by Lisa Powell
As a devout little girl, I occasionally practiced a sort of meditation on the picture of the crucifixion in my illustrated Bible: a grey-green overcast sky with three crosses bearing bodies high above the ground. I would stare in teary wonder that Jesus did this for me. Similarly, at Communion with an emotional mixture of guilt and gratitude, I considered the trauma of Jesus’ body via the wine in the cup and the wafer in my hand. His trauma wasn’t lost on me then.
Theological training, however, abstracted for me the physicality of both the body of Christ, his suffering, and that corporeal reality manifested in the material bread and wine. We learn theories around how salvation is linked to his death and more theories still about how Jesus is present in this meal. Perhaps because my body hasn’t been abused or been subject to stigmatization, it has been easy for me to let go of the imagination that transported me from Communion table to Golgotha’s hill.
However, numerous theologians whose bodies endure scrutiny and stigma, whose bodies place them in jeopardy in our society, or bear legacies of violence, remind us that this most precious of sacraments, the one around which our liturgies and communal worship lives revolve, is a sacrament of a broken body.
James Cone famously reminds us that Jesus was executed in a first century lynching, that the cross is, in fact, a lynching tree. His execution was demanded by a mob, a public spectacle used not simply to punish criminals but to terrorize subjects of the Roman Empire. Jesus’ execution included intentional humiliations, nakedness and torment. Catholic theologian M. Shawn Copeland similarly traces the marks on Jesus’ body, signified in the Eucharist, through the scars on the bodies of Black women. As the marks of piercing on Jesus’ resurrected body confirmed his identity to his disciples, so too do the scars on the bodies of particular Black men and women identify them as specific individuals who perpetually resisted enslavement and dehumanization.
Nancy Eiesland has also made this observation in her work, “The Disabled God.” She asserts that the wounds in Jesus’ flesh, open to Thomas’ probing hand, demonstrate a body that retained marks of impairment, the remains of torture, and the Eucharist is specifically a commemoration of that particular flesh, that is, one broken and rejected, but accepted by God and glorified.
Writing from the perspective of a wheelchair-user, she writes, “Who is the one we remember in the Eucharist? It is the disabled God who is present at the Eucharist table — the God who was physically tortured, arose from the dead, and is present in heaven and on earth, disabled and whole. This is the dangerous memory of the crucified and resurrected one.” The bread and the wine, in becoming his body for us, that gift of his presence, communicate the brokenness of his body, the blood spilled out. And we ingest that presence into our own bodies, those bodies that move differently, that struggle, that bear wounds in their own various ways.
Yet Cone and Copeland also remind us that the lynched bodies and the scars born by rebels against white supremacy aren’t only signs of trauma and tragedy, but also can signal that the spirit of a people is not destroyed. “They can kill your body, but you can’t kill your soul,” Cone declares, echoing the words of Jesus in Matthew 10.
For Eiesland, the impaired resurrected body is not a sign of everlasting pain, but of God’s embrace of all of our various bodies. The Eucharist isn’t only a sign of struggle, but is a sign of resurrection hope and the promised abundant life together.
As the central feast of the corporate body of Christ, it is after all a communal meal; it offers communion with God and each other. Yet too often Eucharist becomes a sign of disunion. Copeland and Eiesland assert that when the sacrament is practiced without real inclusion and belonging it becomes a painful sign of division. Exclusion opposes the very order of the Eucharist. When people with disabilities are not fully welcomed into the heart of the community, or when racism remains alive in the pews, the sign is undone. Copeland writes, “Racism is lethal to bodies, to black bodies, to the body of Christ, to the Eucharist.”
To revive my eucharistic devotion, I don’t need the sentimental crucifix-gazing of my childhood; I need to open my eyes to the real suffering of those around me, in my community and world. As Cone says: one can’t understand the cross in the context of the U.S. without taking a hard look at the lynching tree; I’m convinced we can’t understand the Eucharist, if we don’t get proximate to the real suffering of the beloved of God and seek the full inclusion of all bodies.
(Powell is professor and chair, Theology Department, St. Ambrose University in Davenport. She also serves as director of Women and Gender Studies and coordinator of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Curriculum.)