proclaim the Gospel.
Christ has no body on earth now but ours, no hands but ours, no feet but ours.