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The Glorified Black Body of Jesus

Christ is Ascended!

On this feast of Christ’s bodily Ascension into heaven, we are reminded of the importance of our incarnational existence. Put another way, Christ came to not only save disembodied souls, but bodies as well—the whole person. What is more, according to the Fathers of the Church, by assuming human nature, Christ glorified our humanity and our embodied existence! The third sessional hymn for the Ascension Matins service says:

When you came down from heaven to things on earth and as God raised up with you Adam’s nature which lay below in Hades’ prison, you brought it to heaven by your Assumption, O Christ, and made it sit with you on your Father’s throne, as you are merciful and love humankind.

The Vespers service for the feast says that the “angels marveled to see a human high above them.” Christ, in a glorified spiritual human body, entered the space reserved for the divine beings. Man has been deified! This scandalous ascent is of the same glory that provoked the Satan to jealousy. Surely, humans, who are made of the earth and dust, do not deserve such glory. What is more, Jesus’s ascent is the glorification of the lowest of humanity. The Gospels remind us that after Christ’s resurrection, he still bore in his glorious spiritual body the wounds of his death. This glorified human was executed as a criminal. As St. Paul says, quoting the Jewish Law, “Cursed is everyone hung on a tree.” The same body that was received into glory is that one that was despised, beaten, mocked and killed just forty-three days prior. We must not forget that Jesus was lynched. Further, we must not forget that Jesus’s body was subjected to derision even prior to his voluntary crucifixion.

The world in which Jesus lived was one that rendered him and his people as socially inferior. The Roman empire, as an occupying power, was entitled to exploit and abuse the Jewish people in all manner of ways. This is why James Cone states in his book, God of the Oppressed, that Jesus is Black: “He is black because he was a Jew. The affirmation of the Black Christ can be understood only when the significance of his past Jewishness is related dialectically to the significance of his present blackness.” 1 What Cone means is that because of Jesus’s identification with the oppressed in history, we can confidently affirm that he eternally identifies with the oppressed in every context. For America in particular (historical differences considered), this necessarily means that Jesus is Black.

This does not, by any means, form the theological foundation for the imposition of a victim identity on all Black Americans. James Cone was Black, and he spoke from a position of great strength and power, not victimhood. In truth, the power of the Gospel is in the fact that victims of sin, death and the Satan are transformed into victors through the voluntary acceptance of death. What this simply means is that if we fail to acknowledge the suffering and oppression of anyone, we fail to acknowledge those with whom Christ makes himself present.

In the weeks since the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, examples of this have flooded the public consciousness. Breonna Taylor was killed in her own home by police officers with a no-knock warrant, looking for someone else. Travis Miller was blocked-in and harassed by two white residents demanding to know why he was driving a delivery truck through their neighborhood. Video has emerged of a white woman calling the police on Christian Cooper for “threatening her” in a park after he asked her to leash her dog. Most recently, George Floyd was killed as the result of an excessive use of force when an officer knelt on his neck in the street for over six minutes. All of these instances have one thing in common: black skin was automatically associated with crime or danger. The results of this prejudice have produced unnecessary death and public harassment.

American attitudes toward blackness are unique in history and were built upon years of slavery and racism. Regrettably, there are many examples of how religion has served to perpetuate racism. And while American racism is quite particular, many aspects of Christian history and theology have been co-opted to feed this American demon. It would be either naïve or directly ingenuous to suggest that Christendom has never been complicit in contributing to dividing and oppressing people according to race. Even though it has been argued that our contemporary conceptions of race diverge greatly from those of antiquity, the work of scholars like Geraldine Heng demonstrate just how long people have negatively distinguished one another according to skin color— and not just black skin. Heng’s The Invention of Race in The European Middle Ages highlights the various people groups throughout the middle ages that were stigmatized based on what she calls epidermal race. 2 In the fourth chapter, however, Heng demonstrates the ways in which Christian theology was contorted to associate black skin with irredeemable evil, moral darkness and sin. This was not initially done with malicious intent, and the use of light vs dark imagery is not inherently racist. Darkness was initially a theological abstraction separate from particular bodies. Gradually, abstract blackness as a symbol for evil came into conflict with the existence of people with dark skin in the European consciousness. Given our particular context and history, such color-oriented religious language has provided unfortunate fodder for our anti-Black racism in America. One does not need to search very deeply in Church history for examples of holy men and women using black skin as an illustration for sinfulness or spiritual darkness. Again, this does not mean that they were racist in the same way Americans often are. In fact, as Heng points out, early examples of imagining blackness as sinful serve as a universal precondition for salvation. This historic association of dark skin with moral corruption, however, can play into our entrenched biases, originally racist or not. And Orthodox Christians are not exempt from this pitfall.

