The body lay before me, limp and lifeless. I had known this day would come, but only now did I fully comprehend its horror. My eyes stung with tears; through the blur, I gazed helplessly at the deceased’s green flesh.
“Pick up your scalpel,” a voice commanded.
It was my high school biology class, and I had to dissect a frog.
Trembling, I clutched the steel instrument, swallowed hard, and tried to slice open the rubbery carcass. My stomach protested; the smell of formaldehyde was overwhelming. For the first (and last) time in my education, I wished I’d taken calculus instead. Exponential functions were suddenly much more appealing than dead amphibians.
Having made the initial cut, I grimaced and glanced over at my anatomical diagram of the frog – my road map to the poor creature’s innards. Looking back at the frog, I was perplexed. The diagram was precise and colorful; each organ was easily distinguished.
The actual frog was another matter. Its organs were a jumble of brownish blobs that only vaguely resembled anything on the diagram. The representation was ideal, but the reality was sloppy.
In fact, it was a mess.
Even the most casual Animal Planet TV viewer can attest that nature is by definition messy. Mud and muck abound. Lines are seldom straight. This beautiful, broken world wriggles, oozes, and darts about in a sort of inspired disarray.
In reflecting on the Gospels, I’ve begun to realize that Jesus seems quite comfortable with messes.
He touched the rotting limbs of a leper (Mark 1:40-45). He used clay and spittle to heal a blind man’s eyes (John 9:6). A bleeding, ritually unclean woman grasped his garment; he turned and honored her faith in him, which healed her (Mark 5:25-34).
A possessed man stumbled out of the tombs, half naked and ranting demonically at the Lord’s feet. Jesus ousted the evil spirits and permitted them to enter a nearby herd of pigs, which stampeded off a cliff and into the sea (Mark 5:1-20).
What did the disciples think as they left that strange shore, rejected by the frightened townspeople, guiding their boat through a mass of dead, floating pigs? Surely this episode of howls and hogs didn’t fit their noble vision of Messianic rule.
And despite Christ’s triumphal entry on what we now call Palm Sunday, things didn’t get any easier in Jerusalem. To the disciples, the Lord’s Passion certainly looked like a mess, and heartbreaking one at that. Dreams of freedom from Rome, a restored kingdom under Jesus’ rule, prosperity and divine favor – these were the neatly constructed ideals that the Savior’s horrific torture and death shattered.
The resurrection wasn’t much more orderly. There was no grand manifestation to the Roman and religious authorities who had executed Jesus; no vengeful glory, no display of Christ’s conquering might to silence his oppressors. The Lord revealed himself to a few women, whose accounts were initially disbelieved (Luke 24:9-11), and then to his apostles, who at first thought him a ghost (Luke 24:37).
By the time he ascended into heaven, very few humans on this earth knew of Christ. After the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, “great numbers were added” (Acts 2:41, 47; Acts 5:14), but decades and then centuries passed before Christianity gained significant traction beyond the eastern Mediterranean area.
Over time, the church developed (and continues to do so) through messy processes, cycles of sanctity and growth fraught with scandal and schism. Yet Jesus’ words echo into eternity: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
As members of that church, we’re not called to run from life’s messes, but rather to meet them head on, accepting them as part of our path to holiness.
“Messiness is what happens when you try to live out God’s perfect grace as a flawed person in a flawed world,” says Caleb Kaltenbach, author of “Messy Grace” (Colorado Springs, Colo.; WaterBrook, 2015). “God has a way of working through us when we keep trying to share his grace, regardless of how messy our situations get.”
In an address at the July 2013 World Youth Day, Pope Francis called on pilgrims to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty in the work of evangelization.
“I hope for a mess,” he declared. “I want to see the church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures. The church must be taken into the streets.”
And that kind of holy mess — made by a Master with grimy, love-scarred hands — sure beats dissecting frogs.
Gina Christian is a writer in Philadelphia and a member of St. William Parish.