Reflection: The Rev. Lyndon Shakespeare
The vision of someone struck down by God, and wounded for our transgressions; the sight of someone by whose bruises we are healed, almost evades explanation. This is not because there is nothing to say; rather, it is because the descriptions are so raw and evocative that any unnecessary interpretation can shatter the image being painted for us by the prophet. We may not be able to account for why Isaiah speaks with language so violent and disturbing, but we do not need to be told how deep the protagonist in Isaiah’s vision is suffering, nor how awful a sight it would be to behold a person so crushed. Wounds like this don’t require clarification. By definition, wounds transgress the surface. They break our defined boundaries and reveal what’s under our skin.
Years ago when the great Dennis Potter, the British playwright, was dying, he gave a television interview that became one of the largest viewed in BBC history. During the interview, Potter was asked, in the waning days of his terminal cancer, what place religion had in his own thinking and practice. Potter talked about how the religion he experienced often seemed nowhere near the places that ordinarily mattered either to him, or others. As for faith, he still wasn’t sure. He disliked institutional beliefs. Then he said “for me, religion is the wound, not the bandage.” It’s an amazing image. I want to think he was talking about the way in which faith drives in, digs in. Faith is not just wrapping things up in a comfortable and comforting way. Religion, Potter suggests, exposes who we are.
Wounds are truthful (I owe this phrase to Lucy Winkett, and her work Our Sound Is Our Wound). The scars they leave behind link us to particular places, events, and people. Think of the physical scars from your own life? What stories do they reveal, and who comes to mind in ruminating on their creation? We may not want to ‘go there,’ as we sometimes say, for not all scars are the results of playful indiscretions in our childhood, or signs of new life like the wounds from a C-section. We bear the wounds also of life’s shadowy side, marked, as it were, by the irrational evils that arrive unexpected and unwelcome and leave us bloody and disillusioned. These scars delineate our pain; they define the circumference of God forsakenness. They are neither the marks of faith nor religion. Yes, brutal scars are as truthful as any other, and we are wise not to ignore them. The challenge is in how these wounds—all wounds, for the matter—define our understanding of humanity.
To live with our wounds ought not be a solitary existence. We are best off when we belong in the care of the right physician. We may wonder if the best doctor is one who cures our wounds, or one who primarily cares for us in our wounded state. The God of Isaiah is the God of care, not principally cure. If the point of the suffering servant is to bandage him up, quickly applying salve to his broken body, then we have failed to learn much from the terrifying imagery of the prophet. The focus for Isaiah is not the completely destroyed human who we can pity from a safe distance. The vocation of God’s servant—whom we recognize in Jesus—was the culmination of a life of loving obedience to God, obedience to the mission of being human, really human. Jesus had no desire to dominate and control others but simply of giving himself away to them. He had no fear of being human because he saw his humanity simply as a gift from the Father. Unwilling to evade the consequences of being human in our inhuman world, Jesus inherited the full weight of Isaiah’s vision; a vocation that showcased his public helplessness even as it showcased the depth of God’s love for all creation.
Faith, that divine gift of understanding, shows us in the wounds of Christ that our own attempts to cover our scars can lead us to live with something less than our full humanity. We assume the bandage is the goal, and shy away from displaying the honesty of a scar. Thinking at the depth of analogy, we are invited to see how we cover-up the very thing that reveals something of who we are, desirous to hide our inhumanity that our wounds reveal. We wish to protect ourselves and those we love from the truth of our world that we go to great lengths to avoid living with our wounds exposed. We do so through amusing ourselves, even to the point of death; and we do so through ignoring the wounds of others, especially those whose suffering unsettles our notion of a world where life, liberty, and happiness are ours by right. We prefer the comforting cloth that dresses carefully and quickly our lesions. But that is not the salve that heals. Jesus was wounded for our transgressions, not because he was God, but because he was so human that he had to suffer. True religion is something other than getting out of life with a body unmarred by wound or scar; true religion exists wherever how inhumanity of greed, lies, and indifference that dwells beneath the façade of our tidy and comfortable existence is exposed so that it may be assumed into Christ’s wounds where eternal healing is found.
For religion to be faithful, it will always be the wound, not the bandage. There are just too many ways for us to avoid what faith exposes. And herein lays the message from Isaiah: we will never know why the servant suffers until we are ready to share in the humanity that the servant, Jesus, reveals. We will forever get lost in the violent imagery—describing it away, or worse, adopting it as a way of life—if what lies in the midst of the language is not an icon of a totally loving, a totally human ‘human being.’ Through the events of this day, Jesus is unveiled as the source of love, the source of our relationship to the Father and with each other. For Good Friday is about our freedom, which is the transformation of human living and human dying. Today is about a revolution in our flesh by the man, Jesus, who entered the depths of our inhumanity as our brother and Lord in order that we may share in the divine life of love and joy, and in doing so, be truly healed.