December 22, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – The garish Nativity Scene, or presepe, in Saint Peter’s Square disturbed me when I first saw the photos, but my colleague’s in-depth report for LifeSiteNews (LSN) broke my heart. Many viewers had complained that the nude muscleman representing the Corporal Work of Mercy of 'clothing the naked' seemed homoerotic; the LSN report confirms that it was meant to be.
What a slap in the face for those who shiver through the winters because they, or their parents, can’t afford extra clothing. What a slap in the face for those who are so ill their clothes don’t fit. What a slap in the face for those youngsters trapped in the sex trade and made to display themselves in skimpy, degrading clothing. And what a slap in the face for men and women stripped of their clothing during sexual attacks. For all this is what nakedness implies today.
Rome is rarely cold, so it may not have been apparent to the jokers who thought up this year’s presepe what nakedness means to people in cold climates. In northern countries like Canada, you almost never see naked people in public, but you occasionally see adults and children shivering in the cold. Their coats are thinner than other people’s coats. They wear shoes, not boots, or boots so cheap and flimsy, they are lined with newspaper. Their gloveless hands are painfully red, so red it hurts to look at them. The temptation to jump out of your car and thrust your own gloves upon them may be irresistible.
And I don’t know if any of the jokers who pondered this year’s presepe have ever been the primary caregiver for a desperately sick person. From March until October I fought my husband’s inexplicable loss of appetite with all his favourite fatty foods–including Christmas recipes–as he got thinner and thinner. I pleaded with doctors, with eventual success, to have him taken into hospital. But before he was finally admitted, it was I who washed him once a week. One day I helped him into a warm bath and he yelled in pain because the tub was so hard on his bones. And he wore the same pair of sweatpants day after day because they were the only pants that fit.
As for victims of the sex trade and sexual assault, I cannot even begin to imagine the terror and the feelings of violation that come from being stripped of clothing–peeled like a banana–by someone who doesn’t care how you feel about it–or even hopes you hate it. When victims of sex-related murders are found in fields or in the woods, the first human impulse is to cover the naked or partially naked body.
In first-century Palestine, people were cruelly taxed, had no social safety net beyond the family, and certainly had no psychiatric help. It is easy to imagine how those the poor Jesus walked among might end up absolutely–and literally–naked and depend on their neighbors for enough clothing to readmit them to normal social life. Clothing, as every generation of western parents since 1963 has had to explain to their teenage children, gives public dignity to the human person.
To be naked, or under-dressed, is to be vulnerable, unprotected, prey for the hot sun of the Holy Land, or the cold air of the north-west, or an opportunistic germ, or a greedy john, or an evil rapist. Nakedness is not nudity; nudity belongs to art, a title for which the crude figures of the Vatican presepe do not qualify.
“The English language, with its elaborate generosity, distinguishes between the naked and the nude,” wrote the great art critic Sir Kenneth Clarke. “To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word ‘nude,’ on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone.”
Nudity in art may indeed be a celebration of the human form, and Christ instructed us to clothe the naked, not the nude. Indeed, some have been defending the muscle-bound figure of the Vatican presepe by saying he echoes the nudes of the Sistine Chapel.
However, the figure in St Peter’s Square isn’t supposed to be a nude. It’s not supposed to celebrate the beauty of the human form. We’re being asked to believe that the naked man, pink with health and bursting with muscles, represents the vulnerability of nakedness.
And I say this is nonsense. This figure is a slap in the face of the naked.