Friday: Stigma/Stigmata

Today is the Day of Truth.

Today there is nowhere to hide from reality.

There is no escape from the awful, damaging depth of human sin, but there is also no escape from the life-changing knowledge of the lengths that God will go to in order to save us, in order to bring us home.

Today is a day for looking at your life and asking, “What is my deepest truth? Where do I plant my flag and say, ‘Come hell or high water, I stake my heart and my life and my soul on this truth, right here, right now.’?

As we stand in the shadow of the Cross today, as we brave every nerve in our body to look on the bleeding face of our suffering Savior, that truth may come to us in different ways.

We may express it in different words.

Every year I watch as Holy Week develops within me, over the weeks of Lent and over the days and hours leading up to this service.

And this year, the truth that is larger than I am, the truth that sends a rod of steel up my backbone, the truth that will stay with me no matter who or what else deserts me, comes in familiar words:

“I know that my Redeemer liveth, and at the latter day he shall stand upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger.”

These are of course the words of Job in chapter 19 of his book, but we are perhaps most familiar with them as the burial anthems, the words that are said at the opening procession into the church at a funeral.

Today is a day of chaos, and we need somewhere to anchor ourselves as the world spins out of control, as we see our God bleeding his life away in front of our very eyes.

Everything is deserting us, we are deserting him, and there is nothing to rely on.

Who will take care of us if Jesus is dead?

Who will hold back the forces of evil?

Who will shield us from the darkness and love us even though we make the same stupid mistakes over and over again?

These words from Job are a promise, but they are not a promise to save us from suffering.

They are not a shield or a protection from pain or fear or death.

They are a promise of what will come on the last day, what awaits us on the other side of our long struggle to be faithful and to be changed into a manifestation of God’s love in the world.

And they’re not just a promise to us or about us. They’re a promise about Jesus.

“I know that my Redeemer liveth.” How can we say that on a day when we’ve just watched him die?

Well, we have to know, know in our very bones that this truth is real, that our Redeemer lives, and that on the last day he shall stand upon the Earth.

What would that look like in the most literal sense? What would mean to know the truth of Jesus’ love for us in such a visceral way that we displayed it in not just in our minds and hearts but in our very bodies?

There’s a word for the phenomenon: stigmata.

St. Francis of Assisi was the first person to manifest stigmata, which are the wounds of Christ spontaneously physically present on a human person.

Some people have all the wounds of Christ, nail marks in the hands or wrists and feet, marks from a crown of thorns, back injuries from scourging, and the spear gouge in the side. Some only manifest one or two.

Of course stigmata have always been surrounded by controversy.

What are they really?

Are they psychosomatic manifestations of people who carry faith so far that they have entered the territory of mental illness?

Do people injure themselves in a misguided attempt to please God or get attention through self-harm?

Are they simply an elaborate series of fakes?

That’s honestly not the point for us here.

What is more useful for us to think about is the state of mind and heart that would cause a person to be so in tune with the love of Christ that she could not help but answer Christ’s woundedness with a woundedness of her own.

And it is usually she—over 80% of stigmatics throughout history have been women, perhaps women who could not achieve spiritual authority in any other way.

What the people who manifest stigmata have in common, no matter how the stigmata came about, whether self-inflicted, a result of an illness, or some manifestation of their minds through their bodies, is that to them, Christ’s suffering love was so real that they had to join in with it.

There was no other way they could express how connected they felt to their dying Messiah.

And they didn’t care what they went through to live out that connection and that truth.

They were willing to and often did undergo incredible stigma as a result of their stigmata.

Stigma and stigmata: what’s the connection here?

We can hear that the words must have a common root, and they do.

Stigma is a Greek word meaning “a puncture mark, brand or tattoo such as might identify a slave or an animal.”

Think about that for a moment.

The word stigma that we use today to signify carrying social disfavor or battling a stereotype or being an outsider comes from the marks that publicly identify slaves and animals.

And what else are the wounds of Christ but that?

The holes in his hands and feet, they are puncture marks, holding him to the Cross that marks him as unworthy of being executed as a Roman citizen, but killed outside the city with the slaves, criminals and others discarded and rejected by society.

What the stigmatics were doing was carrying the stigma of Christ on their bodies in the very most literal sense.

What is so hard for us to confront is that most of the time we’re willing to be Christians as long as it isn’t too inconvenient.

As long as we don’t have to go out of our way.

As long as we don’t have to change.

But the stigmatics knew the truth.

Conversion to the gospel, which is a lifelong process, changes us on a fundamental level.

