My next-door neighbor, in addition to being a photographer, is a fire dancer: she gets paid to perform well-choreographed tricks with hot flames while wearing sexy outfits. Yesterday several other parents and I were at her house to celebrate her son’s third birthday when another mother stumbled upon a set of books. They weren’t just any books. They were books celebrating the human body…naked…in pictures.
Lest there be any doubt, this was not “porn”- even if it occasionally blurred the lines. These were artist’s depictions, largely from the nineteenth century, of mostly naked women (some men) in a variety of creative poses, from the more subtle, erotically suggestive to the outright, tasteless, in-your-face unloading. There were the fat, large-breasted women, sidling up to the camera with the modesty of a woman in labor. Or, the shy, pubescent, young women, hiding their faces from the voyeuristic eye of the lens as they sat, sublimely unreachable, in their laced-up Victorian lingerie. There were the more athletic ladies who could just as well have belonged to the local “naked yoga” class- (apparently there is one in my neighborhood, and it is only for men)- and the women whose Victorian “body suits” left the impression that they were nude, only without the less aesthetically convenient nipples and pubic hair.
There we were the three of us, all of us mothers, ogling and giggling at the eroticism of a bygone era like school girls at a peep show. The only difference was that I happened to be a minister. Which made the proceedings a bit more funny when we stumbled upon the picture of the woman who stood naked in front of a large cross, her expression a pained, poignant one as she bared her whole front side to strangers. (I could identify at least a bit: while I’ve never posed nude and probably never will, I can appreciate the sentiment of baring one’s own naked soul from the pulpit for a crowd of sometimes voyeuristic listeners.)
What was it about these pictures that elicited a primal curiosity in us? Their boldness, for one thing. These women, even the shyest in the lot, had not been afraid to take off their clothes for the sake of art. Maybe, too, their beauty (and sometimes obvious lack thereof), which could not be summed up in any one shape or form. It left me convinced that God loves variety. But, finally, the unavoidable fact that underneath our clothes, we all (the hermaphrodite behind the counter at the local Target photo center included) have pretty much the same functional parts. At the end of the day, we are all bare, naked “flesh.” The very same flesh that we Christians affirm God loves a whole lot because of the mystery that we call the “Incarnation” and celebrate at this time of year: God, in the person of Jesus Christ, comes in the flesh to be with us in our deepest need, in the nakedness of our poverty.
Maybe what is most remarkable is that God, in coming into the world like every one of us, a naked, little baby, has in a sense undressed for us, too. It’s hard to believe that God says yes” to our bodies in their inherent “belovedness.” It’s equally hard to believe that God says “no” to all of the ways we defile, belittle, and mistreat our bodies. Only a God who deigns to take off the garments of royalty and put on our frail flesh has a chance at persuading us otherwise. Because of Jesus, our bodies- all of them- have the capacity to house God’s very Self; they are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19).
It’s hard to wear this kind of truth lightly (pun intended). Or to dismiss it in our prudishness. “God-with-us” is much more scandalous than one of us posing for the camera in nothing but stockings. If we believe it, it obliges us to tell our stories. To not be afraid of being seen as we are, without the fig leaves we often hide behind, or the lies we can tell ourselves or others about who we are. (By way of digression but in the same spirit, I want to make a little plug for friend Amy Frykholm’s newly published book: See Me Naked compiles the real, truthfully told, often messy stories of those who have found themselves exiled in American Christianity because of their sexuality.) It doesn’t get any realer than that. Because while those nineteenth-century nudes may not be air-brushed and Photo-shopped like today’s models, they are, in the end, still posing.