The Scar Project

A sermon preached today in the Chapel of The Presbyterian College.

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Nadia Myre is an Algonquin and Quebecois artist originally from Maniwaki who now lives and works here in Montreal. She’s not well known across the country, but her work is significant enough that she has a solo show at the Musée des beaux-arts here in Montreal right now. That exhibit explores the encounter between the Indigenous peoples and western, colonial cultures – an encounter she actually embodies in her own person.

Nadia Myre is perhaps best known for what she called “The Scar Project.” It was 8-year undertaking that ran from 2005 to 2013. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t Myre’s own work. Rather, the scar project was a communal work – a work created by many people over those eight years.

13-Nadia-Myre-Scar-ProjectOver those years, the artist invited participants to sew their scars – physical scars, emotional scars, or psychological scars – to sew their scars into a 10-inch by 10-inch canvas. Each participant, each person, was given their own framed canvas, into which they could sew representations of the pain of their lives, the scars of their bodies and souls. Each participant was also invited to write a narrative, short or long, to accompany their canvas. Myre brought this project to schools, to seniors residences, to museums, and to galleries – and over the eight-year period, a total of 1,400 canvases were completed. She then exhibited them in a variety of contexts and a variety of ways. Myre created both a video installation and a book that brought together the images with the stories. Let me give just two examples of the anonymous narratives shared as part of the project:

Throughout my life I have had many scars. I have physical scars on my hands from cutting myself from fence climbing, scars from touching the burner in the oven. But they have all healed but still have scars/marks. There are deeper scars that no one else can see. They are my emotional scars. Being teased as a kid. Never feeling pretty or attractive. Scars of pain: from family problems and my parents’ separation. And open wounds that are still not healing from the boy who stepped on my heart and he does not even know it. But in time that scar will heal and something else will pain me. Scars from the stranger who makes a judgment and calls me a bitch because I stuck up for myself. But in time these current scars will heal and without doubt I will come upon new scars and pain!

And a second simpler story:

Thanks for the opportunity you have given me to expose my horrid scar to others. The damage was a break in my collarbone caused by a fall. Doctors don’t treat broken collarbones, able to heal themselves (without scarring!). Ha.

In 2015 the magazine Canadian Art published an article that offered this helpful description of the project:

 [T]he canvases of The Scar Project are at once incredibly diverse and ritualistically the same. Although many begin with the same repeated act—slashing and then suturing a gash in the canvas—each piece is aesthetically unique… As an installation, The Scar Project feels both objective and incredibly personal… In their number and anonymity, the scarred canvases and their stories ultimately represent a collective wound. And while this wound is necessarily universal…it is also very specific.

On the one hand there is the universal dimension of our scars. None of us makes it through this life unscathed. We are all carry the memory of pain and suffering in our bodies and in our minds and in our hearts. For each of us, the story of our lives is in part the story of our wounded-ness – the story of how our wounds shape us and how we are shaped by them. This is the human experience. It is universal.

IMG_2893Yet there is also something so deeply personal about our scars. I have a scar on my thumb from when I was careless with a jackknife. A small scar on my forehead from when I ran around the corner of a house, as a kid, straight into a half-opened garage door. Our scars are ours. No two scars are alike, we might say. And we cannot tell the story of our lives – cannot be who we are – without our scars.

What is our experience? We may have been wounded when someone silenced us, or patronized us, or abused us. We may carry the wounds of our own failures – we may carry a gnawing shame over things said or done. We may have been wounded by the mere happenstance of life – no harm was intended, but we were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and somehow ended up injured. We each have our own wounds, scars.

It’s important to know that with the Scar Project, Nadia Myre didn’t want to simply remind us of the universal and particular nature of our scars. Rather, through the embodied exercise of sewing in canvas, and writing on paper – she also hoped participants might, through acknowledgement of their scars, incorporate them into a more hopeful narrative of their own lives. She hoped that through this exercise participants might discover a new relationship to their wounds. That they might even experience healing or freedom or companionship as they stepped back and told the stories of their scars through embodied action.

