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The Bible

My Body, Take and Eat. Or: Sermon on Her Mound [by Jill Alexander Essbaum]

Adam and EveBut of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Genesis 2: 17

(A disclaimer: The following opinions, words, indulgences are mine and mine alone.—jae.)

Let today’s appropriately Lenten Old Testament lectionary reading—that mess about the serpent and the fruit of that goddamed (quite literally) tree—serve as my prologue. Or, if not that, then in the words of Waylon Payne as “The Killer” himself, Jerry Lee Lewis in 2005’s Walk the Line:

God gave us a great big apple, see, and He said. "Don't touch it." He didn't say touch it once in a while. He didn't say take a nibble when you're hungry. He said, "Don't touch it. Don't think about touching it. Don't sing about touching it. Don't think about singing about touching it.”

Me, I’ve touched and nibbled that apple. I’ve stolen it from orchards aplenty (oh, Augustine!), baked it into pies, stewed from it ciders of bouquets both voluptuous and vinegar, set it atop heads and shot arrows straight through (and what exactly did William Tell, hmmm?). I have dared to eat the peach, I’ve rubbed the banana, fondled the melon, pear-treed the partridge, and bitten the berry until the juices veritably gushed.

But this is not a confession. I’m repentant only in theory.

This, Brothers and Sisters, is a sermon.

I’m looking at a picture of Jesus as I compose this. Unfairly blue-eyed and ridiculously rosy-cheeked, his right hand is raised in a gesture of benediction, and his beard is, a bit hilariously, curled in ringlets. It’s certainly not my favorite picture of the Lord, but it’s not his face that concerns me here. It’s what lies in this print’s geographic middle: Jesus’ ripe, red-as-a-valentine heart. A cross blossoms from its upper cleft. A tangle of thorny vines (which, unfortunately evokes Pamela Anderson’s tattooed upper arm à la “Barb Wire”) strangles it to near infarction. And: It’s on fire.

Behold the Sacred Heart of God.

I’m occasionally asked how I reconcile both the erotic and the religious impulse in my work. My answer is—with greater confidence and ease than I do in my day-to-day life, sadly. Even so, there are lusts and longings that I’ve celebrated in various poems (some of which I’ve also and alas celebrated in various beds) that are not just sternly frowned upon by Scripture, but outright verboten. In fact—and this troubles me greatly—these are deeds for which, in some eras hence and in some contemporary regimes, the price of their doing is death. It is with gutting ambivalence that I always come back to the Gospel story of the woman taken in adultery. Yes, Jesus stepped in on her behalf and told the stone-throwing hypocrites to take a hike. But he was also vodka-clear in his command to the woman: Go and sin no more.

Well… crap.

Martin Luther was of the opinion that as people of faith, when we sin, we ought sin boldly, trusting in Christ alone for our salvation. (Reason number 8 why I’m a Lutheran.)

But sin, unlike sex, isn’t precisely an act. It’s a condition. A terminal disease.

“The day thou eatest therof, thou shalt surely die.”

So whatever The Erotic is (argue amongst yourselves), it damn sure ain’t safe.

But then again, neither is a God whose thorn-pocked, fiery heart is splintered by a cross. A God who so loved the world that he let himself be ripped to fleshy shreds on Skull Hill some two millennia ago. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t clean, it wasn’t safe.

Christ, however, is more than his crucifixion. He’s the very embodiment of God’s grace, forgiveness, joy, humility, and absolute concern for the well-being of every soul in every body that has or ever will have lived upon this twirling solar satellite we call Earth.

But: Christ is also his crucifixion.

Likewise, The Erotic is more than just cock and pussy. It’s a state of sensual fuck-it-all-ness. It’s knowing full well that the apple you’re eating bloody will kill you, but swallowing it anyway, fearing neither death nor bedevilment in the gulp-down. It’s the awareness that even though you’re eating it, it’s not this apple precisely that you’re hungry for. It’s the hunger that precedes the apple. The thirst that can only be quenched by more thirsting.

But—and make no mistake—The Erotic is also and indeed cock and pussy (configure as you will).

It’s no secret that poets are notoriously horny—or, if you will, notorious in the telling of horny tales. Moreso than the average Jack or (ahem) Jill? Oh, I think not. Sinning on paper is the safest of all. You can’t catch anything, there's no need for birth control, and if you don’t want to overtly cop to a particular kink, you can write it off as ‘poetic license’ with a mere wink and lick of the lips.

And I like to think that God has a heart for poets. King David—that sinning psalmster—was utterly, unapologetically beloved by the Lord. But David suffered greatly at the hands of his own urges. As have I. As have we all.

So already-broken hearts have the tendency to get busted up even more. And hands a body craved so desperately upon it, when gone, leave the ghost-scars of longing. And nevermind with what fervor you whetted its blade upon your skin: Desire's knife, left unused, rusts in its sheath. Night flees from daylight, and lovers’ arms turn cold.

No. There is nothing safe in this world, or, perhaps, the next.

But looking up at the Sacred Heart of Christ, and thinking of every love I’ve blundered, every lust I’ve suffered, every apple I’ve ever been the I of, I’m resigned to an altogether un-contrite gladness.

In a Day of Pentecost sermon preached last year at Martin Luther Church, Zürich, the pastor (whose name is lost to my memory) proclaimed: Gott kommt mit Feuer—God comes with fire.

Well. So do I, Brothers and Sisters. So do I.

--Jil Alexander Essbaum

(This was not written as a response to Lisa's post which in turn was not written as a response to Denise’s—I wrote it before I read Lisa’s—but Glory Be!, lookie the collective unconscious at work! I find this to be a fine, fine serendipity. -jae)

Ed. note: from the archive. Posted February 16, 2008.

January 01, 2021

June 17, 2020

March 06, 2019

February 01, 2018

February 16, 2017

March 13, 2015

March 12, 2015

December 06, 2014

December 05, 2014

February 19, 2014

January 10, 2014

June 02, 2013

April 13, 2012

March 13, 2012

February 20, 2012

January 11, 2012

August 07, 2010

March 27, 2010

February 06, 2010

September 19, 2009

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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