Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “Advent

Holy Blackness: The Matrix of Creation

Image by needpix.com

In the velvet darkness of the blackest night
Burning bright, there’s a guiding star
No matter what or who, who you are
There’s a light (Over at the Frankenstein Place)
There’s a light (Burning in the fireplace)
There’s a light, light in the darkness of everybody’s life.

Let us pray:
God of fire and light who dwells in thick darkness,
the light and the dark are alike to thee,
open the eyes of our hearts that we might see. Amen.

In the velvet darkness, darker than a thousand midnights down in a cypress swamp, this luminous darkness, this radiant blackness, the wholly black and holy black womb of God pulsed life into the world against a tapestry of holy life-giving darkly radiant blackness, shaping, molding, knitting, coalescing earthstuff from starstuff from Godstuff. All before uttering the first word.
This more than binary God articulated in the binary idiom of Iron Age folk recalling the testimony of their Stone Age forebears, limited to two gender signifiers but using both to signal to the best of their ability that neither was sufficient even if some would use one more, to the near exclusion of the other, this pluripotent God whose breath-crafted children would bear her, hir, his, zir, our, their image, this God, conjured, confected, and crafted creation out of holy darkness.
The Poet and poetry of creation birth a story made of stories that tells us who we are, who we have been and, who we could be. We are born of blackness, starry night and fertile earth, our first human parents in science and in scripture have Africa’s soil on their feet and in their skin. But somewhere along the way we were taught to fear the dark, to fear the night, to fear the holy blackness that is the swaddling blanket of creation.
Some of our fear of the dark is ancient and instinctual from a time when we were not sure the sun would return from setting or storm or eclipse: Stay with us Lord of Light for the night is dark and full of terrors. The prayer to the Red God on Game of Thrones is in many ways the perfect embodiment of this and perhaps a worthy Advent prayer, (at least in a service where There’s a Light Over at the Frankenstein House from the Rocky Horror Picture Show is the Advent hymn). But some of our fear of the dark is carefully calculated and mercenary.
Some lost sight of or chose not to see the beauty of the diversity of creation having lost the memory of their own ancestral African roots and, when encountering a suddenly much larger world saw that our black beauty was valuable, profitable, salable. Then beginning in 1619 on this continent those ancient fears were seized upon and weaponized to build this nation on a foundation of slavery and genocide and the rhetoric of blackness became all that was wrong in the world just as Malik el-Haj al-Shabazz taught us when he was Malcom X: blackball, black sheep, blackmail, black hearted, black people.
My over-used but nowhere near retirement Black Lives Matter sign says, “Black Lives Are Sacred.” Blackness is sacred. But the world has lost sight of the goodness and sanctity of blackness. That is why it is so easy to kill us and our children and so easy to justify our deaths with fear, fear of the dark. Public Enemy prophesied rightly on Fear of A Black Planet. Fear of blackness. Fear of black people. All in service to a divinization of whiteness and light to the point of idolatry. To this Bishop Stephen Charleston says:
I have heard that the afterlife is a place of perpetual light. That’s a problem. Heaven needs night. Darkness is not evil, but a realm of mystery and imagination. The day is constant, but the night is creative. The stars dance. The moon dreams. The comets write poetry of fire. Without the night there is no dawn or twilight, no moments of sacred ambiguity, no subtle changes of perception, no promises kept or just made, a holy pledge of healing or of hope. No, please, we need the night in heaven. We need that glorious darkness, that obscure beauty, drifting on wedding gown clouds of white across an obsidian sky.
Thus, this the darkest time of the year is one of the holiest times of the year. The bleakest shadows of solar night hold the light in passionate embrace, and where they touch, shades of gray and, every color of the rainbow prism including those we cannot yet see. Our encultured fear, our tribalism, have kept us from seeing that all creation is inherently good. All God’s creatures are good by design. All of God’s children are good, born good, created good, created for goodness, good enough, even when they, we, fail to live up and into the goodness of God within us, it is still there.
We start this new Christian year in this Advent season with the goodness of God and the poetry of creation manifest in the liturgy of the earth. God is Poet and this good God-given earth is her poetry. Indeed, the earth is also both poet and poem, poetry groaning in creation. The liturgy of the earth, its cycles of sun and shadow, ripening and rotting, blossoming and blowing away, drenching and drying, feast and famine, storm and stillness, deep sea and desert wide are fluid ever-changing witnesses to and stanzas in the poetry of our lives, of our world. For we too are her poems, sonnets and ballads, dissertations of rap, rhythm and, rhyme and, more than a few limericks, quatrain and haiku and, forms for which there are yet no names. This great liturgy of creation is a liturgy of transition and transcendence. And so it is with life and death; they are not two separate polar realities for between them lies living.
It is into this life that brown baby Jesus comes to dwell, inhabit, teach, guide, accompany, heal, forgive, redeem, love and, live. And thus are we too called dwell in this good earth in our good incarnations, living, loving, forgiving, healing, accompanying each other on our pilgrim journey. We live in the waiting for the second Advent. Live in a world waiting for the fullness of redemption, restoration and, reparation. Live in this world where people don’t always see our poetry, our obscure beauty, our incarnations as Godstuff, our loving as the goodness of God in this world.
