In the past, Lent used to be a time of fasting – of giving up a wide range of food and drink which at other times of year we might take for granted. The real purpose of fasting was not to punish ourselves but to enable us to reflect on our bodily needs. What does it mean to be a human being with or in a body?
This is a question which the sculptor Antony Gormley often asks himself. Almost all his work has to do with the human body, an example of which we can see high up in the cathedral above the choir. There in the archway stands a representation of a human body made with stainless steel rods.(GRIP/NET)
Gormley sees all his sculpture as ‘a marker in space and time’ against which we might measure who we are. His works ask, “What is a human being, and where do we fit in the scheme of things? Where do we fit within nature?’’ Or again, “‘How do we treat the body not as a given, not as appearance, but as the place that we each find ourselves in?”
Christianity has sometimes appeared not to take the body seriously, or to be ashamed of it; to regard the spiritual being as far more important than the being of flesh and blood. Sometimes, faith has wrongly been seen as a spiritual path which will enable us to ignore the material difficulties of simply being human.
In the present pandemic we have become much more aware of our bodies as being restricted in movement and location, watching anxiously for physical symptoms which make us extremely vulnerable. And all this has made us painfully aware of the way in which the pandemic can affect our sense of self, our spiritual and mental and emotional wellbeing.
In the past we may have thought of ourselves as independent, and resilient, and, in our dreams, we would like to be invulnerable. And from time to time, we hail scientific discoveries in medicine or cybernetics which may make us less vulnerable to natural weakness, disease, and disaster and enable us to live longer. Gormley’s image of a human being in the Cathedral makes us think about our fragility and the life we actually lead, rather than the life we might fantasise about.
In the gospel narrative we read on Good Friday, Pontius Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd. Jesus has been scourged and is wearing a crown of thorns. Pilate says, ‘Behold the man!’ It is a dramatic moment. Jesus is (ironically) presented as the representative of humanity. And yet Christian faith has taken the irony out of Pilate’s words. Jesus shows us the truth of our fragility and vulnerability which we cannot escape. With the help of faith, however, we may also grow through an acceptance of that truth into a more profound humanity, based on courage, endurance, and a sense of hope in a new life on the other side of suffering.
Stephen Tucker 2021