Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “Advent

What If Jesus Doesn’t Return

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What if Jesus doesn’t come back?
We are waiting. And we have been waiting. We have ritualized our waiting, renewing it every Advent.
But what if Jesus doesn’t come back? I think perhaps it shouldn’t matter.
Our wait is not idle. We work while we wait. Our world is broken and we are mending it. Or are we waiting idly? For what are we waiting? Judgement. Grace. Mercy. To see what the end shall be?
But what if Jesus doesn’t come back? And we knew he weren’t coming back? What would that change? Would we stop working for the betterment of the world?
Why do we feed the hungry? Because Jesus said so? Or even because Jesus did so?
Perhaps we should take a page from our atheist and agnostic friends and feed the hungry because they’re hungry.
If Jesus doesn’t come back, in our lives or at all, it shouldn’t affect us in or out of the church. The world needs folk to care and work.
I think the promise that God will renew all things is a dangerous promise. It can lull us into thinking that God will fix everything by-and-by; the world is too big and too broken for us to fix.
What if we worked to repair the world as though it depended solely on us?
Something is coming, the future.
But if Jesus is coming back wouldn’t it be something for him to find us so busy healing the world we don’t have time to argue about or decode biblical prophecy.

Note: The black ribbon on the Advent wreath proclaims that Black Lives Matter and the Incarnation bears witness to this holy truth.


StayWokeAdvent

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A reading for Advent and a meditation:

 

Isaiah 59:7 Their feet run to evil and they hasten to pour out innocent blood;
their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity, violence and brokenness are in their highways.
8 The path of peace they do not know and there is no justice in their pathways.
Their courses they have made crooked; no one who walks in them knows peace.
9 Therefore justice is far from us and righteousness does not reach us;
we hope for light and look – there is darkness! We wait for brightness yet in gloom we walk.
10 We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those without eyes;
we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among those fat-with-health as though we were dead.
11 We growl, all of us, like bears; like doves we moan, moan.
We hope for justice, but there is none; we wait for salvation; it is far from us…

14 Justice is turned back and righteousness stands far off;
for truth stumbles in the public square and right cannot come in.
15 It is truth that is lacking and, whoever turns from evil is plundered.
The HOLY ONE saw it, and it was evil in God’s sight that there was no justice.
16 God saw that there was no one – and even God was appalled that there was no one to intervene:
19 Yet they from the west shall fear the name of the HOLY ONE OF SINAI, and those from the east, God’ glory;
for God shall come like a pent-up stream that the Spirit of the HOLY ONE drives forward.

There will be no candle of Hope this year. Hope is no longer enough. There will be no candle of Peace this year. For there is no peace without justice. There will be no candle of Joy this year. There are too many empty places at the table to rejoice. But there will be Light. Light that shines in the darkness illuminating injustice and indifference. The lights I kindle will join with the lights others kindle and expose the depravity that steals, kills and consumes our children and, those complicit with it. This Advent is a season of preparation. We have work to do. Stay awake. Stay awake to injustice. And stay awake to justice, wherever it may be lest we despair. Stay awake. Or, as we say on twitter: #StayWoke.

Translation by Wil Gafney, Ph.D.,  all rights reserved

 


Yo, You Are Not the Father: A Meditation on St. Joseph

St. Joseph, Patron Saint of Fathers
Patron Saint of Step-Fathers
Patron Saint of Adoptive Fathers
Patron Saint of Dead-Beat Dads

 

