Let us pray:
Come thou Wisdom from on high
and order all things far and nigh
To us the path of knowledge show
and cause us in Her ways to go. Amen.
It was for the author of the gospel attributed to John as if time had stopped and started all over again. Or been rewound. Or spiraled back on itself. This new beginning was another beginning, not the same beginning. But it changed everything. I know the “in the beginning” language is beloved, traditional and familiar, but grammatically it’s more like “when beginning…”
John 1:1 When beginning there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The Word was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through the Word, and without the Word not one thing came into being. That which has come into being 4 in the Word was life, and the life was the light of humanity. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
God begins with a word, the logos, in the Gospel. God begins with the Aramaic word for word, Memra, in the mystical tradition of Judaism on which Yochannan whom you know as John is drawing – if he indeed wrote the gospel penned in his name – just as God began with the d’var, the Hebrew word for word when beginning all things in Genesis. When beginning each time, each beginning was a word, a divine word, a holy word, a spoken but not yet written word, perhaps a word whispered in a still small voice.
That word was light and life; it was more than alive; it was life itself. The word was the God of life and the life of God to be breathed, poured, into humanity giving us life in the image of God. This eternal living light cannot be extinguished and shines forever as God lives forever, as we too will one day live forever. This living light has been infused into and through creation and we – and the whole of creation – are suffused with it. But that light coexists with darkness.
The light is shining in the darkness. The darkness cannot overcome, overwhelm, diminish or suppress the light. Yet what John does not say (in verse five) is that the light does not overcome the darkness. The darkness and light co-exist. There is always shadow. The world is filled with shadow. We have seen those shadows recently. Friday was the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children and babies murdered on Herod’s orders as he sought kill the Virgin’s miraculous child. And we remember the innocents of all generations who have been slaughtered for every reason and no reason: in the Crusades, during ocean-crossing of the Atlantic slave trade, the native peoples of North, South and Central America, in the Holocaust, those who have been murdered at the hands of parents, neighbors and strangers including those in Newtown CT and every day since then in Philadelphia, Palestine, Chicago, Congo, around this nation and around this world.
I didn’t tell you the title of the sermon because it might have seemed too dark without some introduction. Today’s sermon is “When the Shadow of Death Touches Christmas.” The juxtaposition of the first Sunday of Christmas with the Feast of the Holy Innocents marking the slaughter of the Holy Innocents is intentional in our calendar. The sweet little Jesus child, holy infant so tender and mild, was born into a dark world, in which children were murdered for financial and political gain. And, every year at Christmas families grieve the loss of loved ones who were there the Christmas before but are not here this Christmas. Some will die doing the holiday season. Others will fall ill; there will be fires and accidents and other tragedies. Christmas has always been touched by, attended by, the shadow of death. Yet the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
And in many places the church keeps saying, “Merry Christmas!” and ignoring the shadows. We light our candles, wreathe our homes with light, wrap our trees in light and bask in glow of our fireplaces, but there remain shadows in the corners of our rooms, in the corners of our eyes and in the corners of our hearts.
Death is everywhere, in the darkness and in the light. This is the scandal of the Incarnation, God descended into shadow, even into Shadow-Valley Death and walked its lonely yet crowded pathways. Perhaps even more scandalous is how God did it: The scandal of the Incarnation is the scandal of the human body, a woman’s body and all of its ins and outs. The scandal of the Gospel may have been the crucifixion for Paul. But for far too many others it is the specific circumstances of the Incarnation: human flesh and blood, the secret places of a woman’s peculiar biology.
For it is through human bodies that shadows are deepened in and lengthened on the world. And while there are evil forces at work as well, encouraging, facilitating, instigating; the old claim “the devil made me do it,” does not account for all of the evil in the world. We humans have done more than our fair share.
So God became human, woman-born. Son of God, Son of Woman, Child of Earth: mortal, frail, embodied, human. To be human is to be carnal, fleshly, to dwell in shadow. The child conceived in holy mystery, whose tiny human heart beat underneath his mother’s heart emerged from his mother’s womb in blood and water as did we all. The Gospels remind us continually that the Messiah was fully human: He was woman-born, his body experienced hunger and thirst and exhaustion and pain and death. Even his post-resurrection body was tangible and capable of digestion along with walking on water and through walls. To be human is also to be in relationship as God is in relationship within Godself.
The Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and dwelled among us. God became flesh and dwelled among us as Yeshua, Jesus, the mortal immortal, Son of God, Son of Woman, Child of Earth. He was like us and we are like him. We are human. We are mortal, frail, embodied, humans. We ache for human companionship. We worry about our parents as we come to grips with our own mortality. In our desperate pain we search for a familiar comforting face. And we pray that when it comes our time to die, we won’t have to face it alone.
We do not walk alone among the shadows of earth because God is Immanu El, God with us. In our brokenness, in our fullness, God is with us. God is with us when the bullets are flying, when the ground is shaking, when the planes are crashing, when the waters are rising, when the ship is sinking, when the winds are howling, when death is knocking, when the shadow of death stretches out and touches even Christmas – God is with us! God is with us when we are falsely accused and unjustly imprisoned. God is with us when we are raped and tortured and murdered. God is with us when our children, our precious children, are stolen from us. God is with them in their fear and horror! God is with us in our rage and sorrow and grief! God is with us! God is with the suffering and the dying, comforting and accompanying through that valley of death that we cannot yet enter. This is the Gospel, not that we’re untouchable, not that we’re inviolable, for even the Son of God was violated. But that we are never alone, never forsaken, never absent from the Divine presence is the Gospel of light and life.
This Gospel is that God’s concern for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from fear and from death itself. Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many.
This is the season of hope and peace and joy and light. One of the reasons Christmas was placed at this point on the calendar is because the days are getting longer; light is literally filling the world (our side of it anyway). The Twelve Days of Christmas are days of light. The Feast of Epiphany is a feast of light.
(For) What has come into being in the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
When beginning in Genesis, the first thing God created was light. When Mary’s boy child was born, even more light flooded the world. Each of us has become a light-bearer through our professions and confessions of faith and in the water of our baptisms. The light of God lives with and in us; we are the light of God. And there is no darkness, no shadow, that cannot be overcome by the holy light of God.
How bright is your light? How do you kindle, nurture and stoke its flame? How often do you join your flame with the flames of your sisters and brothers in prayer and worship and at the table? Let the light of Christ shine in and through you to the ends of the earth, with all of its nooks, crannies, corners, crevices and crevasses and even that Shadow-Valley, Death.
This light will shine through the ages; it cannot be overcome and one day it will banish all darkness. One day when the shadow of death extends itself to the Christmas season its touch will be rebuffed; it will fade in the light of Christ. Whether we join God in heaven or God and heaven join us on earth, the whole of creation will be transformed by that holy light. For where God dwells, there is no darkness or shadow at all.
Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.
The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.
Memorial Church of the Good Shepherd
East Falls Philadelphia
30 December 2012
As I have listened to folk talking about "the right to bear arms," it has struck me that they are treeating those words (and the Constitution) as scripture. What would happen if we applied the principles of sound biblical exegesis to the Second Amendment? For starters we'd have to take seriously the contexts – literary, social, cultural, political – of the text in its formation and of the interpreters. I do that exegesis here in conversation with my colleague, Jon Pahl.
A Letter to My Enslaved Ancestors,
I don’t know your names or from where you were stolen. I don’t know how many of you freed yourselves or died in bondage. Yet I claim you all and I honor you. The savage ferocity of slavery has torn your names from the memories of your descendants but not your lives, your survival, your strength. I want to thank you for surviving and enduring the unimaginable. As I give thanks for you, I weep for you. I give thanks for your sacrifice – not that you sacrificed yourselves, but that you were sacrificed – human sacrifice on an epic scale to greed and misanthropic racism.
I know that I cannot know the fullness of the horrors you faced, endured, survived and to which some of you succumbed. Yet I must try to give voice to them. In your stolen names I now name some of the horrors of American chattel slavery: intergenerational terrorism, murder, kidnapping, rape, forced pregnancy, forced miscarriages and abortions, child abuse and neglect, physical, mental, emotional, sexual and spiritual torture, beating, burning, stabbing, scarring, maiming, forced illiteracy, extirpation of culture and religion, violent imposition of a morally bankrupt idolatrous Christianity, and much, much more.
