Trauma and the Death of the Body of Christ

Trauma and the Death of the Body of Christ[i]

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, ‘Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise again.” Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, “He has been raised from the dead”, and the last deception would be worse than the first.’ Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.’ So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.[ii]

Today is the day after our trauma.  It is a day in our liturgical life together that I believe we pay scant attention to year after year. Maybe these are nine verses of Scripture that we can ignore or do ignore in the wake of the Cross. Jesus dies and we stop reading.  Maybe the name Holy Saturday rarely passes our lips in the Christian Church because we are all in a hurry to move to the joys of the Vigil. The language we will use, the beautiful Exsultet, our Easter prayer, proclaims over and over, “This is the night…” This overshadows the fact that today – this day is NOT.  Instead, it is the space in between death of Jesus and his Resurrection.  Today is not a day of triumph. It is a day of loss.

On this Holy Saturday, I want to explore this loss in two ways – honoring and waiting. I believe the bit players in this overlooked drama have a lot to tell us about honoring and waiting.

First, honoring. 

Imagine the passage for a moment with me.  In Matthew, as opposed to the other Gospels, certain details of Jesus’ burial are elevated to prominence.  Joseph of Arimathea is wealthy; the tomb is hewn and intended for him and not of humble origin as in Mark’s Gospel. The burial of the body is careful, methodical and honoring. Here we see not the treatment of a pauper, but of a king. The violence of the trauma that has happened to this body, Jesus’s body, our body, gives way to great care despite the continued threats and disbelief of the religious institution and the state. Joseph of Arimathea summoned the will when so many others had abandoned Jesus. We all have our roles to play in the wake of trauma and Joseph’s role is to honor the body. His actions say all too clearly, this life mattered.

Waiting.

And the women, oh the women, who wait by the tomb as witness.  Do we have the strength to imagine the depth and the breadth of their grief?  It is Mary Magdalene and the other Mary that haunt me as they keep watch over the body of Christ. They are already in what can be the most difficult space for us following trauma – the in-between. The “in-between” is the space between our realization of loss and the healing or renewal we so desperately need. No one wants to wait in the tomb or beside the tomb, but so many of us do.

Why are honoring and waiting necessary?

Trauma does funny things to our bodies. Some I know from personal experience. Despite years of accompanying people who had been severely traumatized as a clinical social worker and as a pastoral minister, I had been blessed in never having a traumatic experience that triggered responses in my body (at least to my knowledge).  Then, one night in September two years ago, I was robbed at gunpoint while dropping a friend off at his house. The suspect never touched me. He never threatened me beyond pointing a gun at my left side, which could have been fake for all I knew. He only took my cell phone and threw the keys to my car over a fence into someone’s yard in the dark. He did not want us to follow him, and I realized later that he may have been just as frightened as me. In the weeks that followed, I remembered no details of the man’s face but I could and can picture his weapon. I was distracted, teary, and foggy. In fact, I had no idea of the mental acuity that I take for granted until I lost it. I was irritable and fearful and all of it, all of it, was completely…normal. Clinically, I understood what was happening perfectly, yet the time that I had spent in professional training and practice could not stave off any of it. The trauma was lodged in my body. I had to go through it not around it.

In a recent interview with On Being’s Krista Tippet, Bessel Van Der Kolk, a world-renowned psychiatrist who studies and treats trauma, noted the ways that trauma short circuits narrative and cements memories. Van Der Kolk’s interest in trauma has an origin story.  In the 1970s, he was treating a Vietnam veteran by offering him the standard medicinal therapy. The vet returned without having complied and said something that launched Van Der Kolk’s research pathway. He said, “I did not take your medicines because I realized I need to have my nightmares because I need to be a living memorial to my friends who died in Vietnam.”[1] In Van Der Kolk’s own words, “that statement was the opening of my fascination about how people become living testimonials for things that no longer exist, but they need to hold it in their hearts and minds and bodies and brains.” Trauma marks our bodies even to the point of death. No class on post-traumatic stress could teach me that and no close listening could ever supplant the reality of having lived it even for a moment. It left me with a sense of awe for those I had accompanied whose trauma was repeated and soulgrinding.

There’s another peculiar thing about living after trauma.  We don’t tell stories the same way. It is normal in our experience for stories to change over time. My uncle is a prime example. Every time Uncle Carmen tells the story of the first time I boated a flounder with him that fish keeps getting bigger.  It’s currently bigger than a doormat, in case you’re wondering. As Van Der Kolk tells us, the support of relationships naturally allows us to paint memories with gift and light and, as a result, they change. In the case of unintegrated trauma, those memories remain static. They haunt us and we relive them. Even when we have moved past them and healed, there are portions of those memories that remain fresh, almost living. That gun may always be pointing at my side.

More vexing still is that trauma often lies beyond our capacity to verbalize it. Think about grief. No one knows what to say; and the more sudden and painful the loss, the more difficult it becomes to find words to name or assuage the feelings. Van Der Kolk believes that the tyranny of language actually keeps us from being able to overcome trauma. Many of the treatment approaches that he has developed invoke mindfulness practices in a variety of religious traditions and movement like yoga expressed in our traditions in the movement of ritual and liturgy.

Pilsen

The fortieth annual Via Crucis in Pilsen, Chicago, IL – April 14, 2017.