This earth is given into our care and we are given into each other’s care. Advent prepares us to encounter a God who dwells with us in the waiting earth. And Advent tells us that we are loved and worthy of love. Most of the world outside of a very specific set of churches doesn’t know that it is Advent. It is pre-Christmas sale season which began after, or even before, Halloween. Even in the Church Advent is often crushed into Christmas and the first Advent, the Nativity of black baby Jesus, often overshadows the second Advent, the return of the rainbow Christ, the fullness of humanity encompassing the poetry of all flesh, all kinds of flesh, transformed, human and divine, yet retaining enough of the poetry of the past to be recognized as the very same person, Mary’s baby.
Mary’s poor brown migrant baby. Christians the world over will sing their love for the baby Jesus for the next five weeks. But for many their love will not extend to Guatemalan baby Jesus or Muslim baby Issa who share his name. In far too many churches the stories of Advent and Christmas are used to sanctify white supremacy in the church. Introducing children to and reifying adult belief in a white Jesus who is not simply an aesthetic choice but a statement of power and domination. White Jesus is a colonized and colonizing Christ. Until the deaths of black and brown mother’s children mean as much as the deaths of white parent’s children and the windows and walls of our churches do not silently whitewash the brownness and Jewishness of Jesus, his family, friends and followers and his ancestors, the whiteness of Christian art and nativity plays will always be in service to white supremacy.
When Christ returns every system that holds people captive, dominates and subordinates will be unmade. And so we long for the second Advent. But I don’t think we’re all waiting for the same thing. The Church has been waiting millennia and in that waiting, has not only not healed the ruptures that form when we forget that we are all a handful of the same dirt, but in some cases has dug and deepened those fissures. And in some parts of the Church, the more you believe in the literal return of Jesus, the less you believe in or care about climate change because Jesus will just fix it after while.
Some read today’s gospel and see the immanent and unexpected return of Christ and all they can think of is who is going with him and who will be left behind. But that’s not the Jesus I know. The Jesus I know is in the field with the agricultural workers in the gospel. He’s with the women doing undervalued work in that same gospel. He’s not making a list and checking it twice. That’s someone else’s bag. And, I believe he is telling us this story so that we will take notice of who is around us and might not be able to make it alone.
We already live in a world where some people get left behind. In this world, people are left behind if they’re black or brown or poor or gay or trans or women or femme, or felons, or, or, or. But it won’t always be that way. While a traditional Advent reading might focus on Jesus’s return, I want to offer another reading. I don’t believe we have to wait for the return of Jesus for things to get better. I don’t believe that our problems are so big that only God can sort them out. I don’t believe that there is nothing that we can do about the quality of human life or the capacity of the earth to sustain life.
Jesus showed us by how he lived and died and lived again on the other side of death that nothing is too big, too much, too hard for God, that human dignity and flourishing are God’s dream for us no matter under what oppressive systems we find ourselves. The Jesus who allied himself with the poor and disenfranchised by becoming poor and disenfranchised will not abandon us to a world that does not love us, fears us and seeks to harm us. Rather Jesus stands with us as we remake the world that is our heritage, our sacred trust, as we rediscover its poetry and the poetry inside of each of us.
The time between the Advents is a pregnant time, indeed the earth is already in labor in apostle’s view. Now is a waiting time. Now is a watching time. And now is a working time. Jesus calls our attention to the people the world, and sometimes the church, says will be left behind. For much of human history women have been kept behind if not left behind. But the One for whose Advent we wait chose the flesh of a woman for the glory of the incarnation, that intimate bleeding flesh that the world of men wanted to leave behind, thus forever sanctifying woman-flesh and all human-flesh. And, for much of our history folk have wanted to leave gay folk and queer folk behind, yet Jesus comes to us through a miracle that transcends and queers gender roles, God-beyond-gender yet disclosed as the feminine spirit conceived a child with a human woman. From as soon as one person had two sticks while another had only one, we have left people behind in poverty and inequity. Yet Jesus came to us poor and underhoused. We are building walls – lying about building physical walls – while building legislative walls and the border-crossing Jesus is an asylum seeker. If we are not careful, we might just leave Jesus behind, not recognizing him because we’ve lost the sight and sound of the divine poetry in every human person.
We wait for the Advent return of the One whose incarnational gender poetry transcends the grammatical categories of frail human poets and translators, with that Advent will come the majesty of God, the manifestation of God’s perfect justice and love, for where God is, there can be no injustice. And dare I say, in God’s perfect justice none will be left behind.