It should expose us to stigma.

We will undergo pain as we die to self.

If nothing about our lives, our minds, our hearts is changing, we are not truly living a Christian life.

If our smooth self-image and comfortable success is in no way threatened, we are not responding to the full challenge of being disciples of Jesus Christ.

Now, that change doesn’t have to be dramatic. I’m in no way suggesting that we should be manifesting stigmata, or that we should have some sort of dramatic, public spectacle of our loud devotion to Jesus.

On the contrary. Most spiritual growth is slow, awkward, embarrassing, and two steps backward for every three steps forward.

The road to Calvary is a humble path.

Our woundedness is internal.

The stigmata we have to face is the truth of our failures, the truth of the people we need to forgive, our shame and our fears and our small thinking about God, our neighbors, and ourselves.

But these very wounds are the road to salvation.

That is what everything we’re doing here today is all about.

Jesus saves us and saves the world by standing with us in our every human pain and grief and sin, turning away from none of it, walking into it with an open heart and transforming it within himself.

And let me say that I’m not here today to glorify suffering.

Suffering in and of itself does not honor God or produce virtue. In fact, it often breaks people down and drives them to do terrible things.

But the unfortunate reality is that it is a part of our lives because we’re human, and we have the choice whether to deny and hide from it, or to find some way to make it meaningful, to let it transform us.

How will we have the bravery to get in touch with our own stigmata? The marks that label us as slaves to our base urges and animals that can be led around by our noses when we forget to pray?

We need truth that gives us courage. We need bedrock conviction that gives us spines of steel.

And so we must ask ourselves, are Job’s words true for us?

“I know that my Redeemer liveth.” I know that my wounds will be healed, I know that there is someone who loves me and stands by me in my worst moments, I know that I am not alone, and I know that Jesus, who is wounded for me, will live.

“And though this body be destroyed…” And though my human mind and flesh disappoint me constantly, though I know they are weak and frail, though I know they will die, that knowledge will not prevent me from praying every day that this fallible human mind and body can be made vessels of grace.

“Yet in my flesh shall I see God.” In my very body, I will take in the Body and Blood of Christ, and be transformed.

My body, my self, this one small and insignificant incarnation of flesh and spirit, I give it up willingly to the wounding that I can’t prevent, the wounding that comes to anyone who lives in the world and tries to love.

But I ask that those wounds echo the wounds of Christ, that my places of weakness and shame and failure be made the means of grace and hope for someone else, and that I may receive the same from my neighbors. “Yet in my flesh shall I see God.”

“I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger.”

This is the gift of this painful day, the thin thread of grace that runs through the agony of Good Friday.

We see Jesus on the Cross, and there, we do not see a stranger, we see our friend.

If he were a stranger, it would hurt less. But he is our friend, and he gives up his life for us.

It’s so easy to think of St. Francis and others who manifested stigmata as bizarre hysterical medieval aberrations.

It is very possible that many of them did in fact suffer from mental illness, engaged in self-harm, or were simply frauds and fakers trying to get attention or money.

But that is exactly the kind of wounded humanity, frail and faltering, that Jesus cherishes!

For some of the stigmatics, perhaps the wounds on their hands, feet and brows were real, their faith so strong that their bodies showed it forth.

For many others, their wounds were in their minds which had broken down, or their economic situations so desperate that they would perpetrate a religious hoax for money, or their egos so hungry and frail that they would do anything to get attention.

Jesus takes on and is made manifest through their wounds equally as much as the great saints.

It doesn’t matter where the pain comes from. It only matters whether we offer it up to be transformed.

It doesn’t matter if our suffering is noble or stupidly self-inflicted. It only matters that we follow him into it and through it to the other side, where new life and healing await.

But we need some help to enter suffering, our own, that of our friends and neighbors, those who are bearing terrible pain and deprivation in war and poverty around the world.

We need some truth to give us that backbone of steel.

Perhaps these words from Job will do it for you. Perhaps it is some other words of scripture, or a secular text, or the words of a loved one, or a voice that speaks deep in your own heart.

Find your truth and stand your ground today on Calvary.

Bear the stigma of being a stigmatic, the price of following the wounded and dying Savior, the courage to display your own wounds openly for the chance to bring healing to another.

Is Jesus a truth so vital, so visceral, so real and life-altering that you bear it and show it forth in your very bones and body, your very flesh and blood?

His love for us was so real that he could only show it forth by offering us his human body to breathe and bleed and die for us today.

And he has died for us today.

But “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and at the latter day he shall stand upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.”


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