Resurrecting Scars by Shelly Rambo

What does it mean to be created through the scars of a (m)other? And what does it mean to be made new—to be recreated—by them?

It is my first Easter without my mother. My sister Jody reminded me of how much my mother loved religious holidays, especially Easter. One of my striking last moments with my mother was in the hospital operating room when the nurse was preparing her for a surgical procedure. As the nurse opened up the back of the hospital gown, she exclaimed: “What beautiful markings you have.” She was referring to the scars on my mother’s back from a previous heart surgery. “It’s like a work of art.” My mother never viewed them like that. Instead, she often kept her multiple scars hidden from us. But there were moments, as a young girl, when I would glimpse them, those in the front between the buttons of her tightly starched blouses, and those on her back when she’d be ironing her Sunday dress in her satin slip. I was both intrigued and scared by these tracks on my mother’s body, just as I was by the ticking of her mechanical heart valve that I could hear when I stood next to her, the traffic in the house at a standstill. Both were reminders to us that her life was sustained yet fragile.

Much of Western literature tells the stories of fathers and son. And the dominant Christian storyline has also been patrilineal. Especially in Holy Week and in the peak drama of the crucifixion, the story of the divine Father and Son is rendered as a grand tragedy out of which redemption and new life arise. According to a dominant strain of the tradition, our salvation is found in this story. While there have been significant retellings, many by feminist and womanist theologians, the male family drama still persists in the Christian imaginary. This year, this father-son drama has been especially irrelevant, as I face the challenge of grounding myself in the world without my mother. As the source of my beginning, I cannot help wondering if her death—her ending—confronts me with the challenge of resurrection in a new way this year. What is the promise of my becoming without her? What kind of recreation process is this that I am undergoing? As many know who have lost mothers, this process is complicated and grief-filled.

The Incredulity of St. Thomas

The Incredulity of St. Thomas

I have been rethinking the resurrection appearances, especially the one in the Gospel of John. There, the resurrected Jesus appears with the marks of death on his body. Thomas stands in front of the risen Jesus, and he is invited to touch the scars. Thomas is often portrayed as the doubter who refuses to believe unless he has physical evidence of the resurrection. Whereas interpretations of this scene are riven with the vocabulary of belief and doubt, I cannot get past the curious vision of the scars on the resurrected body. The gospel text does not tell us whether his finger touches the scars. Our religious imagination has been shaped by Caravaggio’s famous depiction in which Thomas’s finger moves to penetrate the wound, as two other male disciples stand by watching the event. But the incredulity does not lie for me in Thomas’s stubborn refusal to believe in Jesus as the Christ and his transformation of belief signaled in his proclamation, “My Lord and my God.” Instead it lies in Thomas’ discovery at the site of wounds. In what way is his rising bound up with his encounter with this scarred Jesus? Is there a significant witness, in these scars, to his rising?

This year, I imagine myself standing in that hospital room, gazing at the tracks of my mother’s marked flesh. The incredulity is the wonder that I am tied to this body: in those scars I had my beginning, and by those scars I came to know myself in this world. The unknown horizon is how I will be recreated by them. What does it mean to be created through the scars of a (m)other? And what does it mean to be made new—to be recreated—by them? If we claim, as feminists, that we are deeply constituted by relationships, then we open ourselves to the unsettling notion that we are constituted by the wounds of others. Judith Butler suggests something of this in Precarious Life. Her language is that of being “undone by our relations” and of a “primary vulnerability” that constitutes us as social beings. These concepts can be imaged, I think, in resurrection scars.

And perhaps a mother-daughter reading of this resurrection appearance provides a way of reading this that does not fall back on the oft-misappropriated mantra: ‘By his wounds, we are healed.’ (Isaiah 53:5) These resurrection scars are not simply marks of death; they witness to a new creation, the tracks of new life. They can be this, only if we understand our destinies bound together. The resurrection scars suggest that we will need to find ways to speak about how the wounds of others form us, not solely to mark us for death but also to mark us for life. Resurrection scars are a bewildering thing, and image well the passage of rising again in the aftermath of loss.

It is women in my life that have often taught me what resurrection looks like.  I recall Angela Hope giving an account of getting her tattoo and the significance of having women gathered to witness the marking of her flesh with the artistry of her new identity. The old names that had claimed her were being removed, as the new names were inscribed. Xochitl and Jaclyn, close friends, stood by witnessing Hope’s resurrection. Virginia Burrus, in “Macrina’s Tattoo,” writes about the function of tattoos as marking significant transitions, linking this practice to the markings of Saint Macrina, the ancient patristic sister. The nurse’s words return to me: “What beautiful markings you have.” I will return to these marks, this artistry, again and again, in search of resurrection. Something of my becoming—my rising—lies there.