About the texts: The Women’s Lectionary is the project of the Rev. Wil Gafney, PhD, Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, an Episcopal Priest canonically resident in the Diocese of Pennsylvania and Licensed in the Diocese of Fort Worth. Dr. Gafney selected and translated the readings using an expansive gender-explicit approach and, in the Psalms, explicit feminine language and pronouns for God. Church House, the Episcopal press, will publish the Lectionary.

Year A
Advent 1: Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 8; Romans 8:18-25; Matthew 24:32-44
Genesis 1:1 When beginning he, God, created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was shapeless and formless and bleakness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God, she, fluttered over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; so God separated the light from the bleakness. 5 Then God called the light Day, and the bleakness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, day one.

Psalm 8
1 WOMB OF LIFE, our Sovereign, *
how exalted is your Name in all the earth!
2 Out of the mouths of children and nursing babes *
your majesty is praised above the heavens.
3 You have founded a stronghold against your adversaries, *
to put an end to the enemy and the avenger.
4 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, *
the moon and the stars you have established,
5 What are we that you should be mindful of us? *
the woman-born that you attend to them?
6 You have made us a little lower than God; *
you adorn us with glory and honor;
7 You give us mastery over the works of your hands; *
you put all things under our feet:
8 All sheep and oxen, *
even the wild beasts of the field,
9 The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, *
and whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea.
10 WOMB OF LIFE, our Sovereign, *
how exalted is your Name in all the earth!

Romans 8:18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the daughters and sons of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the daughters and sons of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Matthew 24:32 Jesus said, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that the Son of Woman is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Creator. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Woman. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Woman. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Redeemer is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, the owner would have stayed awake and would not have let the house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Woman is coming at an unexpected hour.

Sources for opening:
Richard O’brien, “There’s a Light (Over at the Frankenstein Place)” Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975 © Warner Chappell Music, Inc.
(Sources for first paragraph in order: Richard O’brien, Rocky Horror; James Weldon Johnson, “The Creation,” Howard Thurman (title, This Luminous Darkness); “black and radiant,” Rabbi Marcia Falk trans. “The Song of Songs”; “darkly radiant,” Mia McKenzie, The Thing About Being A Little Black Girl In the World: For Quvenzhané Wallis.


Rejoice and Repent

Annunciation Tryptich by Robert Moore

Let us pray:

Blessed Mother, teach us to say yes to God. Amen.

This is Joy Sunday. If we still spoke Latin as a Church, we’d know it as GaudeteSunday in part because before it tells us not to worry about anything, Philippians says: Rejoice in the Lord always! Again, I say, Rejoice! Gaudete (rejoice) in Domino (in the Lord – Domino’s pizza is not the Lord’s pizza)! Gaudete in Domino semper! (You may know Semper Fi.) Gaudete in Domino semper! Rejoice in the Lord always! Iterum dico gaudete. Again, I say, Rejoice! Never thought I’d use my Catholic school Latin as an Episcopal priest and I’m sure none of the nuns ever thought I’d be a priest. In addition to Gaudetein Philippians,

Philippians also says:Do not worry about anything. (4:6)

Zephaniah tells us: Fear not! (3:16)

Isaiah tells us: I will trust and will not be afraid!(2:12)

And in the Gospel of Luke John the Baptizer says: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (3:7) Or in other words, “Maybe you should be a little bit concerned.”

Our lectionary stitches together four disconnected passages to quilt a whole new image. We can see each distinct patch and recall its original setting and we can see the new image they craft when woven together.

Zephaniah is an image of the end of the world, its breaking and its remaking. It’s set in a time when things are actually going pretty well for the moment. The young king Josiah, buttressed by his Queen Mother who raised him and ruled for him when he was too young to rule on his own and the prophet Huldah who certified the first written collection of scripture as God’s word, was reforming the worship practices of the community. But Zephaniah knew the world doesn’t stand still and fidelity to God doesn’t shield you from hard times down the road. Rather fidelity to God–and more importantly God’s fidelity to us–ensures we are accompanied through hard times. God is with us and will be with us, whatever may come. Zephaniah knew the Babylonians were coming and that was going to look and feel and smell like the end of the world with the temple on fire, bodies rotting in the street, and the people taken into captivity or left behind with nothing. It would be the end of the kingdom of Judah, the last piece of Israel, as an independent nation. From then on one nation or another would hire and fire kings and governors to serve their own interests. It is in this context that Zephaniah preaches to Zion, Jerusalem, representing the people of God as God’s beloved daughter: Fear not Daughter Zion! The Holy One, your God is within your midst!When the worst happens–and it will happen–you are not alone. God is with you, in your very midst.

