Holidays and Holy Days
The Christian Year in Tattoo
By Deborah Arca Mooney
I first met Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber on a Sunday evening before worship at her emerging liturgical Lutheran church, House of All Sinners and Saints, in downtown Denver. As she extended her hand to greet me, I noticed her arms were covered in colorful tattoos, but it wasn't until I ran into her again a few days later that I got a closer look. When I mentioned I was looking for someone to write about the Christian liturgical year for Patheos, she pulled up her sleeve and smiled. "I have the liturgical year tattooed on my arm."
Indeed, cascading down the front of this pastor's arm from shoulder to wrist, was the entire Christian story in tattoo. There, in vivid detail, was the deep darkness and gleaming stars of Creation; the Angel Gabriel announcing the birth of Christ; Mary, Joseph, and Jesus (and the animals!) at the Nativity; Jesus fasting in the desert; Good Friday and the Crucifixion; Mary and the women at the empty tomb; and the first apostles with tongues of fire at Pentecost. It was the most beautiful tattoo I had ever seen, not to mention a stunning display of faith.
I sat down with Nadia recently at St. Mark's coffeehouse in Denver to ask her about her tattoos, the relationship between her body art and her faith, and "tattoo evangelism. "
So how long did it take to tattoo the entire liturgical year on your arm?
Twenty hours ... but you don't do it all at once! You can only get tattooed for about three or four hours at a time and then your endorphins run out and it really hurts. I started this tattoo a couple of years ago. You have to wait a month in between sessions for the skin to heal before they can start again, so it was a really long process.
What compelled you to have the Christian "story," from beginning to end, tattooed on your arm?
I loved the idea of having the liturgical year on my arm. It felt perfect for me. It's my favorite tattoo I've ever gotten.
What is it about the liturgical year that you find so meaningful?
The thing that I like about it is that it patterns our lives in an almost counter-cultural manner. When you are walking through the regular temporal year and, at the same time, the liturgical year, it's an overlay of our faith on our lives on a daily basis. It allows us to have dual citizenship. Right now, I'm definitely experiencing the third week in November just like everybody else and what that means in terms of the seasons and Thanksgiving, but I'm also realizing that these are the last days of the liturgical year, and that "Christ the King" is on Sunday. You get to experience a patterned life, and not just with your worshipping community, but with all of the holy catholic apostolic church. So when we are entering Advent, everyone across the planet is entering Advent as well. It ends up connecting us to other people in a way that nothing else can -- this shared experience.
We are a people of The Book, like Jews and Muslims are people of The Book. So I talk about being people of The Story. We enact this story not only throughout the year in terms of the liturgical year, but every Sunday we are embodying the liturgical tradition. We are physically singing the story, hearing the story, taking it in with the Eucharist, and then going out into the world having embodied the story. So we are constantly living in that dual citizenship. It's almost mystical, but at the same time it's completely quotidian, it's totally embodied.
And you find that very compelling to people ...
I do. We don't experience much in our lives in America -- in our visual field, in our hearing -- that's more than 50 years old. Everything's new here. So what we get by being part of that liturgical year, that ancient patterned way of living in the Christian tradition, is that it connects us not only to people right now, but to all who have gone before us and all who will come after us. It's a very lush way of living that's not just ¾ inch deep like everything else in our culture.
So how did you decide on the specific images for this tattoo?
I found this tattoo from a children's book -- a Roman Catholic book -- on the liturgical year. It was a single illustration on one page of a book. I took it to my tattoo artist and he had to manipulate it to fit on my arm. He's a true artist. He ended doing a more beautiful image than what was in the book.
Okay, so walk me through this tattoo, starting from the top...
It starts with an image of Creation and the cosmos, and that flows into the angel Gabriel descending. The pregnant Elizabeth and Zechariah stand near the depiction of the Nativity -- Mary, Joseph, Jesus, along with a donkey and a cow. Next is Jesus in the desert for Lent, followed by the largest piece, Good Friday and the Crucifixion, with Jesus surrounded by the women weeping at the Cross. The next scene is the angel and the women at the empty tomb at Easter, followed by the final image of Mary and the apostles with flames on their heads at Pentecost.
So people ask you about the tattoo a lot?
All the time! It's not a style of art you see being tattooed, so people are really fascinated by it and come up and ask me about it. I go through the whole explanation and they go "Wow..." and I tell them, well, I'm a Lutheran pastor so it's kind of a vocational tattoo.
And how do people respond?
Generally, people either look at me as though I'm lying or joking. Seldom do people say, "Oh, that's really great." They have to sort of work through this cognitive dissonance.
This is obviously the largest and most complex tattoo you've done, but you have many others. What was the very first Christian tattoo you got?
Mary Magdalene was the first. She's from a 12th-century Psalter from the British Isles called St. Alban's Psalter. It's a rare depiction in ancient Christian art of Mary announcing the resurrection. She was the apostle to the apostles.
And your most recent tattoo is a dramatic portrayal of Lazarus shrouded in deep blue and purple cloth. Why Lazarus?
Well, I was preaching on that text and I couldn't write the sermon! It's true. And, I just really feel like I experience resurrection all the time in my own life -- death and resurrection -- constantly, like every day. So, I think that's really a part of the Christian life - dying and being given new life. In our baptism, we daily die to the old self and rise to the new. That's the Christian life.
What is it about tattoos that is so compelling for people today?
When you ask people about their tattoos, what you'll find, even though they might not articulate it this way, is that it allows us to put something on the outside that is already on the inside. It's a way of sort of wearing our insides.
So, are your tattoos a form of evangelism?
I don't think of them as an outreach tool. I don't do that ... it's not like me to be intentionally thinking, "oh now I can try and hook this person." I'm just who I am in the world and how people interact with me is up to God. To me, evangelism is just authentically being who we are, where God put us ... being people of The Story.
"Ready for Christmas?" Read Nadia Bolz-Weber's article here.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor living in Denver, Colorado, where she serves the emerging church, House for all Sinners and Saints. She blogs at www.sarcasticlutheran.com and is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television.