Shelly Rambo is Assistant Professor of Theology at Boston University’s School of Theology. Her writing and teaching examines religious responses to suffering, trauma, and violence. Her current research focuses on Christian theology and war.

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Categories: Family, Feminism, Feminist Theology, General, Herstory, Loss, Motherhood, Women and Community

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14 replies

  1. Thank you for sharing this understanding of scars. It makes me wonder about children who can see the C-section scars of where they were to where they are upon viewing their Mother’s body growing one into life. Like Thomas — that assurance.
    I wish to follow you on religious responses to suffering, trauma, and violence. Please add me to your list of readership. My research is about orphans and orphaning. VIolence’s cycles may be dismantled via religious understanding. Key elements to that process pings my interest. Thanks again.

  2. What a powerful meditation Shelly. I lost my mother 20 years ago and I still think about her all the time and there is no doubt that she and my grandmothers live on in the little things I do every day and also in my larger attitude toward life.

    In Greek Orthodoxy, the Mother-Son drama, Mary’s “goodbye” to her son plays a central role in the 4 Fridays up to easter. This is not stressed in western Christianity. I suspect that Mary’s role in the Easter drama in Greece stems from Demeter’s role in the Eleusinian Mysteries.

    Still Orthodoxy does not give us the Mother-Daughter drama and a way to celebrate our mothers’ gifts to us, beginning with the gift of life, and a way mourn the loss of our mothers in our lives.

    It really is true that:

    “This is my body, given for you,”
    and:
    ‘This is my blood, given for you,”

    are female mysteries,

    IN THE BEGINNING…

  3. THE AKATHIST HYMN is one of the most well-loved services of devotion in the Orthodox Church. Although there is some debate concerning the particulars of its authorship, many scholars agree with the pious tradition which states that the Akathist was composed in the imperial city of Constantinople, “the city of the Virgin,” by St. Romanos the Melodist, who reposed in the year 556. The Akathist Hymn has proved so popular that many other hymns have been written following its format, particularly in the Russian Orthodox Church. These include Akathists to Our Lord Jesus Christ, to the Cross, to various saints, etc.

    The word “akathistos” literally means “not sitting,” i.e., standing; normally all participants stand while it is being prayed. The hymn is comprised of 24 stanzas, alternating long and short. Each short stanza (kontakion) ends with the singing of “Alleluia.” Each longer stanza (ikos) ends with the refrain: “Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded.”

    The majority of the hymn is made up of praises directed to the Mother of God, always beginning with the salutation of the Archangel Gabriel: “Rejoice.” In each of them, one after the other, all the events related to our Lord’s incarnation pass before us for our contemplation. The Archangel Gabriel ( in Ikos 1) marvels at the Divine self-emptying and the renewal of creation which will occur when Christ comes to dwell in the Virgin’s womb. The unborn John the Baptist (Ikos 3) prophetically rejoices. The shepherds (Ikos 4) recognize Christ as a blameless Lamb, and rejoice that in the Virgin “the things of earth join chorus with the heavens.” The pagan Magi, (Kontakion 5) following the light of the star, praise Her for revealing the light of the world.

    As the hymn progresses, various individuals and groups encounter Christ and His Mother. Each has his own need; each his own desire or expectation, and each finds his or her own particular spiritual need satisfied and fulfilled in Our Lord and in the Mother of God. So too, each generation of Orthodox, and each particular person who has prayed the Akathist, has found in this hymn an inspired means of expressing gratitude and praise to the Mother of God for what she has accomplished for their salvation.

    In the same way, may the readers of this booklet find the Mother of God to be a help and consolation for their souls as well. http://www.fatheralexander.org/booklets/english/m_akathist_e.htm
    Last Easter I saw an interview with a nun which suggested to me that the drama of the mother and child is central in the orthodox “divine drama.”

    • Carol….I really appreciate these links. And your work was some of the earliest and most formative work I read in feminism. It is an honor to have you respond. — Shelly

  4. This blog reminded me so much of my own mother. Maybe it’s the Easter season but I had been thinking of my mother a lot lately as well. Coincidentally I just wrote about her scars for my blog last week, although I haven’t posted it yet. She had a surgery that removed most of her calf. The scar was quite shocking to others. We, her family, loved her leg as the miracle it was. She still had a working leg after all, and a foot. She could walk, run, ride a bike and even dance on it. So we grew up recognizing the miracle of a leg. What an amazing contraption. You talk of resurrection through the scars of others, and I had this experience with my mother just before she died of cancer 16 years ago. She had asked me to rub lotion into her scar for her, and I had heard the note of apology in her voice as she asked. I realized that I had never touched her leg, and with this realization I suddenly understood a great deal more about her as a woman. It was the note of apology that was so painful, but it also opened a door.