What ever it is that I am and all that I am, I am because you were. I cannot contemplate my future without reflecting on my past, our past. Our nation now looks back 150 years to the Emancipation Proclamation. Many will pretend that one man freed the slaves in the United States and its territories with the stroke of a pen. They will not tell the stories of dirty tricks and politics. They will not say that the Proclamation only freed some slaves in some circumstances. They will not say that the majority of slaves freed themselves. They will say that their own ancestors were all on the side of the angels. But we know different. We know the truth and the truth has set us free.
Remembering that you built this country with your bare hands, your blood and broken bodies forming the mortar that cements it together – on a bloody foundation of other massacred peoples, that you freed yourselves and this nation from the curse of slavery, that you reconstructed this nation after it began cannibalizing itself over the right to exploit your bodies, I now look to the future. I look to the future that will be and I look to the future that I hope will be.
The racism, sexism, xenophobia, misanthropy and greed that characterized your times endures and adapts. And those plagues are hounded, challenged, diminished, transformed and rejected in our time by many of those who have benefitted from them and as well as by those of us who have borne its burdens.
The future I envision is one in which the United States is further enriched by the presence and contributions of citizens who reflect the breadth of the world’s peoples, and one in which ethnic majority and minority status will be upended and have no power. I also see a future in which power and resources which are currently concentrated in a dwindling segment of society multiply across race and class categories leading to a strengthening of us all. I also foresee a future in which some will still exploit others: we still disenfranchise some people with state and federal laws and taxes as it pertains to marriage and its benefits; we have not closed the pay gap between women and men; we have not done justice for the native peoples of this land; sexual slavery and trafficking endures, the poor remain with us.
In a future which yet may be, I see your children’s children’s children across the ages transforming our society, economy and infrastructure with renewable energy sources and eradicating abject poverty and hunger in partnership with sister and brother Americans whose ancestry circles the globe and in partnership with all peoples everywhere.
In order to reach our future, we must survive our present. Our children must survive and thrive and there is much that imperils them: poverty, substandard education, violence, lack of access to health and dental care, astronomical incarceration rates, a deeply flawed justice system, failure and inability to dream a world beyond the one they know or to which they have been confined, hopelessness.
In your name, in your memory we work and pray and struggle, weeping and rejoicing at what has been and what will be.
I found my self advising preachers, pastors and priests on what not to say about God in relationship to the savage atrocity at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT on December 14, 2012 in which twenty children and six adults were mowed down and murdered by a young man who also took his own life. All I could think of was bad theology and preaching that I had heard too many times by well-meaning clergy after tragedy. (I’m not considering the intentionally misanthropic theology spewed by those of ill will such as the Westboro Baptist Church, James Dobson and Pat Robertson.)
I was concerned about what and how people would preach after the slaughter of the innocents in Newtown CT. I started writing a blog post called A Word to Preachers and couldn’t finish it as I was wracked with grief and stunned into silence at the thought of those murdered children, lying in their own blood as police and medical examiners did their grisly work for as many hours as it took. I took the few coherent sentences I wrote, tweeted them and posted them on Facebook.
- Don’t you dare blame God or claim this was God’s will. God did not want those babies (or adults) in heaven today, this way.
- If your theology is inadequate to make sense of human evil, the love and sovereignty of God say so.
- Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know what to say when you don’t know what to say. Sit down if you need to. Weep. Let the musicians minister – without words when no words can be found.
- Stand in integrity. Be honest. Acknowledge your pain.
- If you’re a lectionary preacher admit the “rejoicing” in the texts doesn’t fit. We’re in too much pain to rejoice.
- If you observe Rose Sunday perhaps the concern of a mother, the Virgin, for her Child is a starting place.
- For me Job is a resource. Cry to heaven, scream at God, even curse God.
- This is an Immanuel moment. God is with us. This is a sure promise. God was with the dying. God is with the grieving.
A clergy colleague in the blogging community RevGalBlogPals to which I belong, the Rev. Martha Spong asked me to help think and articulate what we should preach rather than what we should not preach. In consultation with the RevGals and two other online communities to which I belong, WomanPreach! and Move And Shake (a private Facebook group for women in the academy) I came up with the hashtag #What2Preach and facilitated a conversation on Twitter, Facebook and the RevGal Preacher Party.
