Or rather, I guess, I smelled him. I saw him first, but I didn’t notice the smell until he walked past me to get off the bus.
I’ve smelled some smelly people in my time. I’ve worked with folks in the cathedral kitchen who haven’t bathed or washed their clothes in months. I’ve hung around students who are just unaware of how they smell in comparison to others. I’ve been trapped in a cubby closet with 15 5th graders out of a gym class during a lockdown drill. I’ve smelled BO before–but this wasn’t it.
I think it was death. Or rot. It was putrid, rank, like smarting mold. It reminded me of when I leave tupperwear containers locked for a few days without washing them. Only I knew it wasn’t really like that, because it was also human.
Some smelly people you just go “uuughhhgrossss”, and move on with your life disgusted (and let’s face it, in my teenage years I was often that person.) This, for some reason, frightened me more than disgusted me–or frightened me because it was so disgusting. I write these things down when I experience them, I guess, because.. what else would you do?
He was an enormous man. Dressed in brown clothing that was most certainly ancient and most certainly unwashed. He took up two seats on the bus. He moved very, very slowly. His head lolled back and his eyes were completely blank, mouth open. He looked like he was dead. He got off the bus a few stops before me. I really wondered where he was going. I remember the scene in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, when their mother gets up to go get the boy out of jail… I barely remember that movie at all, but it seemed like that kind of determination from this man.
I haven’t been around a lot of death in my life, so I don’t really know what I smelled. But I’m afraid that it was death, that it was rot. I’m afraid that this man was walking around, half dead, his flesh rotting in its folds, his diabetic soars eating up his feet, or his limbs rotting from gangrene already… I’m very frightened that this man was already dead when he was walking off the bus in front of me.
Where is the sickness in us that makes this happen?
In Ghana, back in 2008, I was traveling in the northern region and stood waiting for a bus to the big tourist park. There was an enormous commotion in the station, as there always is, since that is where all people go (and all people inevitably wait for ages) to get in or out of the city. There was an elderly man there–very thin–chant-singing his begging, and he had his foot held out. There was an enormous green sore there, on the top of his ankle, spreading to the top of his foot. I somewhat blankly stared for a split second, and then the good WASP in me looked away. But I’ve never forgotten that–actually looking at someone’s festering sore, seeing it there on the skin and being mesmerized by the body’s rot. Bodies are alive–can pieces of them die? Rot out, like wasted food?
It’s nearing Good Friday and so we’re thinking a lot about death in the church. Or maybe we aren’t. It’s my tendancy to think from Maundy Thursday right through to the Vigil. We don’t spend a lot of time in death in our liturgical calendar. We go from the actual killing of Jesus to the resurrection in about 24 hours. There’s not a lot of time to ruminate on being dead. In the tradition, Jesus isn’t dead for too very long, either. Either way, so much of our journey in Holy Week is mental. We praise Jesus because he is to be our king, then we become frightened at that message, and we impose imperial punishment on him–we kill him for insurrection. Then, terrified at the loss of our dreams, we approach the tomb to prepare a body, our last rights to our last hope, and instead that body has disappeared–risen. The body is absent, the rot of death is absent. We don’t know if Jesus’ body decomposed in the tomb. The most important thing was that it was a living Body when Thomas stuck his finger in the hole where the spear was, when he broke bread with his disciples on the road. The body was a living body then, but before hand, we all saw it on the cross–it was a dead, dead body in the tomb.
Crucifixion is a slow and painful death. But it is not as slow and painful as what I assume these men were suffering from when I briefly–seconds, really–encountered them on the great equalizer that is public transit. I don’t know what makes a man smell like that. I wonder if he’s living in a prolonged stage of crucifixion, walking around as he’s dying–walking around while he’s in the tomb, rotting away silently. His head was rolled back, mouth open, as if he was feverish. Unable to fully be aware. Moving so slowly, piece by piece, with labored breath.
I’m scared. Because really, what have we done?
Holy Week is so important because for each part of it, we are everyone in the story. We crucify, we share communion, we are crucified, we die, we mourn, we live in death, and then when we go to tend the dead, we rise again.
My fear and sorrow, I think, is from this mourning part–at the base of the cross, crying–what have we done? How could we have killed our God? How do we live in a world where a man is dead and rotting as he walks–killed life even in the living? Who are we, to live happily in such a world?
I guess when we go to tend the dead, we rise again.