To respond to Zephaniah our lectionary uses Canticle 9 from Isaiah 12:

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid,

for the Holy One of Old is my strength and my might;

God has become my salvation.

Now Isaiah is a century earlier than Zephaniah and the Babylonians weren’t a threat to anybody; rather it was the Assyrians in his time. It was the Assyrians who first broke the back of Israel, swarming the northern monarchy like locusts, deporting the survivors from nine out the twelve tribes all over their empire to be swallowed up, some tribes were never heard from again. In the face of one of the bloodiest regimes on the planet–their barbarism inspired Vlad the Impaler who took his name from their favorite form of execution–in the face of an unstoppable war machine, from the losing side Isaiah proclaimed the salvation of God. Not in some far-off future, not even the saving work of Jesus. Isaiah prophesied about his present moment. They needed God then and She was with them. Isaiah said: God has become my salvation. Here, now, among the survivors and refugees. Even in their defeat, God has saved God’s people from total destruction and annihilation.

In sequence or out of sequence these texts reveal the pattern of God’s presence with God’s people in times of trouble, whatever and whoever the cause. For two thousand years, Christians have read these texts through the story of Jesus and seen him in them to the exclusion of their original contexts. But it is those original stories that teach us God is trustworthy, God is with us, and God is our salvation. In this season of gift giving it is worthwhile to remember that the gift of scripture is truly the gift that keeps on giving. It speaks to us in each generation without losing the meanings it has held for previous generations, even when those meanings don’t fit our world or our circumstances.

This rich understanding of scripture is also our gift to the world as Anglicans and Episcopalians, but not everyone appreciates complexity and mystery. On this Joy Sunday, sitting in St. Mary’s Chapel, in the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin, I want to invite you into some of that mystery by asking you to imagine with me what these texts might have meant to her, for the reason we have these texts grouped together is that the lectionary framers thought they spoke to the Advent of Christ’s birth and the Advent of his return.

One of the traditions of this Sunday is to put a pink candle in the Advent wreath for the Blessed Mother, in whose womb lay the reason for our joy. (Some churches even have rose pink vestments for today. We’ll have to ask the next rector about that.) How might the young pregnant not-yet-married Mary have read these scriptures about God’s presence with Israel in times of trouble in light of the very real fear that she could be stoned for adultery?

Both Isaiah and Zephaniah have the wonderful line: “God is in your midst.” And because of the way Hebrew works and because Zion, Jerusalem, is feminine, that “your” is feminine. Zephaniah says: The Everlasting God, your God (woman), is in your midst (daughter). Isaiah says: Great in your midst (daughter) is the Holy One of Israel. And if Mary knew these scriptures–and truly, we have no way of knowing what she knew though we do know that Elizabeth knows scripture, so maybe…so if she is one of the reasons Jesus knew so much scripture–and using my sanctified imagination I’d like to believe she was–then perhaps, in her hour of need she read or recited these texts to herself hearing in them God’s promise and presence not only to her, but within her. She could easily have read the text as speaking to her much like we do today.

Mary is not only a daughter of God, she is also a daughter of Zion; Jerusalem was her spiritual home. She was the daughter of Zion waiting for the first Advent of Christ and she could say, “God is with me and within me because of the power of the Holy Spirit.” That’s also why Paul could write from a jail cell: Gaudete! Gaudete in Domino semper! Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice… The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Paul, also God’s child waiting for the second Advent of Christ could say, “God is with me and within me because of the power of the Holy Spirit through baptism.”

And here’s where that wild-eyed locust eater from the desert, John the Baptizer, comes in. John had a vision of the world to come, its breaking and remaking, similar to that in parts of Zephaniah we did not read. He sees it coming soon and he is eager for it and for the people to get on board. And for whatever reason­­–it seems like we’re missing part of the story–John is impatient and frustrated with the people: Repent already. Let’s get this show on the road. I mean real repentance. This is not a performance for your benefit. There’s no playing along. In the prophets we read today, God’s presence was a comforting embrace; in the Baptizer’s sermon it is unquenchable fire burning away all that cannot stand in the presence of God.

