Ostentatious Vulnerability

Today’s Gospel story begins with fear and confusion. The disciples worry that they are seeing a ghost. They had heard reports from the women who went to the tomb. Cleopas and the other disciple who had been on the road to Emmaus had shared a story of seeing Jesus in breaking bread. But now Jesus was here, standing among his friends. They didn’t quite know what to do, to think, to say. So he asks them: “Why are you frightened?” and he does something wild. Jesus points to his wounds. He shows them his wounded hands and feet.

Jesus disciples know him by his wounds. They know him when they see how he has been broken, how he is imperfect. Jesus shows him who he is by exposing his vulnerability. We heard echoes of this revelation last week as Jesus spoke to Thomas, “put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” This story is shocking, really. Just because we may already know the story does not mean the story is not radical. We just may need to pay some attention.

In Jesus’ day, as in our own, people obsessed over “bodily perfection.” If you had a severe case of acne, you could be judged a leper and sent out from your family, your hometown. The ideas of “strong, healthy, unblemished and attractive” were all valued with bodies. Yet, here is Jesus, the Risen Jesus, the Christ who has conquered death, God’s beloved standing before the disciples with his wounds on full display. Jesus’ wounded body comes as a shock.

This appearance of a broken and yet risen Christ is such a radical idea that it has been portrayed over and over again in Christian iconography and art. The theme has been giving a latin name: “Ostentio Vulnerum.” Literally this translates as the “showing of wounds,” but I can’t help but take the cognates in to modern English. Jesus appearing to his disciples, showing his hands, his feet, it is a display of ostentatious vulnerability.

These days, I can’t spend time with the idea of vulnerability without turning to the scholar Brené Brown,

who I like to point out is an Episcopalian. If you’ve not yet come across Brene’s work, I recommend her to you. She is a faculty member at the University of Houston’s school of Social work, and teaches and researches on questions of shame, leadership, and belonging. Brown writes that our world builds up a certain picture of strength.

We often perceive strength as perfection. May of us carry an image around of someone who has no flaws, who does not know weakness, who has never failed. Many of us reach and strive to be that person, and we all fall short. Most of us carry a form of perfectionism around with us, and most of us judge ourselves as wanting, never living up to the image. Brown’s research debunks this strategy for living. You’ll never live up to your image of perfection. Everyone fails. Everyone hurts. Everyone has wounds. What matters is what you do with your wounds.

In fact, Brown says, “The foundation of courage is vulnerability, the ability to navigate uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. It takes courage to open ourselves up…” We don’t find strength by ignoring our weakness, by shoving it aside. We only find strength when we are able to be ostentatious with our vulnerability, when we are able to know, embrace and share our wounds.

Theologically Jesus’ wounds should shock us. We believe that the resurrection is the beginning of the new creation. Jesus’ body has not simply been reanimated, but re-made. God has raised Jesus from the dead. Couldn’t God have healed his hands and feet? Yet Jesus rises with his wounds. Jesus carries his painful experience forward. When you slow down and ask this question: “Why is Jesus’ risen body still wounded?,” when you contemplate that question, something new can open up.

I find it striking that Jesus shows his wounds as a way of identification, especially to those who are closest to him. Usually it is only to our closest family and friends that we are first able to expose our deepest vulnerabilities. Those who know us best, best know our flaws, know our weaknesses, know our hurts. 

The question of Jesus’ particular wounds take on a special meaning because we talk about Christ’s crucifixion as a “saving death.”

In one of our Eucharistic prayers in The Episcopal Church we quote the prophet Isaiah: “By his blood he reconciled us. By his wounds we are healed.” We remember Christ’s body was broken for us each week at this table.

Jesus’ wounds are a sign, a sacrament, of his solidarity. No human being makes it through this world unscathed. We all, all of us, carry our scars. We all, all of us, have been wounded. Nothing we do will erase those experiences, will take away the past. Jesus’ body is risen, but it still bears the marks of what happened. God chose to dwell with us. God chose to know our suffering. And God stands with us when we are wounded. God stands with us in the pain, in the confusion, in the hurt. He shows us the marks of his pain. Jesus died for us. The marks of Jesus’ suffering and death are carried forward.

