To think of the body of Jesus during Holy Week is nothing out-of-the-ordinary. We know well the scenes of how his body was flogged with whips. We know that his back carried a rough wooden cross as his feet and legs carried him through the crowded streets of Jerusalem. We know that his hands were pierced by nails, his side speared, and his brow felt the painful impression of a crown of thorns. We know that his body died. We know that somehow, mysteriously, bread and wine become his body and his blood and we join in this story of love.
These painful, sacrificial moments in the literal body of Jesus are center stage to Holy Week.
Yet this week I have been paying attention to other ways the Body of Jesus was treated during the days surrounding his death and resurrection.
There are two striking stories that frame the death of Jesus. Both involve women. Both involve loving and tender care for Jesus’ body. This focus on life and beauty a bit of foreshadowing perhaps for the resurrection that will soon come.
All four Gospels tell the story of a woman who anoints Jesus with costly oil. Some of the details differ, but the story is there.During the week in which Jesus will celebrate Passover with his disciples – where he will say, “This is my body, broken for you” – a woman approaches Jesus, breaks a jar of expensive oil, and pours the fragrant offering onto his body. The oil goes on his head or his feet depending on which gospel author is telling the story.
The men who have joined Jesus at the table dismiss this act. They call it wasteful. They say there are better things to do with precious oil than to spill it on the body.
Jesus honors this act of tender care for his body, this act of love and worship.
And then, some time later after women stood near the cross and watched the bruised and bleeding body of their Lord breath his last, they returned to the tomb where he had been placed.
“Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome brought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.”
We are told that these women, and others, ministered to Jesus while he was in Galilee. (Mk 15:41) These women knew the Messiah. They gave tender care in life and death for the man who had been their friend and teacher.
Part of me wonders how much this attention to the body of Jesus is due to the fact that Jesus saw their bodies and called them good. These women lived in a culture that called their bodies and lives “less” – where their bodies were regularly deemed “unclean” for days at a time. This is a Jesus who heals women from diseases and enters them back into society as a result. A Jesus who stands on the side of a woman whose body has been used in sin and tells her accusers to lay down their stones. This is a Jesus who protects the bodies of women, and they honor his physical body in life and death.
I used to beat myself up with Romans 12:1 – offer your bodies as living sacrifices – certain that verse meant I needed to beat my body into submission to whatever was deemed to be the “correct” way of having a body. The way that Jesus honors the expensive, wasteful, extravagance of oil poured over a body reminds me that offering our bodies as sacrifices does not mean making them conform to a worldly standard. There is no size or health requirement to live as Christ. There is no exclusion for who can offer their heart, their life, their all up to the transformative life of following Jesus the Messiah. Jesus tells us even those excluded by traditional authorities are welcome. Even the sacrifices that don’t make sense to others have a place.
Yes, the story of Holy Week includes much about the suffering of Jesus and the cruel torture his body endured. There is pain and cost to following Jesus – but that is not the whole story, and the pain and suffering definitely should not come form trying to conform your body to a societal ideal. (I’d argue that Jesus’ pain and suffering came because he confronted and opposed so many of society’s ideals. It was his truth and his love and his confrontation of the power structures that got him killed.)
There is room in the Gospel story for the truth of tender love, care, and attention to the body.
One body-positive “activity” that I first hear from someone many years ago is to put lotion on your body. Arms and legs, torso. This act not only nourishes your body as an act of self care, but it allows you to feel your own body – the curves and the lumps. Smooth or bumpy skin. You begin to know your own body. If you actively practice body-positive statements and thoughts during this, it’s a move towards accepting your body. I’ve had this exercise in my mind while I’ve been thinking about the anointing of Jesus’ body.
There are differences: Lotion, not ointment or spices. Your own hands, not the hands of another. But, perhaps you might like to consider taking the time this Easter weekend to put lotion on your body. It is one way to remember the tender, loving moments of Holy Week and remind yourself of the way Jesus calls the body good and worthy and important.