Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Skin As Canvas

A few months ago I had the privilege and joy of bathing a child, and I admired her flawless skin. There were no scars, no wrinkles, no blemishes, no outstanding marks. But then I thought that there had been no stories yet in her life that had left visible signs.

Later I reflected on my own 63-year-old body with its scars and marks, each with a story. The broken and capped front tooth is the result of an accident that occurred in 1955. I still remember the two boys who started a foot race and watched each other instead of where they were going. Just five feet from their starting line one of them cracked his head on my tooth. He reared back, stunned, and a small corner of my tooth was broken off. In those days, bonding was unknown; rather than patch a small bond to my tooth which would have been an easy procedure today, my tooth was ground down to a small stub and a heavy cap put over it.

On my left inside forearm there is a white scar a half inch long and an eighth of an inch wide—the only remnant of a deep rip I sustained while scaling a chain link fence. That was about 1958.

In the summer of 1963, at Scout camp I fell into the stream and gashed my right knee. The camp doctor sewed it up and I had to walk with a stiff leg for a week or more. There are two scars there now.

On the ring finger of my left hand is a dark line from when a dirt-caked mirror broke and slashed my hand. When the wound healed, some of the dirt remained in the skin and is there to this day. That was in the fall of 1973.

The last joint of my left little finger doesn’t lie straight any more; it was damaged when I was holding a board in 1994 for someone in the karate class to break with a kick. He broke my finger instead.

On the same hand, the pointing finger has a long thin scar, the remnant of a slash from drawing a sword too quickly in 2002. I slashed it across the length of the finger deep enough to cut the tendon. Fortunately I cut the tendon lengthwise rather than severed it. It took nine stitches and gave me a great story. I applied for Worker’s Compensation for that $3,000, one-hour visit to the Emergency Room, and no one ever questioned why a priest could claim a sword cut as a job-related injury.

Between the thumb and forefinger on my right hand is a burn scar. I burned it when I reached into an oven in 2007. I was on retreat and was not familiar with the oven, and the top burner charred the skin several layers deep.

Apart from these scars, marks, and injuries, there are now age spots on my hands, arms, and face. I don’t plan to cover or remove them; they tell stories of adventures, misadventures, and skills that are part of my life’s history, and provide the unique tales told on the canvas of my skin. I look with pleasure at the faces of old people with many wrinkles, each visage unique and, like a canvas, telling a person’s story in visible marks.

I can only imagine what Jesus’ body was like. It is easy to assume that his hands bore calluses and scars from carpentry, that his feet were hard from much walking, his muscles were corded, and his skin darkened by frequent exposure to the sun.

The skin of a young child is like a blank canvas. Life’s adventures are few at that age. Human skin is a medium on which is written the tales of one’s life. Take the thought deeply enough and one can become immersed in the meaning of Jesus’ incarnation—the word, literally translated, means “in the meat”. God himself took our flesh, and had skin as we have, and it came to bear the marks of his divine life on earth. Go even farther, and one comes to resurrection—the destiny of the believer’s body on the far side of death. The resurrected body becomes perfect, yet surely will be recognizable through its direct connection with this life.

Once my skin was as flawless as that of the child I bathed, but now my scars, wrinkles, and blemishes tell the unique tale of my life, every mark on my body evidence of some adventure or escapade, even if just the adventure of living for more than six decades in the world. “My body shall rest in hope,” says Psalm 16:9b. My body, such as it is, also lives in hope. Jesus shared my human nature, and shares it still. In my love for him, I await the consummation in the greatest adventure of all.

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