The Passion as Trauma

 

Holy Week has been a living memorial to the body of Jesus, blessed and broken for us. As the body of Christ, we hold this trauma in our bodies. Popular religious practices throughout the Christian world provide us with vivid examples of the ways that this trauma unfolds in our world. We retell the story through countless liturgies. We use the same texts at the same time. We hear the story over and over again reliving Passion as present ensuring that the memories remain fresh, almost living. I have been fortunate enough to accompany Latin@ communities in my time and ministry in Chicago. One of the most important via crucis passion plays, a public reenactment of the way of the cross happens is in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.  Each year for the last forty years, nearly five thousand people walk the streets of the city of Chicago between Providence of God church and Harrison Park to retell the story of Christ in the midst of the joys and challenges of daily living in one of Chicago’s historic port of entry communities for Mexican families. These practices can be dismissed as dramatic or culturally bound popular religion. But in the words of Chris Tirres, a theologian at DePaul University, reliving the Good Friday trauma is “not so much a top-down narrowly ecclesial version of Roman Catholicism, but rather, a highly enculturated, symbolic, tactile, and ritualistic form of [faith] that [is] infused with the promise of life here-and-now.”[2]

True to the research on trauma and memory, the best moments are those that invite us in without words. I sat in awe yesterday as I watched the elderly in our congregation stoop to kiss the feet of Jesus on the Crucifix during the veneration of the Cross. They bore the pain in their arthritic bodies in some heartfelt approximation of his pain and dying.

We die too.

Shortly before Good Friday services as I was driving to work, I listened to news stories that evoked remembrances of national and global trauma. Good Friday was the 10th anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre. Think about this. I need only give names now to the repeated trauma of mass shootings in our country to draw vivid pictures of horror in all of our minds – Columbine, Newtown, Mother Emmanuel, Pulse in Orlando. Today we remember; the Body of Christ has died.

The broadcast also commemorated 276 girls who, three years ago, disappeared from the village of Chibok in northeast Nigeria in the middle of the night.[3] Stolen by Boko Haram, their bodies have been used in unspeakable ways as weapons and objects. Of these horrors, we can only speculate.  Oby Ezekwesili of the #BringBackOurGirls movement said in an interview, “The rest of the world that seems to have moved on cannot move on. We’re all in captivity for as long as schoolgirls who went in quest of knowledge in order to further our civilization were taken away by those who are haters of our civilization.” “We’re all in captivity.” We have to hear that voice. Oby’s observation was significant to me because it provided me with an image for what happens to us in the wake of trauma. The two Marys are held captive by the finality of their loss. I imagine they held it deep in their own bodies – sorrowing sobs, the fuzziness of thought, the events of the last hours cascading over and over again in their minds. Trauma lasts when its personal, when it wounds bodies. It ransoms us away.  Oby calls us to recognize others’ trauma as our own. To be held captive as if each girl were ours.  We can do that.  We have to do that in some sense. This is the work of Holy Saturday. Today we remember; the Body of Christ has died.

Honoring and Waiting in the In-Between

All of us gathered here have suffered some way or somehow. We have known trauma that emerges from unfulfilled hopes, the brokenness of relationships, illness and death. To a greater or lesser extent, we have all known the “in-between” of Holy Saturday.  Surviving in the wake of trauma is directly proportional to having loved people. Relationships teach us to love, to be in community, to care for our bodies and to care for the bodies around us. When that love is cut off by the harsh reality of mortality or sin, we know the loss of this day. Sometimes, when the opportunity to love is half a world away, we need to summon the resources to recognize our captivity too, as Oby calls us to do. Sometimes we don’t have to reach out in solidarity, trauma finds us.

We can choose like Joseph of Arimathea to honor the body and take the time to proclaim that the love and the relationships and this person matter to us. We can lift up what is broken, carefully dress the wounds, and tenderly anoint.  We can honor by building living memorials to those who have gone before us.  After all, our lives as Christians, as the body of Christ are supposed to be living memorials to Jesus.

We can choose like the Marys to wait and keep watch. Their endurance in walking the way of the Cross with Jesus invites us to go through the pain that trauma brings rather than around it. They witness and wait this day. They sit with death knowing that their grief is a measure of the love that they shared with the One who gave them life. Let us wait and keep watch as they did.

Most of our lives are spent in Holy Saturday.  Good Fridays and Easter Sundays, death and rising are moments that punctuate the in-between.  It’s no surprise, then, that we do not want to stay here. It is a difficult space that we resist with everything we have. By being more intentional, as you have today, about making liturgy – a public act, a prayer together – of this day, we honor the Body of Christ and we wait for the fulfillment of God’s final word – love.

____________________

John DeCostanza, Jr. is the Director of University Ministry at Dominican University in River Forest, IL.  He is an ecumenical D.Min. candidate and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Scholar at Catholic Theological Union where his study concentration is Hispanic Theology and Ministry.

John DeCostanza’s Posts

 

[1] “Bessel van Der Kolk — Restoring the Body: Yoga, EMDR, and Treating Trauma -,” On Being, July 11, 2013, https://onbeing.org/programs/bessel-van-der-kolk-restoring-body-yoga-emdr-treating-trauma/.

[2] Christopher D. Tirres, The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought (Oxford University Press, 2014), 17.

[3] A. B. C. News, “Nigeria Marks 3 Years since 276 Chibok Schoolgirls Abducted by Boko Haram,” ABC News, April 14, 2017, http://abcnews.go.com/International/nigeria-marks-years-276-chibok-schoolgirls-abducted-boko/story?id=46774809.

[i] This homily was preached at Resurrection Covenant Church on April 15, 2017 as part of a true Holy Saturday service. I thank Pastor Aaron Johnson for his friendship and solidarity in Christ and for this opportunity to share across traditions.

[ii] Matthew 27:57-66

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