In 2013, I saw an image as part of an exhibit at the Morgan Library:
At Union Theological Seminary, I wrote a thesis about it.
And then St. Lydia’s invited me to preach about it, as part of This Is My Body: A Sermon Series on Faith, Sexuality, and Identity.
Here’s a video of the sermon I preached on Sunday night, October 11:
The text is John 19:31-40. Transcript (sort of) below!
I want to do two things before we start. The first is a very brief language lesson:
German has a problem with gender; every noun is either masculine or feminine. It’s particularly a problem when you start talking about groups of people. For example, a group of female theologians would be called theologinnen, but as soon as one male theologian enters the room, the group becomes theologen. The masculine plural ending erases the female presence.
Contemporary German scholars have come up with a solution to this problem and they call it the gender gap. They add an underscore; a group of theologians becomes: theolog_innen.
The important thing to know about the gap is that it is not an absence, but rather a thing. Or, in its absence, it points to a thing. It points to: trans people, intersex people, people of color, or anyone who isn’t represented in binary thinking. (Beate Hausbichler, Raum für _!, dieStandard.at (2008), March 15, 2014.)
So keep this gap in the back of your head because it is going to come back.
Second, we are going to be reading from the 19th chapter of the Gospel of John, so just a little context for where we’re jumping in.
The Gospel of John is the latest of the four gospels in the canon, the others, Matthew, Mark & Luke are called the synoptic gospels and their stories line up more closely—the part we’re reading tonight you’ll basically only find in John. Jesus is on the cross, has spoken his last words, bowed his head, and given up his spirit. In other words, dead.
I will never forget one day when I was a teenager, sitting with my beloved grandmother—a bold and unsentimental woman with an infectious laugh who often had a vodka soda in one hand—and she exclaimed, in response to what, I can’t remember: “I just love Jesus!”
I was so confused. It seemed such a treacly thing to say, such a Hallmark card kind of sentiment. Or worse, for us Episcopalianiest of Episcopalians, kind of Evangelical?
“Ugh, I don’t love Jesus,” I thought. “He is actually really annoying.”
And then I realized, “Ohhhhhh… I think I am supposed to love Jesus.” Perhaps not proclaim it in the streets—but even Episcopalians are supposed to at least like Jesus.
And I entered a long, dark period of wondering why I seemed so drawn to church, especially to communion, to those little wafers of bread and that sip of wine every week, but didn’t like Jesus very much.
So this sermon, which you may have seen on Facebook or heard announced as a sermon about Jesus’s vagina, is actually a sermon about how I learned to love Jesus again. Or maybe for the first time. Through his vagina.
Why didn’t I like Jesus? Here are some things that upset me about Jesus:
- Thanks to a lot of things but mostly the culture of white supremacy we all live in, I had the worst time picturing him as anything but white. White white white.
- Not only white, but he is a man. Guess what we also live in? A patriarchy. We all have to deal with that every day, so why would we, why would I—a queer woman, an unmarried woman, a childless woman—in other words, not really at home in this gender binary that has specific ideas about what man is and what a woman is—why would I want to worship a man? Since Jesus is God, after all, and that’s what we do, we worship him.
- Real martyr complex on that guy. Reeeeallly knew how to make ya feel bad about his suffering.
I’m kidding, a bit of course, about that last one. But the actually kind of frightening side of that is that—because we live in a culture dominated by a specific kind of Christianity—let’s call it “City on a Hill Exceptionalism”—there is a tendency to focus on Jesus’ suffering as redemptive and sacrificial.
And this, when looked at the wrong way, can actually celebrate suffering, and not Jesus’ suffering, but it usually celebrates the suffering of specific marginalized groups, like people of color, and women, and queer people, and trans people, and basically any person who isn’t a white cisgender man, aka God.
Ok, but here is the thing that I realized, thanks to an exhibit at the Morgan Library of all places. Jesus has not always been this white, American, cis man—which, I mean, duh, since I guess we all know that Jesus came before America, and Jesus wasn’t white. But here’s what I saw: (see above!)
My eyes bulged out of my head. The museum caption said this underneath:
Of Christ’s five wounds, the one in his side was the focus of its own cult. After Christ’s death, this wound miraculously issued both water and blood when his body was pierced. Theologically, the Church was thought to have been born from this wound. The water had baptismal significance; the blood was, of course, the Eucharist (aka communion).
I could not believe what I was reading—that the blood of this womb/wound could be the blood of the Eucharist. How many times had I heard someone say, as the chalice of wine was placed to my lips, “This is the blood of Christ?”
What if this very same “blood of Christ” was actually blood from a vagina? Or blood from a womb? Or blood from anatomically female reproductive organs in any sense?
