Body beautiful

Lent 5

John 12:1-10

Marian Free

In the name of God who formed us and called us God’s own. Amen.

There is a beautiful Japanese movie called “Departures”. It tells the tale of a cellist whose orchestra disbands and of his subsequent struggle to find work. Daigo has no qualifications or talents apart from his music and he becomes increasingly desperate to earn an income. Eventually he returns to his hometown and answers a job advertisement for a company called “Departures”. He is shocked and dismayed to discover that the company is not a travel agency as he had expected, but the Japanese equivalent of a funeral company. In Japan, a Nokanashi or undertaker is the most despised of professions. Those who practice the art of preparing people for cremation are shunned by society and excluded from all social activities. Daigo has no choice, so he takes the job but tells no one – not even his wife.

His first days on the job are shocking. The company are called to a home in which the occupant has been dead for sometime and the sight and the smells are more than Daigo can bear. He is called out at all hours which makes his secret hard to keep. Over time however, he begins to appreciate the privilege and responsibility of preparing the bodies for cremation and caring for the families of the deceased. With the family in the room, the Nokanashi gently wash and dress the dead and lay them out in a bed with beautiful white linen before placing them in a coffin and taking them away. (Like many aspects of Japanese life – tea making, flower arranging – preparing a body after death is highly ritualised and full of grace. It is beautiful to watch.)

While Daigo is learning to love his work, his wife becomes increasingly suspicious of his activity. Finally he has to tell her about the job and to confront her anger and dismay for by association she shares the taint that the job brings with it. However, when Daigo’s estranged Father dies, Mika accompanies Daigo as he attends to his Father’s body. When she sees for herself the care and respect that is given to the dead, and the love and compassion that is shown to the family and understands that despite societal attitudes the job is not something that contaminates the encoffenier, she too appreciates how important the job is. Instead of despising her husband’s decision and feeling anxious for herself and their child, she embraces and supports his choice.

Departures is a lovely, gentle and respectful movie, which has the effect of de-mystifying death and giving us a different appreciation of the human body.

Different cultures have different attitudes to death. People of the Muslim faith believe that a person should be buried as soon after death as possible. The body is wrapped in cloth rather than placed in a coffin and it is laid in the ground such that it is facing Mecca. In Ireland and perhaps other parts of Great Britain a body may be kept in an open coffin in the family home for long enough for family and friends to come and pay their respects. Some ancient cultures had elaborate processes of mummification and the wealthy could build expensive tombs like the pyramids which could be filled with food and possessions to accompany them on their journey to the next life. I could go on, the Indians (or some of them) have the tradition of the funeral pyre and many Chinese burn money for the deceased to spend in the next life.

In Jesus’ time it appears that the dead were anointed with spices before being wrapped in cloth and entombed. The women among Jesus’ friends discovered that the tomb was empty because they had been going to anoint Jesus’ body which, when taken from the cross, had been hurriedly dealt with because of the approach of the Sabbath. According to John, Nicodemus provided about 100 lbs of spices for that task. In today’s gospel however, Jesus is not yet dead so the anointing tells us something different.

There are four different accounts of the woman who anoints Jesus. John’s account has a number of unique features – the timing is very specific, the characters in the story – Martha, Mary, Lazarus and Judas are all named and the woman (Mary) wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair. Jesus is with friends which makes Mary’s action less shocking and inappropriate. While the timing in John’s gospel is precise – six days before Passover – other aspects of time are confused in this period of Jesus’ life. For example, John alludes to this event before he reports the raising of Lazarus and in this passage we read: “Leave her alone, she kept it for the day of my burial.” As Jesus is not yet dead, that he should be anointed for burial is confusing. Alternately, if Mary was going to keep the ointment for Jesus’ death, why is she using it now?

These questions cannot be resolved but the stories tell us about a respect and care for the body which Western Christianity (based, in part, on a misinterpretation of Paul’s use of the word “flesh”) seems to have lost. Many of us have, deep in our psyche, a belief that our physical bodies are something of a hindrance, that they have uncontrollable urges which are shameful and have to be subdued and tamed. Not quite so extreme is our concern with normal bodily functions. We deodorise our sweat, listerine our breath, shave off hair that grows where we do not want it. Our hatred of (or ambivalence towards) the body is demonstrated today by extreme dieting or an obsession with body building or sculpting. Bodies are so dangerous or so unpleasant that many people in our culture have a difficulty with touch.

The reverence, extravagance and intimacy with which Mary handles Jesus’ body and Jesus’ willing acceptance of her ministrations tell a different story. Neither of them are embarrassed or ashamed of their bodies, they have no fear of what another might see or feel, no self-consciousness about touch. Their physical presence is a very real part of who they are. Jesus’ feet may have been rough and calloused from all the walking, Mary’s hair may not have been recently washed. Neither will have spent time with the beauty therapist to ensure that they looked and smelt their best for this moment. They were two friends who accepted each other and each other’s bodies just as they were.

Whatever this account tells us about the foreboding of Jesus’ death, the avarice in Judas’ nature or the careless abandon of Mary’s love, it is also a telling insight into the value of our physical selves. God gave us physical bodies to house our emotion, our intellect and even our souls and God took on that human body for himself when he entered our existence. Our bodies may not be all that we wish and they may express needs that we are not always happy to admit or indulge but in the end they are God’s creation and the body God chose to inhabit. They are not to be despised and subdued but celebrated and enjoyed. They are not to be bullied and re-shaped, but treasured and cared for. They are not a burden or embarrassment, but a gift from God our creator who thought that they were a suitable vessel for God’s very self. Our bodies are a precious gift. There is no need to deny them affection and touch, reverence and respect. If the human body was good enough for God, surely it is good enough for us.

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