At the last Ancient Christianity and African American Experience Conference, organized by the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, Fr. Samuel Davis pointed out one often overlooked aspect of being Black and Orthodox in America. He noted how often Black male converts to Orthodoxy assume St. Moses the Black as their patron saint. On the one hand, this is often due to the fact that most Orthodox Christians are not familiar with any Black or African saints other than St. Moses. St. Moses, the deeply beloved patron of our brotherhood, while a shining witness of repentance, radical hospitality and nonviolence, was a criminal and gang-leader before he became a Christian. This in no way detracts from his sanctity. Saints are regarded as holy because they were repentant, not because they were perfect. Fr. Samuel’s point, however, was that underlying this trend is often the automatic assumption that Black American men would naturally identify with a dark-skinned gang leader and murder. We have so thoroughly associated blackness with moral degeneracy that we assume that all Black converts would resonate with St. Moses’s criminal past. And the fact that we have no familiarity with other African saints or don’t consider them Black in the same way may speak to our selective veneration and ignorance of the sanctity of those with dark skin. Perhaps there is a latent religious racism residing in the back of many white Orthodox minds that automatically associates black skin with the inherent evil of Black people.

Of course, this racist association couldn’t be further from the truth of our Tradition. That isn’t to say that black skin hasn’t been used by Church Fathers as an illustration of sinfulness, but the exact opposite is also true. In his commentary on the Song of Songs, Origen, the third century African theologian and teacher of St. Gregory of Nyssa, offers a profound and dignified allegorical reading of Solomon’s Black bride. Acknowledging the tradition of associating dark skin with corruption and moral inferiority, Origen interprets the bride as signifying the Gentile Church. In his poetic retelling of a dialogue between the Gentile bride and her Jewish interlocutors, Origen insists on the inherent beauty of a Black body:

She answers their objections thus: ‘I am indeed black, O daughters of Jerusalem, in that I cannot claim descent from famous men, neither have I received the enlightenment of Moses’ Law. But I have my own beauty, all the same. For in me too there is that primal thing, the Image of God wherein I was created; and, coming now to the Word of God, I have received my beauty. Because of my dark colouring you may compare me to the tents of Cedar and the curtains of Solomon; but even Cedar was descended from Ismael, being born his second son, and Ismael was not without a share in the divine blessing. You liken me even to the curtains of Solomon, which are none other than the curtains of the tabernacle of God— indeed I am surprised, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you should want to reproach me with the blackness of my hue. How have you come to forget what is written in your Law, as to what Mary suffered who spoke against Moses because he had taken a black Ethiopian to wife? How is it that you do not recognize the true fulfillment of that type in me? I am that Ethiopian. 3

Here, Origen recalls the Old Testament story of how Miriam insulted Moses’s wife for her dark skin. As a rebuke, God turned Miriam’s skin white. Later in this same commentary, Origen states explicitly that black skin has no inherent bearing on morality, saying that skin color is a matter of “circumstance” and is importantly different from the symbolic darkness of the soul. Nevertheless, he acknowledges the association of blackness with shame and uses it as an example of how God dignifies that which is considered by humans to be unclean— hence why the bride is a type for the Gentile Church. Blackness has its own inherent and distinct beauty, derived from the same source as all human skin— the Image of God. Here, Origen might be thought of as saying, in an extension of St. Paul’s words to Galatians, “There is no black nor white, for you are all one in Christ.” In this commentary, he points to the inaugural racial controversy of the Church between Jews and Gentiles, the settling word being Christ’s commandment to Peter: “Do not call unclean what God has made clean.” This, of course, was stated to accompany a “Gentile Pentecost,” in which non-Jews received the same Holy Spirit that came upon the Apostles at the feast of Pentecost. So, for James Cone, Jesus is Black; and for Origen, the Church is too.

And yet, two thousand years later in America, we are faced with the same problem and have struggled with it since the founding of our country. As a result of a long and complicated history with black skin, white people have been conditioned to regard blackness as a sign of danger. White Christians, too have (perhaps passively) presumed the guilt of Black bodies or tacitly considered them “unclean.” The fact that so many of us cannot identify with the struggle of Black men and women in this country is perhaps indicative of our failure to recognize Christ— and the Church— as Black. Black people bear the damning mark of stereotypes, all too often resulting in their mistreatment or even unjust death. But Christ and the Church are always found with those that are left out and marginalized. The very feast of Pentecost demonstrates nothing less than the fact that those who were once considered outsiders, foreign, unclean and strangers are now welcomed into the Body of Christ. What is more, within the Body of Christ, wherein are all shades of skin, what is maligned by the world is honored by the Church. By proclaiming that the Church is Black, we confront the racism that has resulted in our brothers and sisters being assaulted and slain for the color of their skin. Make no mistake, St. Moses and Jesus and the whole of the Church is with them today and on every day that Black men and women are killed unjustly. Are we with them?

