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.
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.