What would you sew, if you were to put your pain, your wounds, your scars, your healing onto a canvas – into a canvas?

What would Jesus sew? What kind of gash would Jesus inflict on a canvas in the studio of Nadia Myre, and how would he deploy needle and thread for repair and healing? What narrative would Jesus write to accompany his 10 inch by 10 inch canvas? What is the story he would tell – how might he fill out the story we have already read, as told by others?

It is nothing short of astonishing to discover, as we do in our gospel reading, that the risen Jesus bears the marks of crucifixion in his body. In seeing those scars, we might want to ask: If God is able to vindicate Jesus; if God is able to raise this dead man; if Jesus is risen to new life and not merely resuscitated – then surely God has the power to erase any trace of his wounding; to erase any trace of those scars. Surely God could have brought him forth new, in an unblemished body of resurrection life. Surely God could have banished from the flesh of Jesus the memory of his torture and abuse.*

But if this way of thinking tempts us we are reminded that it plays at a false god – it repeats a lie about God against which the church has struggled from the beginning. To suggest that Jesus might have been raised in unblemished flesh is invoke, again, the god of the Hellenistic tradition – a god untouched by time, a god alien to fleshly embodiment, a god invulnerable to suffering and pain. It is a kind of wishful thinking about God that suggests: “Let the momentary suffering of this man, the appearance of pain, give way to true God – to unblemished flesh; to forgetfulness of suffering; to an eternity blissful removed from the exigencies of time.”

At one level, of course, the scars of Jesus fulfill a relatively simple function within the narrative. They serve as proof that it is the same Jesus – evidence that, yes, the one who died is the very one standing now before them. See, the scars prove it. Although it is also true that the narrative of Thomas is ambiguous enough to suggest that he believed irrespective of his seeing the scars.

But beyond evidence, the presence of those scars equally invokes a God who is and becomes vulnerable to rejection and abuse. This is a God who can participate alongside us in Nadia Myre’s scar project. This is a God who, in Christ, could act with embodied intention toward a canvas, telling the story of his wounds. This is a God vulnerable to rejection and pain, a God who wrestles with the prospect of his own torture, a God who bears the marks of vulnerability in his body. It will not do to write the scars of God out of God’s story. This God’s body is not unblemished. Human vulnerability belongs to God, in Christ; is taken into God; the universal experience of wounded-ness is taken into the very life of God through the particular sufferings of this Jesus.

Another way to say this is accept that we cannot tell the story of God without the scars of Jesus. The narrative of God includes the scars of Jesus. So deep is God’s love for us; so real his embrace of us.

There is no doubt that participation in something like the scar project can be a hopeful and healing process – it can help to set our scars within a new and hopeful perspective. There is no doubt that God can work graciously for us through such a project. But here is something the gospel along gives in relation to our scars – something that the risen Jesus alone gives us in relation to our wounds – the fullness of grace and healing. The words of Isaiah ring true in our ears these Easter days:

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his wounds we are healed.

The promise, the joy, and the reality of Easter is the vindication and healing of Jesus – and our vindication and healing with him. To be drawn into life with Jesus – and to be drawn into the life of Jesus – is to have our story set within his story. It is to have our canvas – our scar project – held by him, and understood by him, and redeemed by him.

The one into whose life and story we are drawn, is the one

who gave wholeness to a young man by banishing the demons of self-harm,
who healed the ear of the high priest’s servant
who restored the sight of Baritmaeus
who gave a young dying girl back to her family
who set Peter back on the path of confident faith.

As we walk with Christ, among his people – as we are united with him and the people he calls his own – he brings healing to our lives. Our scars remain, but the story around those scars becomes one of hope, of healing, and of freedom. Thanks be to God for our faithful and risen Lord Jesus Christ.

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his scars we are healed.

____________

  • The basic themes of this paragraph come from this piece by Kevin Antlitz (though reformulated somewhat): http://www.transpositions.co.uk/shining-light-on-suffering-a-theology-of-scars/
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