    I recounted to her a story I had never told her of a time when I was a girl and I had invited several girls to our home for a swim. While my mother was in the house arranging a snack for us, the girls began making gagging noises and a discussion unfolded among them about whether or not my mother should be allowed to use the pool while others were trying to enjoy it. At first, the shock was to my own ego and my need to belong, but within a few minutes I understood a much larger story, one that I was not the selfish center of. I saw beautiful for the first time, when my brave and thoughtful mother came out with our lemonade on a tray. She served those girls with a warmth that’s hard to describe. What I saw in the act was an affirmation of life, life lived with dignity and respect, and I was never the same again. There was a deeper, more meaningful, inner life emerging in me that was so much more than my physical manifestation and my personal needs. I understood that this was the real life, the life we were meant to engage in. It was stepping out of the limits of a body unaware of its soul. It was a birth of sorts. I didn’t tell her the story at the time that it happened. I assumed she hadn’t heard the girls and I was trying to protect her. When I told her so many years later, she laughed. I’m not sure what the laugh meant, but there was no sorrow in it, only acknowledgement. I rubbed the lotion into her scar and was a little surprised by the texture of the scar. It felt a bit like plastic, and a bit more miraculous if that’s possible.

  5. Sorry to be posting a comment twice, but I wanted to add that I will never look at the painting you include, The Incredulity of Thomas, the same again. I will always think of that day when I rubbed the lotion on my mother’s leg. A new meaning as unfolded for me. This is one of the reasons I keep returning to feminismandreligion.com . thanks

  6. Thank you for this beautiful reminder of the mother-daughter relationship. In writing about my own mother’s death I found the palpable connection between us that stays with me now some 22 years later.

    I also wish to say how very interesting it is that recent post have focused around mothers, divine or kin, and the sacred meaning in those relationships. Unplanned, yet organic in nature, I have loved each one as well as the insightful comments.

  7. Shelly,

    I am so grateful for this beautiful post. I lost my mother nearly four years ago, but it still seems like just yesterday. Your words have touched me deeply and offer me the opportunity to consider the many struggles my mother faced and how those have allowed me to grow.

    It also makes me consider my own spiritual scars in relation to my infertility and adoption process, and how those may impact my daughter. Much to meditate on – thank you for this.

  8. Thank you very much indeed for this re-thinking/re-feeling of Easter which is at once personal (and beautifully told) and symbolic (and generously so). Having come to a halt this year in meeting mystery in the Father-Son tropes, your piece has reawakened and transformed the Eastertide that now stretches in front of me, alerting me to the marks of resurrection in my own life and among the people with whom I walk to some Emmaus … and it helps me love my Mum more in life while I am lucky enough to have her, too.

  9. I wanted to thank all of your for taking the time to reply to my blog. It was a product of an intentional writing practice for Holy Saturday this year, and it is an extra gift that you expanded my thoughts with your own memories and insights. Thank you. — Shelly

  10. I’m so moved by your post, Shelly. My mother is still alive and has no physical scars but nonetheless this post touched something very deep for me. As I read, I thought about my relationship to my mother–which is fraught with much pain, even, historically, abuse. I thought about my own “rising” and it’s relationship to her and found that, in fact, my rising in many ways begins at my examining the site of her emotional wounds/scars. By allowing myself to come into close contact with her wounds . . . in some way I found myself, found new depths to my own scars and oddly . . . found openings into a new, freer way of being. I am also reminded of the four year old I used to live with. I have scars on my right shoulder from a terrible car crash. Over a period of two years my roommate’s daughter would periodically sit down next to me and ask me “Why do you have these? What happened? Does it hurt?” She must’ve asked me the exact same questions a dozen times. I would answer her the same way, “I got hit by a truck. A big truck. No they don’t hurt anymore. They used to but not anymore.” Every single time we had this conversation, she would run her little fingers back and forth over my scars as we chatted. Her mother would apologize for her daughter but I found the ritual to be deeply beautiful. She was not afraid, repulsed, anxious. She just wanted to know. She just wanted to understand. And perhaps that is why new life begins, not just at the site of wounds as such, but at the site of examined wounds. Wounds that we trace with our fingers. Such a touch can be terribly painful but also deeply healing. It has been my experience that life and life abundant stem from intimacy and connection–two states of being that predispose us to loss and grief of many kinds. This is a paradox I have not totally been able to accept. Reflections like this help me along in a grieving process of a very different kind. I like Lori-An see the painting you mention in a new light . . . I think of my roommates daughter and the compassion and acceptance that was present in her tiny fingers’ touch. Perhaps this is the spirit in which Thomas touched Jesus’ scars. Maybe that interaction wasn’t about “belief” at all but rather about compassion and connection–seeking not certainty but intimacy.

  11. I have to write a paper on Religion and Matriarchy for a Women in Society class. Anyone has any suggestions of books and articles I can use as references? Thank you.

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  1. EASTER OF THE GODDESS: A VIEW FROM GREECE by Carol P. Christ « Feminism and Religion

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