On the feast of Ascension, we must remember that it was a Jew that was elevated to the heavenly places. How scandalous it was for the angels to witness a human ascending God’s throne. Scandalous still, it must have been, for the Romans and divine kings of the earth to see a Jew glorified above the gods. Scandalous again it was for Peter and the Jewish Church to see God’s own Spirit indwell the unclean Gentiles. It was scandalous for Origen to co-opt the negative image of blackness as an icon of the Gentile Church. Perhaps it was scandalous for James Cone to insist that Jesus is Black. It would be very much out of place, then, for us not to continue the scandal and insist that Black lives matter, that black skin bears the image of God and stand in solidarity with the Black bodies that are slandered and murdered.

Deacon Jonathan Reavis

1 James Cone, God of the Oppressed (New York: Orbis Books, 1997), 123.
2 Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
3 Origen, The Song of Songs Commentary and Homilies, trans. R.P. Lawson (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press,
1957), 92-93.

Bringing Myrrh to the Tomb of Ahmaud Arbery

Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!

It has been three weeks since we celebrated Great and Holy Pascha and we are well into the festal season. And yet, for many during this extraordinary time, the traditional Paschal greeting flows from pious lips mixed with bitter feelings of sorrow and confusion. The disruption to our religious and social lives caused by Covid-19 has been felt the world over. We have endured a very unconventional Pascha, to say the least. In the midst of what would normally be considered a joyous time of celebration of Christ’s victory over death, we are yet reminded that death is still with us. And as we struggle to reconcile the paradox of Christ’s resurrection juxtaposed to the seemingly all-pervasive death around us, we are reminded once again of death’s presence, not only in the abstract, but as a very specific evil that inflicts very specific persons. Amidst the flurry of our bright and sad Paschal celebrations, death has reemerged in our consciousness in a profoundly tragic, yet sadly, all-too familiar way in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Our country has been turned completely upside-down over the last few months, yet it seems that our most haunting legacy has remained intact: the unjust slaying of black bodies.

And yet, as horrific as Ahmaud’s death is, it comes as no surprise to those within the black community, for whom this killing is only the latest in one long funeral procession beginning at the very founding of this country. Indeed, this is not the first Paschal season to be marked by racial violence. How many Easters have been celebrated in this country in segregated churches? How many Easters did white mobs organize the lynching of black men and women and distribute commemorative tokens for the occasion? How many blemished sacrifices have been offered on this soil; Christians worshipping the crucified and resurrected body of Christ, while simultaneously injuring, murdering and oppressing the black body of Jesus? Sadly, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery is hardly anomalous, and it is to the great shame of our country.

As counter-intuitive as it may be, however, the recognition of death during the Paschal season is quite fitting. On the third Saturday after Pascha, the Gospel reading comes from John 15:17- 16:2. In it, the Lord reminds his disciples that they will experience hatred and oppression from the world. He tells them that because the world hated and eventually killed him, it will do the same to his followers. As modern readers of the Gospel, we may be tempted to read this passage as warning of the inevitable and unqualified persecution of Christians simply because they believe in Jesus. But the world didn’t hate the disciples because they were Christians in name only. The Gospel tells us Christ’s disciples were hated because they followed Jesus— they went where Jesus went and did what Jesus did. Christ led them, as he leads us, to become lowly and identify with the hated, even to the point of death.

Quoting the Psalmist, the Lord says, “They hated me without a cause.” In his incarnation, crucifixion and decent into death, Christ becomes the one who is hated without a cause. Christ joins the Psalmist and all humans that have been hated without a cause. Throughout his life, Christ identifies with the lowly, the poor, the hated, the outcast, the sinner and the suffering. And at the Final Judgement, Christ will consider actions done to “the least of these” as done unto Him. It is because of his downward movement, his solidarity with the hated and the suffering, that Christ tells his followers that they should expect the same. If anyone is to follow Christ, they follow him into his identification with the hated and they follow him into death.