Every year during Christmas and Advent, I think about St. Joseph. I remember a sermon I heard from his perspective more than a decade ago. The preacher-man was saying how hard it is for men to raise children that are not theirs, particularly when they feel that they have been deceived. It’s one thing for a man to marry a widow, divorced mom or single mother, or for a couple to decide to adopt or even use a reproductive technology that involves donor sperm. It is an entirely different matter for a man to stay with a woman who has been impregnated by someone else after they made a commitment to each other. It must have been unimaginable for Yosef, Yusif, José, or Joseph to hear his woman saying that she had never cheated, never been unfaithful and was pregnant and the Holy Spirit – She! – was the Father.
I wonder if Yo thought Miryam or Mary or Maria was mentally ill. I’d like to believe that he loved her. That the quiet divorce was to spare her shame, protect her family honor and his, and to save her life. It’s also possible that he wanted to annul their betrothal quietly so that he wouldn’t lose face. Even if Yo came to believe Miryam’s crazy [@$$] story – and let’s not be so sanctified that we think that makes sense – even if he believed her,  his family and his boys wouldn’t. They would say that he got punked; that he was a punk; that he was pitiful for staying with a girl that played him so badly, so publicly.
Yo doesn’t get a lot of ink in the bible. But what he does get is continual reassurance from God through his dreams, for a while. God appears to him over and over again. And like his eponymous ancestor, he doesn’t need anyone to interpret his dreams for him.
To his eternal credit and well-earned sanctification, Yo stays with his woman. But he doesn’t touch her, for a while – a long while. I can’t believe that he didn’t feel bitter, betrayed and trapped at least some of the time. But he stayed.
Although he is absent from the Epiphany story. Where was he? Were they separated then? If so, they worked through it. And they had a real marriage. The scriptures are clear that they had four sons and an unknown number of daughters. (The perverse interpretation of the scriptures denies them their holy, healthy, God-given sexuality is blasphemy.)
But Joseph eventually disappears. He may well have died. But that is not the only possibility. As the strange boy-child became an even stranger man-child it became more and more clear that he was a stranger. And in spite of all of that God-talk the memories of those dreams were faded memories. The boy was trouble, running off, getting lost, causing a scene in the temple before the elders, reminding everyone about the possibility that Yo had been cuckolded. Joseph left.
Miriam was widowed by death, by abandonment or indifference. When she needed him, he wasn’t there. When her son – not his – was arrested; Yo wasn’t there. When her son – not his – was executed; Joseph wasn’t there. When her son – not his – was taken down from his lynching tree; Yusif wasn’t there. When her son – not his – was bathed after his death for his burial; Yosef wasn’t there.
José didn’t come back when people started saying that her son – not his – had risen from the grave. Joseph didn’t gather in Yerushalyim to see if her son – not his – would really meet his disciples including his mother, sisters and brothers for Shavuoth. Perhaps he was dead. Perhaps he heard all that miraculous, unbelievable resurrection talk and was ashamed of leaving, after all he hadheard from God in his dreams.
The silence in the scriptures surrounding Joseph’s absence at the end (and new beginning) of Jesus’ life is intriguing. If he was dead, why not say so? If he was a great age when he married Miryam and impotent and had children from a previous marriage, why not say so?
But if he left, left God’s son fatherless, how could that be explained? If he lost his faith, how could the rest of us come to believe?
I think he left. I think that the very humanity of Christ made the Incarnation harder and harder for him to believe. And I believe that as a saint who lost his faith, St. Joseph has much to teach us. Our faith is not rational. It is nearly unsustainable in the real world. I wonder if Joseph had other dreams that he disregarded. I wonder if having received his last divine visitation he believed he needed one more, and then another, and another, like an addict. I wonder if he ever really believed. I wonder if his pride got in the way of him asking Jesus the man, “Who are you really? Where did you come from? I need to know.”
Perhaps the disappearance of St. Joseph teaches us that we have to invest in our faith on a daily basis, making ourselves vulnerable to ridicule and the scandal of the gospel. I have to believe that when God called Miryam and Yosef into service God knew that they were capable of living into and up to their calling. And, God knew that they were capable of failing.
St. Joseph’s disappearance and likely abandonment of his family, God’s family, the family that he had promised God he would nurture on God’s behalf, also teach us that marriages fail and families rupture even when God is Incarnate in their  midst. And, we learn that a single mother can raise a child who will change the world by her [d@mn] self. And we learn that children from single-parent homes may be a little odd, lacking in a few social graces, but full repositories of God’s gifts and graces.
St. Joseph, I’m not mad at you. I think I understand as much as I can how hard was your calling. I’m just glad you were able to hang in there as long as you did. You guided them to safety and saved their lives, risking your own. I honor you for that. And I think you can claim some of what he grew into. Your mark is on him and no one can take that away from you.

St. Joseph, Patron Saint of Fathers
Patron Saint of Step-Fathers
Patron Saint of Adoptive Fathers
Patron Saint of Dead-Beat Dads
I call your name. I bless your memory. Ashé.

The Magnificat as Kedushat HaShem: Sanctifying God’s Name

God has shown strength with God’s arm;
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
 and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things, 
and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped God’s servant Israel,
in remembrance of God’s mercy, 
according to the promise God made to our ancestors,
to the descendants of Abraham through Hagar and Sarah and Keturah forever.
Luke 1:46-56, RGT, (Revised Gafney Translation)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Magnificat properly belongs at the Visitation, traditionally 31 May – an unspecified amount of time after the Annunciation, observed on 25 March (often in Lent, occasionally on Good Friday) – In those days Miryam, Mary, set out… Luke 1:39. It is “repeated” in Advent, though many missed it earlier.

