The Naked Truth

Continuing on from yesterday, when we talked about Mary Magdalen and sugar bowls, today I’d like to talk about being naked.

Now that I have your attention, I hope that you will continue reading. Remember that this is Holy Week for Christians, such as this scrivener, as we approach Easter Sunday, and I am looking at some of the details from the Passion Narrative contained in the Gospel of St. Mark, which you can read here. Hopefully, I am doing so in a way which will cause both my Christian and Non-Christian readers alike to pause and reflect on some larger, cultural issues raised herein.

We read in St. Mark’s account of Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane about the following incident after the Apostles all took to their heels:

And they all left him and fled.
Now a young man followed him
wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body.
They seized him,
but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked.

Traditionally, this unfortunate young fellow has been identified as being St. Mark himself. Now, for a Jewish youth like St. Mark – assuming that this was he – to admit in his writing that he was involuntarily stripped naked must have been a very difficult thing, indeed. While the pagans of his day may have had fewer qualms about nudity, for an observant Jew like St. Mark to publicly admit that this happened to him must have been mortifying.

So why did St. Mark tell us about this rather embarrassing moment? On one hand, such an inclusion lends a greater degree of authenticity to St. Mark’s account of what happened. In all four of the Gospels, we often find what we might call “throwaway details”, which do not really appear to have anything to do with the story they are telling, but give us the sense that the writer himself either personally witnessed these events, or they were told to him by those who had personally witnessed them. I would refer you for example to St. John’s Gospel at 21:24, where we are told: “It is this disciple who testifies to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.” However I think there is something else which we ought to consider here, Christian and Non-Christian alike, and that is our attitude toward being exposed.

I had to visit a specialist this morning due to a knee problem. While the results turned out to be much better than I had feared, the process of putting myself into the doctor’s hands was something I found mortifying, even though I did not have to completely strip off my clothing. Although the ultimate goal of the examination was beneficial, the partial disrobing, the poking and prodding and manipulation, were all embarrassing. Of course, neither the physician nor myself were doing this for kicks, if you’ll pardon the expression, but there was still an element of exposing oneself in the context of acknowledging a weakness that felt slightly humiliating.

Within the Judeo-Christian paradigm which formed the basis for Western Civilization, or what remains of that civilization at present, nudity is something that holds a somewhat different meaning than it did for the Classical Civilization which it supplanted. The ancient world celebrated physical beauty, particularly when displayed in the altogether, as a symbol of divinity and perfection, and Western Civilization did not deny this – Adam and Eve, for example, have appeared, starkers, in Western art from the very beginning.  However, there was a shift in the understanding of exposure, for while recognizing beauty Western culture simultaneously recognized that exposure was also a sign of weakness.

Despite what you may have read or been taught to the contrary, human nature has not really changed very much over the centuries. It is not at all unusual that human nudity is a trigger for thoughts related to the act of sexual reproduction. Our species does not put on the type of visual display that many members of the animal kingdom do during the year, in order to signal their readiness to mate, by changing colors or the like. For the pagans this was not necessarily a problem, since their ideas about human sexuality were often focused on self-gratification as being of paramount importance, in a kind of proto-Darwinian state.

For those in the Judeo-Christian community, on the other hand, who ultimately supplanted the pagans in the Western world, nudity was not only a potential catalyst for things like adultery, promiscuity, and resulting disease and illegitimacy, it was also paradoxically an opportunity to care for those in need who might otherwise receive nothing. Thus, two of Noah’s sons cover him up when he is naked and unable to care for himself, and Christ tells His Disciples that if they clothe the naked, they are clothing Him. Selfishness, whether in terms of sexual gratification, laughing at the expense of others, or maintaining one’s material comforts, was replaced by the virtue of self-sacrifice.

Western Civilization came to understand as a result of the Judeo-Christian influence that a healthy attitude toward nudity has nothing to do with the amount of bare flesh exposed, and everything to do with the intent of the individual.  For example, a pop star who is technically completely clothed while performing on stage, may be more scandalously clad than someone completely or nearly naked at the doctor’s office. The intent of the former is malicious, in advocating a selfish, personal gratification, where the needs of the self come before the needs of others, while the intent of the latter is either completely innocent, or at the very least morally neutral.

In recognizing human weakness, Western Civilization changed the way that we behave toward one another, and ultimately did so for the greater good of all mankind. It brought about a shift in the attitude toward how human beings were to treat one another sexually, so as to create a more stable society, but it also established both the mindset and the institutions necessary to care for those who had nothing – people whom the pagans would have looked down upon, abused, or completely ignored. Those who would argue that we would be better off if we all went about naked are missing out on a very critical point: it is in the self-sacrifice of clothing, both by those who wear it and those who give it, that Western culture has been able to take the focus away from advocating selfishness, and toward advocating self-control, good judgement, and charity, in order to build up a more equitable society.

Returning to where we began, a pagan would not have found what happened to St. Mark to be anything other than a source of amusement, if not worse. We however recognize that in the stripping away of his dignity, St. Mark was humiliated, and we feel sorry for him: he is meant to be an object of our pity, not our scorn, for what he went through in trying to find out what was happening to his friend, Jesus, as He was arrested and hauled away.  We would hope never to find ourselves in that position.

The human body may indeed be a beautiful thing, but we need to remember that it is the intent or the context in which that body is presented to us that we prove our mettle as the inheritors of centuries or Western culture, or whether we are simply neo-pagans who value our own self-gratification above all other things.


“Christ in The Garden of Gethsemane” by Arkhip Kuindzhi (1901)
Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg