The first image is from a moralized Bible from the 13th century. The cosmic Christ acts as midwife for himself, the Jesus on the cross, who gives birth to the church through the spear wound in his side. The second image is Caravaggio’s painting of Saint Thomas, who was absent when the resurrected Jesus first appeared to his disciples, and who insisted that he wouldn’t believe their story until he touched Christ’s wounds himself.
I love both of these images. I had never heard of nor conceived of the idea that the church was born from the wounds of Christ until I saw this illustration in an art history class, and I’ve been trying to understand what it means for the last week. I’ve been familiar with images that show Christ as a mother, but a dual image, where he’s both mother and midwife, where the cosmic Christ is standing beside the incarnate Christ, is new to me. But I like the theological implication – that Christ plays many roles in the cosmos, and all at once. I like, too, the idea that the church was born from Christ’s wounds, although I don’t know why I should. It is, on its surface, a depressing idea. We’re born from pain and suffering. But of course, pain and suffering isn’t the real meaning of the cross. The cross is a symbol of self-sacrificing love. We are the children of self-sacrificing love. Doesn’t that mean that such love is hereditary to us?
The second image is much more familiar to me. Thomas inserts his finger into Christ’s wound up to the fore knuckle. Christ seems very calm and unconcerned about this prodding and probing. The flap of skin seems sanitized – this isn’t the bloody wound of the late medieval period, but a wound that seems to absorb the aesthetic of light in Caravaggio’s painting. The wound seems too small for anything to be born through it. In many ways, this painting is the reverse of the first image. The church isn’t born out of the wound. The disciple, a stand-in for the church, inserts himself into the wound. There’s something clinical about this, and perhaps it reflects a desire to climb back into the body of Christ. To remove the church from the messy, dirty, distrusted world and retreat into a place of sanitized safety.
The church is always struggling between the two poles that these images represent. Should we entirely enter the world, be born into it, and learn to walk and live in it? Or should we stay within the body of Christ, isolated from the world by the skin and muscle and viscera of our Savior? Is it our doubt that makes us want to crawl inside Christ’s body, where doubt can be overcome by the insistent reality of a beating heart?
In my meditation on these images, I’ve come to prefer the first, and not only because I’m drawn to the aesthetics of 13th century manuscript painting. It is the figure of Christ as midwife that I prefer. The reassurance that, if the church is to leave the warm and nurturing body of Christ, and act with sacrificial love within the world, we will do so with the swaddling arms of the midwife Christ around us.