God has…
The Virgin proclaims that God has already done all of these things, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, in spite of her present reality.
God has shown strength with God’s own arm at varying points throughout Israel’s history, and the memory, witness and testimony of their ancient scriptures and new psalms to God’s strength, willingness and power to save in those times is enough for the present moment. In the face of the mighty Roman Empire, what God has already done is enough.
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts in the songs and stories of old enfolded into the scriptures of Israel. Herod’s arrogance goes yet unchallenged but God has unseated the proud from their thrones in their hearts and halls before and it is enough.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones inside and outside of Israel, whether or not they were enthroned with God’s blessing. God has deposed other gods from within their own realms. Caesar or any other would-be god, it matters not. God has done it before and can do it again. And that is enough.
God has lifted up the lowly time and time again. In spite of the biases of Israel’s story-tellers and scripture-writers, the God of Israel visits and blesses women and children and slaves and foreigners. A peculiarly pregnant girl-child and her post-menopausal cousin with her own pregnancy predicament may be beyond the notice of Rome, but not God. And it is enough.
God has filled the hungry with good things in the before times and every once in a while in our time. People still go hungry, people still die in squalor, taxed to death by Rome and Romanesque imperial imitators, but God still provides unexpected and unimaginable blessings. Our people will not be starved to death and pass out of existence on God’s watch. Some of us will survive and that is enough.
God has sent the rich away empty in our stories and songs and scriptures. The glory of Rome is not eternal. Ask the Egyptians, ask the Assyrians, ask the Babylonians, ask the Persians, ask Alexander the Great, if you can find him. God has done it before and that is enough.
God has helped God’s servant, in our faithfulness and in our faithlessness. God has been faithful. In our history, in our memories, in our scriptures, God has been faithful and it is enough.
God has remembered God’s promise and will keep it. Our prophets Miriam and Moses taught us to hold God accountable to God’s promises. They bargained and argued with God and never let God forget God’s promises to our ancestors or to us, their descendants. Even when the promises have not yet been kept, God remembers and that is enough.
Dayenu. “It is enough.” This is a Pesach (Passover) theology. Sometimes the Visitation overlaps with Pesach. Dayenu, is the refrain and title of what may be the most familiar and popular Passover song. The song says that if God had only… and lists the miracles God performed for the ancestors, if God had only done one and not these that followed, it would have been enough. Dayenu.
And it occurs to me that the theology that the Ever-Blessed Virgin named for Miryam the Prophet of Exodus is proclaiming is Dayenu, Passover theology even though the song would be written centuries after her death or assumption, whichever you prefer.
The Holy Mother of the Word-Made-Flesh is herself a Torah-sage and she teaches us. Her perspective on the yoke of Roman oppression that strangled her world is framed by the memory of what God has done for her people and her ancestors. And by what God is doing to and through her: Kedushat haShem, sanctifying the Divine Name.
Kedushat haShem, sanctifying the Divine Name would come to be the way in which the actions of martyrs were understood. The Stations of the Cross liturgy on Good Friday places the words of No’omi and Lamentations on the lips of the Sorrowful Virgin at the foot of the cross: Call me not My-Pleasant-One, No’omi; call me Bitter-Woman, Mara. For Mother God, the nurturing nursing Shaddai has embittered  me. And, Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow. For me, the Mother of Sorrows is also the Mother of Martyrs. And there have been enough. Dayenu.
Truly all generations call you blessed.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 
for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;   
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, 
and holy is God’s Name.
Post Script: The Magnificat is woven from Hannah’s Hymn in 1 Sam 2 which also lives on in Ps 113, making Hannah one of the most overlooked authors of scripture.

My Advent Practice

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.


O Little Occupied Town of Bethlehem

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:


The wall has also inspired art. These three souvenirs re-imagine three bible stories through the shadow of the wall. In one the trumpets are blown as in the story of Jericho, but this wall does not come tumbling down. In another, the Blessed Virgin and Sweet Baby Jesus are on the wall, Joseph is preparing to cross with them. And in the wall runs smack dab in the middle of the Nativity scene, as it cuts off some Palestinian residents from their homes, family and olive trees.


A final piece of art from the checkpoint, a prayer and I hope, a prophecy:


Advent, Infertility and Miscarriage

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
another
waiting.

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.