Remember That You Are Dust (and Blood and Breath): A Response to the Gospel Coalition

Recently, the Gospel Coalition posted an essay about wrestling with human sinfulness in the form of PMS. (I’m not going to link to it here and give them more clicks, but if you really want to see it, you can google PMS: The Monthly Fight with the Flesh.) The author wrote about how her period-induced sadness, anxiety, and irritability were reminders of her need to daily wrestle with “the flesh.” As one might expect from TGC, bad theology abounded.

But this morning, as I sat in an Ash Wednesday service, suffering through some particularly debilitating menstrual symptoms of a migraine and vertigo, I started reflecting on what this experience of weakness can tell me about humanity and our relationship to God.

People who menstruate experience significant stigmas, and as someone who menstruates, but is not a woman, I experience it doubly. The Gospel Coalition article does nothing to reduce that stigma. But where The Gospel Coalition fails, the Gospel succeeds.

In Galatians 3, Paul interprets Deuteronomy 21:23 as Jesus breaking the curse of “the law.” Now, Deuteronomy has more instances of the word “curse” than any other book of the Bible. One way to understand the concept of a “curse” is God’s punishment for sinfulness. But I would argue that “curse” could also be read as “stigma.”

Most scholars believe that Deuteronomy was written as a means of wrestling with the question of why God allowed what seemed to them to be the greatest curse of all: the destruction of Judah and the forced migration of God’s chosen people into Babylonian exile. The Deuteronomistic Historian (the person or group of people that most scholars credit with writing and compiling most of the material from the Deuteronomy to 2 Kings) makes it their mission to understand why God has allowed this great suffering. The answer that the Deuteronomist comes to is sin. Judah must have done something really bad against God, and for that reason, God is punishing them. In this context, the many curses of Deuteronomy begin to make sense.

In the New Testament, the disciples ask Jesus a question that I think mirrors the Deuteronomistic mindset: “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Jesus tells them that this blindness is not a punishment for sin at all.

This is why I read “curse” as stigma: a common response to suffering sees misery and assumes that it is a punishment for sin without inquiring further. It says, “This person is cursed because of their sin,” and ostracizes them further. 

Before I proceed, let me be clear that this tendency is not specific to the Jewish Scriptures. In Acts 28, the people of Malta assume that Paul is a sinner because he is bitten by a snake, and rather than subverting the sin-consequence framework, Acts works within it to show that Paul is blameless because the venom does not harm him. The tendency to distance ourselves from pain by blaming people for their suffering is a human tendency, not an “Old Testament” one. 

If Jesus breaks curses, does Jesus also break stigmas? 

To be honest, I wish Jesus had done more to scold the crowds for their stigmatization of lepers, Samaritans, women, and disabled individuals. He interacts with these stigmatized people lovingly, and he heals many of the barriers to their inclusion, but he does nothing to upend the systems that created their societal rejection. I wish that the Bible was not so easily used to maintain, rather than destroy, stigmas. But we can see, by the way that Jesus personally ignores the societal rules for interacting with stigmatized individuals, that Jesus does not subscribe to our practices of stigma and shaming.

So what do we do with period stigmas?

I’m a biblical theologian, not an activist or a sociologist, but here are some resources that might help! And as we enter into this season of Lent, we remember that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ empower us to overcome our sinful behaviors that uphold and reinforce stigmas.

A New Ash Wednesday Theology of Periods

Today is the day on which we hear, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We remember that we are weak and made from the earth. We are not capable of living sinless lives, we are not capable of keeping ourselves from aging and dying, we are not capable of redeeming our own existences. 

When you read the story in Genesis 2, you’ll see that we are also a little more than just dust. God breathes into the dust, and the breath of God brings the human person to life. So not only are we weak, and mortal, we are animated and sustained by the very breath of God.

To be human is to live in the tension of our weakness and our dependency on the all-powerful God. When I’m bleeding and dizzy and in pain, my body keeps going even when I have no energy to tell it to keep fighting. Although of course I’m not actually dying, and science can tell me why my lungs keep filling with air, I like to think that the grace of God sustains me. Isn’t it amazing that I can lose so much blood every month and my God-formed body keep making more? And, of course, even the very blood that is leaving my body is God-given.

In Genesis 9, when God gives Noah permission to eat meat, God forbids him from eating an animal’s blood, because “it is its life.” And it’s true that the heartbeat is a telltale sign of life, but I think the symbol also reveals something deeper. Blood is symbolic of life and vitality, something that belongs to God alone. If our bodies return to dust, and our breath returns to God, what happens to our blood? Genesis 9 says that God requires a reckoning: blood cannot be consumed by any person, for it belongs to God alone. The only blood we are to consume is that of Christ, which nourishes us.

I’ve wondered for years whether there could be a spiritual significance to the blood that sheds from my uterus every month. There must be more to the monthly ritual of emptying this space in my body only to rebuild it. It has to be more than just ritual uncleanness.

At the very least, we can say that the Christian life, like menstruation, is cyclical. We follow seasons, like lent, of self-emptying as we prepare to celebrate the triumphs of Christ. We give up parts of our lives—be they meat, chocolate, or complaining—for a time as part of our preparation to celebrate the resurrection. But menstruation is not some kind of purgation or self-punishment for our sins.

The Gospel Coalition talks about the hormones we experience during PMS as part of a “fleshly” nature. Although the essay does not entirely conflate bodies with the Pauline metaphor of “the flesh,” it does place the human body completely into the category of “bad.” As I have written about here, Paul’s actual perspective on bodies was much more nuanced: the body is not merely a container for sin, nor is it exempt from it: it is the stage on which the story of redemption plays out.

Perhaps surprisingly, Ash Wednesday does not condemn our bodies or encourage us to transcend them. It simply reminds us of our weakness in body, in soul, and in spirit.

There’s a Greek word, kenosis, that describes the self-emptying of Christ when He took on flesh. You can find it in Philippians 2:6-7 when Jesus, “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself” and was born as a human baby. If blood is the vitality which God gives to humans, could our periods be a kind of kenosis?

I’m not sure if there is a spiritual reason for our periods, but today, uncomfortable and with burned palm leaves and oil crowning my forehead, my period reminded me of my weakness. And even in weakness, God supplies my every breath.