Lay Down Your Life

The crucifix was bothering me. The emaciated body, pallid with that chin-turned gasp was grating at me more than usual. I’ve always been bothered by the centrality of death images in Catholic churches, unable to see beauty even in Michelangelo’s Pietà, but the tortured Christ swaying over the wedding ceremony was more than uncomfortable—it was aggravating.

The rest of the church was modern. White exposed-steel trusses, limestone and clerestory windows filled the space with light. The priest was a neat, middle-aged man whose voice struck solemn gravity, but without the quiver of superstition. Abby and Ben stood together as equals, desiring each other’s presence and love, but neither in need of the other’s family, money or protection.

Over it all dangled a grotesque idol to suffering, hate, religious self-righteousness, intolerance and abuse. I couldn’t sit still. The sickly statue swayed from its iron hooks murmuring the rhetoric of oppression religion has injected into marriage for ages: Man and wife, man and wife, she should submit as the weaker vessel, serve your husband and look to his needs, nurture the children God grants you for your salvation, homemaker, she is the emotional center of the family, to his strength she brings beauty, man and wife, man and wife. And the refrain to accompany it all, heard by women and men in Christian marriages for generations: self-sacrifice. Take up your cross; lay down your life. Die. Suffer. Obliterate yourself for the good of the other. This is love.

Certainly the religion of the crucified God will have an iconography of the holy death. Certainly we could use some pictures to remind us what our pride and politics can do to others’ bodies. Certainly being mindful that we can execute love itself injects us with desperately-needed humility. But isn’t the death only half the story? The worst half? Isn’t focusing the Christian story on death actually a deep blasphemy?

My husband started to notice my fidgeting. I needed to move something to purge my aggravation. How could they miss the second half of the story?

The priest’s pause collected my focus. “You’ve come here to lay down your life as Christ laid down his life: to pick it up again, changed. Your life— but in utterly different form.”

To pick it up again?

How could I have missed that? Of course he picked it up again. Obviously. Jesus didn’t die as one thing and rise as another—he even kept the body. A sudden image, irreverent and ridiculous enough to be holy, flashes on my mind: Jesus in a track suit jogs along a straightaway, stoops to pick something up and keeps jogging. Yep. There’s his life. Picked it up again without breaking stride. Perfectly natural.

This is unbelievable. How many wedding sermons have I heard and this has never come up? How have I never thought of this? Self-sacrifice is only half the story. Suffering is only half the story. Obviously. It’s one thing to preach a lie; it’s another thing to believe one. Oppression only succeeds with both parties. No wonder the crucifix and the sacrificial rhetoric make me so angry. I believe them.

As the priest begins to bless the rings, I stop glaring at the crucifix and look at it. It’s wan and ugly, a thing that won’t meet my gaze. It’s disturbing, but only offensive if exhaustive. Of course part of marriage is self-sacrifice. Of course part of faith includes suffering. The rhetoric and the crucifix goad me because I can’t get past them. Pictures of Christ dying bother me because my images of him living are so few. Oppressive rhetoric about Christian marriage bothers me because I hold such a shallow repertoire of alternatives.

The priest leads the vows and winds Ben’s and Abby’s hands together with his stole. The nearly-dead Christ continues to waiver overhead. The baby in front of me smacks as she chews on her knuckles, and my husband wraps his fingers around mine. Abby and Ben kiss, we clap, and I prepare to walk out of this church and pick up my life.

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