This experience of the wounded and risen Christ has the power to transform. When I was a young high school student, struggling to come to terms with my sexual orientation and the bullying I faced because of my perceived orientation, I read a book by the theologian and priest Henri Nouwen entitled “The Wounded Healer.” Nouwen argues that it is only from our wounds, from our own experience of loss, of pain, of suffering, that we are able to minister to others. If we do not have access to our own experiences of suffering, when we try to reach out to others we will be inauthentic. If we shut part of our story away, we make ourselves less available to meet others in their pain.

In our society we are motivated to hide our wounds, to cover up our imperfections, but Jesus offers another way. Jesus offers ostentatious vulnerability. Jesus offers healing. Our imperfections, our sorrow, our pain simply do not belong to us. We are not made to hide away and lick our wounds. We are made for community. We are made for vulnerability. We are made for love. We can only truly encounter one another when we are able to say, “I too have suffered.” We are only able to love another’s imperfections when we have given up on our own quest for perfectionism. We are only able to know God’s love when we accept that God loves our whole story, our whole self, even those parts we would wish to hide away.

“By his wounds we are healed.”

Jesus’ wounded body has profound meaning for our relationship with our own wounds. And Jesus’ risen body also asks deep questions about the structures of our society.

Verna Dozier was an Episcopal lay preacher. She had a career as a DC public school teacher. She was a graduate of Howard University two times over, and though she held no theological degrees, she became one of the most influential African American theologians our church has ever known. Dozier points to some of the questions raised by Jesus’ body, Jesus’ supposedly “imperfect” body. She asks about what we call “perfect.” What do we lift up and hold and honor? What do we call “less than” or “imperfect” or “wounded?”

Listen to Verna Dozier:

In a world that exalts whiteness, maleness, youth, I live by a faith that whiteness, maleness, youth is not the best part of reality—nor the worst either—but only part of reality and indeed without blackness, femaleness, age, a very incomplete part.

Notice her use of the word “incomplete.” The theologian is asking us to question why we lift up some identities in our community and leave out others? How can we live by a faith the builds up the WHOLE of the human community? How can we know that without the whole, we are less?

We could ask a similar question of our own lives. Why do we lift up certain parts of our story, and leave out others? Why do we hide certain aspects of our identity? Why do we minimize? Why do we cover up our wounds? Can we stop? Can we live by a faith that embraces the WHOLE of our human experience?

Without Jesus’ wounds, we would not have the whole story. Without those marks, the Easter message would be incomplete. The disciples today encounter Jesus with fear and confusion. And Jesus comes to them, and shows them his hands and his feet.

I want to leave you today with the words of my friend The Rev. Cam Partridge. Cam is one of our most prominent transgender Episcopal priests. He is the rector of St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Cam’s wrestling with Jesus’ body and wounds, alongside Cam’s own story of transition, has taught me a great deal about bodies and the power of advocating for wholeness. Here are some words from Cam:

This risen Christ stands in our midst and calls us to look, to see the marks of the wounds in his body all around the world. Do not be overcome by fear, [Jesus] tells us, but see, reach out and touch, do not turn away. Unlock those doors, fling wide the sanctuary, dear friends, nothing can separate us from the love of God and the power of the risen Christ who has vanquished death itself. Turn around and behold your own wounds. See and confront the persistent wounds of gun violence, racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism…Grieve your losses together, support one another even as I stand with you, but do not lock the doors of your hearts.

I join with Cam in this call. What would it mean for the church if we told the whole story of God, the whole story of Jesus? What would it mean if we embraced the messy, frustrating, the imperfections? What would it mean for our faith if we knew, deep in our bones, that God stood in solidarity with the wounded? That therefore God stands with each of us? What could it mean if we showed up, all of us, if our WHOLE community stood together, if no one was left out?  What would it mean for our world if we each showed up, our full selves, wounds and all?  Do we have the courage to follow Jesus, and to be that ostentatiously vulnerable?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

2 thoughts on “Ostentatious Vulnerability

  1. Not sure how I missed this one!:) Hits home. Thank you and thanks to Brené Brown for “Daring Greatly”

  2. I am only now — at age 93 — discovering a wound that has shaped my life from birth, or rather discovering what it meant and means. It is as if a weight has been removed, not the wound but the fear and anguish. I wish it could have been discovered sooner but that would have been a totally different life. I am just grateful for the discovery and I think I will be able to share that.

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