Guest blog post by Hannah Shanks, author of This is My Body: Embracing the Messiness of Faith and Motherhood. She writes about the intersections of faith, church history, social justice and personal experience at hannaheshanks.com.
It was 3am. I was 3 days postpartum, awake, and alone. My son, born 34 weeks premature, was still in the NICU. It was my first night home without him and, instead of experiencing the small hours with a child at my side, I was nursing a large, hospital grade breast pump I’d had to rent and carry home on my lap. Earlier that day, on the way out of the hospital, I’d watched other women be wheeled out with kiddos in car seats safely on their laps. I rolled out with a massive hospital beige box with a conspicuous clasp on the top. No balloons, no flowers. Just what felt like the world’s saddest consolation prize.
After my third wake-up of the evening, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I washed the many pump pieces in the sink. Bleary-eyed, exhausted, swollen from preeclampsia and the slowly dissipating IV fluids, I struggled to recognize myself. My face was wider than I’d ever seen it, my breasts swollen hard from the milk that had just come in, my belly rigid under my nightgown from the binder that let me feel as though my insides might not fall out of me after all.
I chuckled and thought, “This is my body now, I guess.” But in that instant, I heard the echo of every pastor at every communion I’d ever participated in.
“This is my body, broken for you…this is my blood, shed for you.“
In that moment, I realized those words—always framed with respect to Christ’s death—were an accurate descriptor of every birth that’s ever happened in all of human history. And that opened a window into a new way of seeing what God is up to in the world, and how we—how I—can be about that kind of work.
While my particular postpartum experience is not one that all of us will share, I think many of us have had that moment at one time or another where we see ourselves in the mirror and think, “I don’t know who that person is.” Perhaps it’s because we so suddenly resemble an older relative, or we’ve suffered an accident, or have reached a point in a struggle where our body registers the toll of what we’ve been through.
I’ve now come to know—through years of pouring through ancient and modern theology, church history, and writings of Christians across the centuries—that all of us (all of us!) are caught up in the Gospel proclamation of Jesus’ words at the table. The parts of us that we want to leave behind, the scars, the struggle, the inner critics—nothing is left out when it comes to Jesus’ table.
We never stop belonging to each other. And we never stop belonging to ourselves. And we never, ever, ever stop belonging to God.
And that means that the work of God, including the work of communion, is to learn to recognize ourselves and each other, fully embodied as we are, as God’s body and work in the world.
And this is the work of birth: breaking open in order for a new life to come into the world.
We have to break open in order to let ourselves be seen.
We have to break down, sometimes, in order to be seen by others.
And we have to learn to recognize ourselves and each other in the same way the disciples recognized Jesus in his Resurrection: by his wounds.
When we can do that, I believe we can find ourselves—even if only for a moment—feasting at God’s heavenly banquet. This is where we can see ourselves and others and say “This is my body,” and know we are one.
To start your own work of proclaiming God’s incarnation within you, consider what messages you have heard about your body, either from the Church, your family, or other sources.
What parts of yourself do you struggle to claim?
What parts of yourself or your identity have not felt welcome in church spaces?
For a prayerful or meditative practice, try taking a pen and writing “This is My Body” on the parts of yourself you struggle with: self-harm scars, parts you dislike, or a symbolic place such as over your heart or lungs. During your next communion, imagine those words being spoken over the parts of you that have felt unwelcome in the church.
Hannah Shanks is the author of This is My Body: Embracing the Messiness of Faith and Motherhood. She is a speaker, storyteller, professor & social worker from St. Louis, Missouri. She holds a Bachelor’s in Religion: Urban/Cross-Cultural Ministries from Greenville University and a Master’s of Social Work from Saint Louis University.
In addition to her work life, Hannah is a self-described “accidental clergy spouse,” a member of a new monastic community named Anam Cara St. Louis, and an occasional runner.