What does it mean to be a Christian (a follower of Christ) in the wake of the lynching of a black man? In his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone says, “The lynched black victim experienced the same fate as the crucified Christ and thus became the most potent symbol for understanding the true meaning of the salvation achieved through ‘God on the Cross.’” The unjust killing of Ahmaud Arbery, or Bothem Jean, or Trayvon Martin, or Emmett Till or the many other black brothers and sisters in this country brings the cross out of our religious observances and into our lives. And it is by identifying with these victims that we embrace the cross and follow after Christ. Cone says further, “The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst.” 1 The connection between following Christ and identifying with suffering humanity was also made by Elder Sophrony when he said, “The Son of man has taken into Himself all mankind — He has accepted the ‘whole Adam’ and suffered for him. St. Paul said that we, too, ought to think and feel like Christ — having ‘the same mind which was in Christ.’” 2 If we want to be with Christ, we must suffer with those who suffer.

On the second Sunday after Pascha, we commemorate the myrrh bearing women. In many ways, the story of the myrrh bearing women is a sort of reversal of what St. John Chrysostom described in his Paschal Homily, “[Hell] took a body, and met God face to face.” 3 The myrrh bearing women came to Christ’s tomb, not expecting to meet God, but expecting to show love for Jesus, the dead man. They came with spices to care for his human body. The Church, in her wisdom, places this gospel reading during the Paschal season because she wants us to remember that it is only when we draw near to human death with love that we can experience the presence of God. In the story of the myrrh bearing women, we see the extreme unity between our proximity to God and our care for human suffering and death.

What this requires of us— especially white Christians— is more than “white guilt.” Identifying completely with suffering humanity, and thereby joining Christ, involves repenting of sins we would normally not consider “ours.” Elder Sophrony says, “According to the second commandment, Love thy neighbor as thyself, each of us must, and can, comprise all mankind in our own personal being. Then all the evil that occurs in the world will be seen, not as something extraneous but as our own.” 4 In one sense, we are responsible for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. We are collectively infected with a deep spiritual sickness that has produced countless lynchings, racism and injustice. But what is required is love, not self-loathing, and not performative breast beating in an effort to placate our guilt.

So, what do we do? First, let us bring myrrh to the tomb of Ahmaud Arbery. Let us mourn with those who mourn. Let us pray for rest for his soul and comfort for his family and community. Let us do what the Church does in times of death: let us grieve. In grieving, the Church resists the power of death and insists that it is wrong, it is unnatural and it has been defeated. Let us use the various ways that the Church provides for us to respond to death. Many will commemorate Ahmaud in prayers for the departed during Divine Liturgy. Others will spend these days leading up to Pentecost praying for his soul with the Akathist for Those Who Have Fallen Asleep. Let us not forget his name, and the names of the others who have been killed as a result of racial hatred— those that have been hated without a cause. Let us care for Christ’s body where it has been cut down in the streets of Georgia, or Ferguson, or Sanford. Let us also care for our black brothers and sisters that carry in their body and mind the burden of death. Let us not turn away or quickly forget because it is painful, for it is only in drawing near to death that we will encounter the Living God.

Lastly, as we identify with those who are killed, let us also not be afraid to identify with those who kill. Elder Sophrony said that “each time we refuse to take on ourselves the blame for our common evil, for the actions of our neighbor, we are repeating the same sin [of Adam] and likewise shattering the unity of Man.” 5 In embracing all of humanity as Christ does, we also must confront the evil that lies within all of us. As we pray for the repentance of Ahmaud’s killers, we must also repent. We must confront the ways that our fears, insecurities and jealousies prompt us to think and act in ways that destroy and kill. In our fear of death, our desire to preserve our life, we take from others, we scapegoat our fellow human being. We must confront the racism that exists in our hearts, the habits of thought that prompt us to make stereotyped judgements about black people or people of color. We must confront the reflex to justify a killing like that of Ahmaud Arbery when we presume guilt by asking, “What did he do?” We must repent of the ways that we have simply accepted his death and others like him as “normal,” or unavoidable. By accepting responsibility, we accept the need to change.

These are opportunities for our faith to become alive and for us to experience the resurrection. As Christians, we have no fear of death and bear no condemnation. Because Christ is risen, we are delivered from death’s power and thereby free to confront death in our hearts and in our society. Let us meet Christ then, bringing myrrh to his body that we have also slain, that he may raise us up from our death in his resurrection. Let us live, and not only sing, the Paschal Hymn:

“This is the day of resurrection. Let us be illumined by the feast. Let us embrace each other. Let us call ‘Brothers’ even those that hate us, and forgive all by the resurrection, and so let us cry: Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling down death by death, And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” 6

1 James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 160.
2 Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Silouan the Athonite, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s
Seminary Press, 1991), 47.
3 St John Chrysostom, “The Paschal Sermon,”
4 Sophrony, 122.
5 Sophrony, 121.
6 Verses for Paschal Matins.