Noting that this is the birthplace of the church makes a clear connection between this blood and menstrual blood, or amniotic fluid and placenta, or both—in other words, the effusions of “blood and water” associated with motherhood, with the child-bearing potential of many female bodies.
Further, what does it mean that this blood comes from Jesus, ostensibly a man—a male body? For the first time in my life, the blood of the Eucharist—and by extension the whole sacrament—became a site of potential challenge to gender norms and expectations. For as long as I had felt daunted by the laborious task of dismantling all that bad stuff about Jesus, I finally felt hope. Instead of needing the fixing and undoing itself, could Christianity actually be a source for undoing gender?
Yes! It can!
So this wound:
First thing to know is it’s not exactly a wound, certainly not just a wound. The Greek word for what the guard does is actually more like prick. Hold for laughs. Or “explore.” And it happens after Jesus is dead, as scholar Raymond Brown notes, so without the intention of “wounding” but more with the intention of exploring. So, not necessarily a violent wound.
Second, blood and water come out. There is a lot of biblical debate about whether or not this is a miracle or just what WOULD happen if you were to pierce a crucified dead body in the side, perhaps some sort of gushing from a pericardial sac. (Weirdly, the 19th Century doctor obsessed with proving that this was NOT a miracle was named William Stroud, which is my father’s name!)
Despite my ancestor’s deep wish, it is very unlikely that this is what would happen. And that the blood and water flow freely, without congealing—as we know blood usually does—is very specific to this wound. Further, the authors of the Gospel of John want us to believe without a doubt that this happened—there is that little parenthetical that feels tacked on—so it must be important. And this flowing, non-congealing blood mixed with water calls to mind the life-giving bloods of menstruation and birth. Around 200ish, the kind of kooky early church scholar Origen addressed this life-giving, ever-pouring blood and said: “With other dead bodies the blood congeals and pure water does not flow. But in the case of Jesus’ dead body, the miraculous feature was that both blood and water flowed from his side.” (Origen, Against Celus 2.36.) Origen’s words are an antidote to contemporary scholar Judith Butler’s worry over “congealing” gender in her book Gender Trouble. She says “Even when gender seems to congeal into the most reified forms, the “congealing” is itself an insistent and insidious practice.” (Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 2011. 45.)
Butler uses this concept of congealing to talk about what happens when culture gets stuck, “sustain[ing] and regulat[ing]” oppressive categories. So it’s not just gender trouble, but also race trouble, and eco-trouble, and on and on. And so it’s interesting to note that what’s different about Jesus’ wond is that it does not ‘congeal.’
So it’s not a violent wound, and it doesn’t act like a normal wound, and
Third, Nicodemus is in this story. He’s only in the Gospel of John and it is to him that Jesus has said that you must be reborn from above. He only shows up again in the Gospel here, a literary reminder of birth.
And the last thing to know about this wound is that it doesn’t go away. Later in the Gospel of John, the resurrected Jesus—so, undead, walking around—meets the disciples, and (famously) Thomas (doubting Thomas) sticks his fingers in the wound. It is healed and it is also still open.
Jesus’ wounds are healed, but Jesus’ wounds do not disappear.
So, this gender gap is coming back, now. What if we see Jesus’s wound/womb as this gap—a space, on Jesus’s very body that indicates not an absence, but a thing. In that thing: a rejection of binary thinking, of someone, of anyone, being on the outside. A rejection of what Judith Butler calls congealing gender, a rejection of congealed racism, a rejection of American Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism and the Christianity that comes from it, and excuse my tendency toward progressive buzz words, but this one is really true: a rejection of heteropatriarchy.
That is a Jesus to love!
In whatever way you are on the outside, whether you are queer, or you are not white, or you are trans, or you are single, or you don’t ever want kids, or you had more kids than you thought you would, or you just hate God damn pronouns and the ways language constricts us:
You are held in this space on Jesus’s body, on God’s body—the very same body that we remember when we say: This is MY body.
Reblogged this on lovedintobeing and commented:
This amazing sermon inspired me to write a new tune! If you’ve ever struggled to love Jesus, read this!
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Oh, my, Julia — when your mom and dad were last in the area, your mom talked about this sermon and your thesis, and I resolved to do a google search. I have only just now done so. I found myself nodding and smiling (so many languages force one to choose between masculine and feminine pronouns, and it has always annoyed me that the presence of even one male in a group means it is referred to in the masculine), and I have always had difficulty with the very masculine nature of the Trinity (which I once heard Carter Hayward refer to as “two boys and a bird). But WOW — a vagina — what a concept! I will ponder this a while and take a look at your other blog posts. Thank you for this!
P.S. The Morgan Library is one of my favorite haunts when I’m in the city.