I make it a point to try to avoid focusing or writing too heavily on my status as an HIV positive individual, lest it comes to define me. There are two times throughout the year, however, where I make it a practice to reflect on the virus.
One occurs around the early weeks of Epiphany, the season when I received my diagnosis in January of 2011. The other is around December 1, or World AIDS Day.
This year, in an odd peculiarity of the liturgical cycle, World AIDS Day happened to fall on the first Sunday in Advent.
Advent is the beginning of a new liturgical year and a season that awaits the embodied, incarnate love of God. Needless to say, I could not allow this unique opportunity for reflection to slip past me.
But, there is a host of challenges here, not least of which is the reality that, as the anniversary of my diagnosis looms on the yearly horizon, I am routinely thrust back into a place of almost unbearable vulnerability. It’s a place to which I would rather not venture, despite the fact that I know my baptismal vows call me into this place of vulnerability.
The day-in and day-out matter of living with the virus is, in some ways, easily escapable these days, especially in this region of the world. Unlike other wounds that mark our lives, this one is invisible, inscribed inside of me, rather than etched into my flesh.
I have the privilege of passing through the world more or less unmarked, if I so choose.
The only tangible reminder I have of my status comes to me every evening at 10:30 when I take my antiretroviral medication, access to which is a matter of privilege—the product of having been born in a developed region of the world.
We read that resurrection does not undo those wounds we acquire in life—the signs of Jesus’s execution were not erased in his risen form. Yet, they were changed, at least conceptually. Signs of shame—warnings about the consequences of resisting the imperial imagination—became signs of love, triumph in humility.
I have to wonder what my own wound, a stigma shared with many across three decades, will look like in the age to come. Surely it is impossible to erase something invisible? But does that also mean the nature of its transformation will be equally undetectable?
That is the word we throw around these days, isn’t it?
“It’s okay, I’m undetectable.” This is the parlance we use to describe a state of treatment when the HIV virus reaches such low levels in the blood stream that it becomes almost impossible to detect, and, therefore, exponentially more difficult to transmit—it indicates that antiretroviral treatments are doing their job, sending the virus into a form of retreat, though not permanent elimination.
This is, in my own estimation, a real point of progress in HIV treatment and prevention. I have been at an undetectable status for just over two years now, and this gives me solace, knowing that the chances of transmitting the virus are now infinitesimally small, and that my life will be greatly extended to near “normal” expectancy.
Being undetectable, however, has not erased the other ways the virus is present in my life, and in the lives of others living with it. Despite treatments, education, and highly effective prevention methods (when used correctly), a looming specter of stigmatization hangs over those living with the virus.
I had been, for the most part, rather immune to the reality until, that is, my long-term relationship took on a new shape. Suddenly, I find myself having to disclose to potential partners, and the results have been revealing.
The physical wound is now giving way to the spiritual wounds of rejection and devaluation.
Words like “clean” and “dirty” begin to confront me in a way that I imagine has been the daily reality for most HIV positive individuals: “dirty,” “unclean,” “tainted,” “poisonous.”
Suddenly, I’m dangerous, and while I am objectively aware that these value-judgments bear no scientific validity, the judgments still subjectively inflict and incise. Will this new dimension of the wound be as equally undetectable? What will be the manner of its transformation?
The frightening reality is that Advent peers into the complexity of this condition. While the liturgical narrative waits expectantly on the Incarnation of Jesus, you and I already know the rest of the story. Advent invariably points to Good Friday and, thereafter, Easter. The miracle of the Word made flesh realizes its own destiny: the incarnate Word is poised to share our wounds with us, and in so doing alters their nature. There is an anxious hope in Advent, to be sure.
This hope, however, is also aware of its own struggles—it is a hope that knows full well our continued bondage.
It is, therefore, not unfitting that at the beginning of Advent we should pause to consider how we are wounded, how we wound others, and how our daily resurrection—our daily participation in the wounded Body of Christ—has the potential to transform what might be an otherwise bleak narrative.
Each year I spend with the virus is a continued gift. I do not say this to make light of the continued loss and pain suffered by those who have come before me and those with whom I am now marked; rather, I say it to celebrate the meanings that go beyond an otherwise one dimensional reading of life with HIV.
There is hope in our woundedness, just as there was hope on both Christmas and Easter morning: this hope is transformation, not erasure. It signals to us that, in the midst of our deepest theodicy, we cannot ask why God might appear to forsake us by allowing the fractures which distress and distort our vision of ourselves and the world.
God, instead, is best seen in these fractures and how we continually transform them into those sites at which we are visited by the divine.
Erasure is too simple, perhaps too human an answer. God, however, is seldom this simple, and seldom this clear cut. Perhaps this is one of the authentic lessons of the Advent season of God’s own fleshy manifestation in a backwater Roman province, amid the wounds and fractures inflicted by those worldly powers that so often cause us to peer up, rather than down amid our own endless transformative possibilities.