Social media made it possible for me to hold multiple conversations with struggling clergy wresting with the lectionary texts, and those seeking a word and a text from God. For lectionary preachers the texts included: Zephaniah 3:14-30, “Sing aloud…Rejoice with all your heart…” Surely inappropriate and insensitive for many. Canticle 9 in the Episcopal Church, “Surely it is God who saves me” from Isaiah 12:2-6 – but so many perished. “Rejoice in the Lord always…!” The exhortation to rejoice seems so out of place. And then there was the gospel, “You brood of vipers…” Hardly comforting.
I left that Tweet Chat encouraged by the priests and pastors I met there and grateful for the opportunity to use my gifts as a priest, preacher and seminary professor to respond to this atrocity in a meaningful way.
The #What2Preach Twitter thread – captured as an image 12/18/2012.
Entries continue to be posted since this image was captured – click to go to the Twitter feed.
This year I am tweeting President Obama (@BarackObama) every day during Advent, Hanukah and the 12 Days of Christmas urging him to push for a just peace between Israel and Palestine. Join me (@WilGafney)! Huffington Post Religion features my practice here.
I spent much of the summer of 2010 in Israel. I also spent some of that summer in Palestine, in Bethlehem in particular. Now in 2012, in the aftermath of the Gaza War and failure of Israel and Palestine to return to the negotiating table and work out a just peace for both nations, I have been thinking about the little, occupied town of Bethlehem again. This Advent, Chanukah, and Christmas I pray for a just and lasting peace and two secure homelands, for the security and prosperity of those who live in each and generous hospitality for neighbor and stranger. I keep wondering if the Incarnation happened today whether the Blessed pregnant Virgin would have had to scale the wall to give birth in Bethlehem or if she would have given birth at a checkpoint like so many Palestinian women, some of whom have had their babies die at the checkpoints.
You could say I was following a star. As they say, it’s always Christmas in Bethlehem. The beautiful art in the newest building of the Bethlehem Bible College portrays the signal moment in Bethlehem’s – and some say the world’s – history. But a few things have changed since then.
“Security” is tighter. And of course, one woman’s security is another woman’s occupation. The icon of both is the wall, the so-called “security fence.” According to Dr. Alex Awad, Dean of Students, local pastor and United Methodist missionary, 80% of the security wall was built on Palestinian land. The wall looms over Bethlehem and cast its shadow over my visit.
In order to enter Bethlehem I had to walk through the checkpoint and its cattleshoots made of bars and razorwire.
The wall has become a site of resistance. One primary form of that resistance is art. Here is some of the art on the wall:
Advent is a sacralized last-trimester pregnancy among other things. Many women identify with the pregnant Virgin – in spite of the sexual intimacy through which most of them were impregnated, medical and reproductive technologies aside. But all women will not and cannot become pregnant and give birth. For some that is extraordinarily painful and magnified in this holy season.
An anonymous blogger wrote on this theme in 2010:
To what will this season give birth?
For what (whom) am I waiting?
For what do I long?
For hopes and dreams miscarried by disappointment.
The end of some lives, some hopes for life
washed out in a bloody painful flux.
Where is the promise of new life to take root and blossom,
in scarred wombs convulsing with the pains of miscarriage
parodying the pains that give birth to life?
And what of the empty wombs of barren women?
For what do they long and how will this holy season give birth to and for them?
Can the youth and fertility of one otherwise insignificant girl child restore us all?
Redeem us all?
Give life to us all?
Save us all?
I wait in the eclipsing darkness
shadowed by the light of a single candle
the deepest night with all its terrors is behind me
I feel its breath on my neck.
Before me is that single candle
and in its shadow
What will the next explosion of light reveal?
Monica Coleman, who has blogged about her miscarriage also writes about the link between Advent and pregnancy: “Advent is about pregnancy, and pregnancy is about waiting. Pregnant women wait. Some women wait for the first three months to pass before they tell anyone they are pregnant. Waiting to get past the time when miscarriage is more likely. Waiting to share the good news. Waiting to feel like the baby is safe. Waiting to exhale.”
Advent is a fragile and frightening time for many. And we ought not forget that.