I can’t think of a word more fraught with complicated and nuanced meanings – can’t imagine an experience more entangled with pain and pleasure than the experience of nakedness.
Naked as an experience transgresses what we imagine to be boundaries between the physical and the emotional. It betrays how such boundaries are artificial, and soul is perhaps a way of speaking helpful in imaginatively escaping our bodies. We tell stories about bodies and souls, as if these were separate realities, bodies so often shoved to the side as necessary evils, emphasis placed on the human soul, this gloried shimmering thing that transcends the animal in our existence.
There’s a place for stories like that…
And a place for the glory of the animal too – the glory of instinct, chemical reactions in the veins, memory woven through muscles and sinew, the beating breathing wanting impulses of being and existence.
The prologue to the gospel of John is nothing if not elegant, word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. I love this, the poetry of it all, the beauty. But the poetry sometimes slips us right past the gritty fact that God became a mammal, and that part of what makes us distinct from other mammals is the knowledge of our own nakedness.
In the garden, after eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the result for the humans is the growing knowledge of their nakedness, a self-consciousness about our flesh which causes us to hide. Our eyes become open to our vulnerability and we are afraid. We are not only afraid – we know we are afraid, can reflect on it.
Who told you that you were naked?
Who told you?
Who storied the shame into your skin, and named you scandal?
Who trespassed your bliss, made you to know good from evil, and which one you are deep down in the belly?
Who, so wise, so skilled, taught your fingers to sew the leaves, and hide you all away behind them?
Who crushed your desire to be desired, cursed your want to be wanted, your aching to be naked and unashamed, undone and radiating blood and breath and heat and light, your spent body in all your glory – and I do mean glory?
These charcoal on cotton rag paper sketches are part of a larger work reflecting on the station of the cross, “Jesus is stripped.”
I’m struck by how frequently nakedness as a theme arises in the biblical text, from Genesis to the Song of Songs to this part of the passion story.
The ancients would look at the gospels, and particularly Christ’s passion, through the lens of the beginning, understanding the work of Jesus in the passion narratives to be a “going back to the beginning” of sorts, to undo what happens in the garden in Genesis. The title of the work itself, “Who told you that you were naked?” is pulled from that beginning story.
Naked is a story we are told. (Often we are the tellers, telling it to ourselves.)
It would be easy to skip past the detail that Jesus is stripped naked as part of the crucifixion narrative, seeming minor in the overarching story.
But I think it’s a crucial detail.
In our age and American context, we have no experience approximating crucifixion, no way of knowing what it could be like.
But we do intensely know the experience of being naked. The politics of bodies are all around us, from questions about gender, sexual orientation and identity, race, disability, size, age, and the impossible beauty standards of our culture.
Even clothed, we are naked still, and we are ever reminded of this, that clothing is one more way of being naked. We are the beheld. That embodied nakedness and the vulnerability experienced in an age of eyes and intensely being seen makes its way into the emotional landscape and how we negotiate our closest relationships.
What I’m thinking on, what I thought on throughout the creative process, is what the nakedness of Jesus means for our own, and what it means for the way we see one another’s nakedness and vulnerability.
The original work is hand-bound into book form, because I didn’t want a work that could merely be seen, risking the kind of pedestrian voyeurism we experience through advertising and consumer culture constantly. Instead, I wanted a work that could be experienced, held in the hands.
More and more, I am convinced that the relationships which come to be the most weighty are those where we handle one another’s nakedness with tenderness, clothing vulnerability with our care and love.
We experience this, if we’re in a loving nurturing partnership, in the experience of sex in a most literal way.
But we hold one another’s nakednesses in countless other ways – brokennesses, unfinished places, unmet longings, griefs and joys, even celebrations, all the ways we are raw and unfiltered, showing up in our deepest vulnerabilities and most robust glories.
Jesus seems most about this – God with us as a mammal, naked and knowing it, holding our nakedness within the flesh of Christ to redeem it.