Distinguishing between the (male) Jesus of history and the theologically contested figure of the Christ, feminist and other liberation theologians have brought new insights to Christology. This forms part of feminist project of ‘reclaiming’ or ‘saving’ Jesus from theologies unhelpful or even destructive for women, gay and lesbian people, people of colour … Figuring the Christ as a female figure (often referred to as ‘Christa’) does not in any way deny the maleness of the historical Jesus but gives us a new lens through which to re-examine our ideas of the Christ. It is a project which seeks to help us all to free ourselves from our often naïve, sometimes toxic, images of a heroic Saviour – in which we are no different from the baying crowds on that first Good Friday: crying ‘Crucify him’ because he has disappointed our expectations.
One of the sources which has spoken to me of the importance of this image of Christa is the book ‘Seeking the Risen Christa’ by Nicola Slee, poet, writer, teacher and theologian published in 2011 (by SPCK). In it Nicola brings together theological reflection, her poetry and her experiences of a shared women’s retreat in N. Wales in 2006.
Best known of the female Christ images is probably the sculpture, pictured above, entitled ‘Christa’ of a crucified female form by Edwina Sandys made 1974 for UN Decade for Women: Equality Development and Peace. It created uproar at St John the Divine Cathedral New York in 1984 when it was displayed for Holy Week and had to be removed. The sculpture ‘Crucified Woman’ by Almuth Lutkenhause-Lackey 1974 displayed at a church in Toronto at Easter 1979 caused similar controversy, and since 1986 it’s found a home at Emmanuel College in Toronto. Since the 1980’s there have been numerous other images in art, literature and film: some playful or parodic, some theologically informed and some semi-pornographic.
One example of ‘a traditional religious symbol … in crisis, in transition, in deconstruction; a symbol that is being radically questioned, critiqued, playfully parodied and imaginatively re-presented.’
For Nicola the Christa is a ‘signal to the wider Christian body of the creative crisis in which religion finds itself, and it is a signal of the neglected and repressed resources which Christianity has within itself to respond to such a crisis.’ For her it points to the re-emergence of the divine feminine, the wisdom and gifts of repressed peoples, the ‘life force that can re-vivify the ancient paths’.
On Good Friday 2016 a group of us, women and men, met at St Bride’s Church Liverpool to ask ourselves what the images of Christa say to us, how they help us to acknowledge false images of the Christ which we have absorbed from our Christian culture. We asked ourselves:
· Does our attention on the cross, the wounds rather on than Jesus’ life and resurrection skew the Christian message?
· Does the notion of sacrifice have anything to say to us - is it irredeemably patriarchal? Or simply one which has ceased to have relevance to us today?
· Does the attention on Jesus’ cross cancel out women’s (other’s) bodily suffering?
· Does veneration of the cross equate to complicity with systems of violence and torture, the identification of God with the powers of destruction or cosmic child abuse? Or can it be an image that encompasses all suffering, symbolically holds them all?
We read Sojourner Truth’s well-known (to feminists at least) speech ‘Ain’t I a woman’ and were challenged by the continued suffering of women and children and men: the abuse, rape, neglect, denial of rights, present wherever power is unchallenged. Our responses varied – it was not comfortable but it was powerful for all of us, recalling for some of us our own traumatic experiences. But this concerns all of us: ‘In standing in solidarity with all who suffer, we must be willing to confront … even when afraid’ writes Nicola. Good Friday gives the whole Christian community a moment of pause and the confrontation of suffering in the image of the abused body of a voluntarily powerless Jesus on the cross. The images of the crucified Christa prevent us from distancing ourselves from the suffering of today’s involuntarily powerless who suffer and die. And reminds us that his poured out blood and our menstrual blood are one and the same.
Emmaus by Emmanuel Garibay
On Easter Sunday we met for the St Bride’s Morning Service and reflected on the community of the risen Christa using Garibay’s picture as a focus. It is one of the few images of Christa which is not of crucifixion – she is laughing and animated, only identifiable by the scars on her hands.
An encounter with Christa cannot leave us unchanged. Joanna Collicutt McGrath reminds us that ‘being raised with Christ is about becoming fully human, reaching our God-given potential and therefore becoming truly adult.’ And in this maturity we become part of a new community: not a hierarchy, a Kingdom but a ‘kin-dom’ of the risen Christ/Christa. And not merely part of but ourselves form the risen Christ/Christa for our broken world.
What prevents us from rolling away the stone? What keeps us clinging to our graves (so much safer in a cave, a tomb) with our flawed images of one heroic individual (superman) male or female towards the whole-making, healing centre of Christianity. ‘Jesus participates centrally in this Christa/community, but he neither brings erotic power into being nor controls it. He is brought into being through it and participates in the co-creation of it. Christa/Community is a lived reality expressed in relational images… Hence what is truly Christological, that is truly revealing of divine incarnation and salvific power in human life, must reside in connectedness and not in single individuals.’ (Rita Nakashima Brock)
For Nicola Slee the cross is God’s ultimate protest against all unjust suffering, the final act of (divine) suffering which ends all other crosses. The last cross is not to be emulated or adored, a ‘symbol not of death and violence but healing and wholeness, the archetypal tree of life which reconciles earth and heaven, a ‘symbol of inclusion, balance and fruitfulness.’
Can we embrace our potential and allow all our images to wither away as we become the Christ/Christa for our generation?
We ended on Sunday by reading Nicola’s poem ‘The family of Christa’:
She stopped counting a long time ago:
sisters, half-sisters, step-brothers,
adoptive aunts, cousins, second cousins once removed,
great-grandparents by marriage,
ancestors by clan and distant kinship,
or just because they met once and knew they’d be kin for ever.
In the end safer to all everyone
sister, brother, mother, father,
without qualification or explanation.
There’s always room for another at the table, anyhow.
Shift along, budge up, lay an extra place,
squeeze another chair in.
Always cook some extra, she tells her children.
Expect the unexpected:
the girlfriend sleeping over,
the relatives who just happened to be passing.
And when, rarely, she sits to eat alone,
the room is full of presences:
her solitary table sighs with the weight
of all those lives that have sat around it.
She relishes the taste
from the bowl that has been clasped
and passed around the circle
by so many loved, forgotten, remembered hands.
It doesn’t matter that she can’t recall names.
Faces she never forgets,
voices will conjure up their pasts,
and everyone she’s ever met
jostles somewhere thickly in her body
each one connected to the other
though more than half of them would be startled to discover
they are family, after all.
May we all enter and become the family, the community, the kin-dom of the risen Christa.