What accounts for this difference? In all three texts the people of Israel are at the mercy one foreign oppressor or another. In the first two, God comforts the people in their affliction. But in Luke John calls out those who had power over others and were abusing it. Some of them were Israelites like the tax collectors and some were Gentiles like soldiers who could have been from anywhere in the Roman empire. He called them out for extortion and brutality and he called out those who had more than they could wear or eat while others were going without. For John you simply could not sign up to follow him or Jesus later and exploit God’s people. You can’t receive God’s abiding presence in baptism and continue being a crook, or greedy, or indifferent to needs of people around you. That abiding presence of God available to us through baptism is also what links these passages.

How do we read theses texts today, in our own time? What do they have to say to us about the things that matter? Who are the people of God to whom God is speaking I am with you, even in your midst? Who is God calling to rejoice? Who is God telling to get their ethics straight because you can’t live out your baptism and exploit other children of God? Is God offering us the tender assurance of salvation or is God bringing the fire?

On the one hand we have God’s faithfulness to her people and on the other the demand that we be faithful to the requirements of the gospel. The Baptizer gets in our collective face to tell us to get off our collective pews and do the work we were called to in baptism. We were not called to lay around and wait for Jesus to come back. We are to welcome him with the fruit of our labor and our repentance, that means putting an end to systems and practices that oppress God’s people.

If there’s anything that these lessons agree on it’s that no child of God is disposable in God’s sight and God’s presence with us is not just about us. But God is also with migrants in the desert, holding them in her arms as they die of thirst before they’ve ever really lived. God is in Yemen where starving children shelter in battered buildings bombed with ordinance stamped with USA. God is in prisons with the justly and wrongly convicted. God is in the street with gay and trans teens thrown out of homes and families because some folk can’t see God’s image in and presence with them.

I admit I was annoyed with John the Baptizer when I started to prepare this sermon. But when children are in tents and cages with numbers being written on their arms and dying of heat and exhaustion and thirst and taken from their parents and being told their parents don’t want them anymore, I want to stand in front of the churches where Christian folk defend those practices and blame desperate parents for being desperate and get up in their faces and yell: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’ [or Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Savior]; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. [And by the way, Abraham’s children are not just Christians and Abraham’s children are not God’s only children.] 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

John the Baptizer is an old school in-your-face prophet. He calls it like he sees it: I see what you’re doing to God’s children and I’m here to tell you God will chop your branch off of the family tree and set it on fire. That too is the work of the Holy Spirit. I wonder if John was so wild because he like Dr. King knew that he would be killed for preaching the gospel God gave him.

Our prophets teach us God is our salvation. They also teach us She is the salvation of those whom we exploit, those who are oppressed in our name, and those whose death, hunger, thirst, and starvation are paid for with our tax dollars. How can we rejoice in these days? We rejoice in the God who promises to deal with those who oppress in Zephaniah. We rejoice in those repented at the prophet’s preaching. And we rejoice in being God’s agents in the world, in Zephaniah’s words, gathering the outcast. Repent, then rejoice. Amen.


Did Mary Say “Me Too”?

You will conceive—in your womb—and you will give birth to a son… 

Annunciation Tryptich by the late Robert Moore of the African Episcopal Church of St Thomas where it hangs in Philadelphia PA.

 

Did the Blessed Virgin say, “me too”? There is a moment in the Annunciation story when an ordinary girl on the cusp of womanhood is approached by a powerful male figure who tells her what is going to happen to her body, in its most intimate spaces. (#MeToo is a collection of women’s stories acknowledging their experiences of sexual assault and harassment following very public claims against a number of media executives.)

Sit with me in this moment, this uncomfortable moment, before rushing to find proof of her consent, or argue that contemporary notions of consent do not apply to ancient texts, or God knew she’d say yes so it was prophetic, or contend that (human) gender does not apply to divine beings, Gabriel or God, and the Holy Spirit is feminine anyway. Hold those thoughts and just sit in the moment with this young woman.

Even in the Iron Age in an androcentric and patriarchal culture, she knows her body belongs to her. She doesn’t ask what her intended will say, what her father will say, what about the shame this would likely bring on her, her family, and their name. Instead she testifies to the integrity of her body under her control. In her question, “How can this be?” I hear, “Since I have not done and will not do what you are suggesting—just in case you are really here to defraud me and my intended—how will this thing work.” I see her withholding consent at this moment. She has questions and has not agreed to this, glorious messianic prophecy notwithstanding. Not yet. 

It is in this moment between “this is what you will do, what will happen to and in your body,” and submission to what she accepts as God’s will that I ask, Does Mary say, “me too”? Does she have a choice here? The narrative and world that produced it may well say no. That is what makes this a “me too” story to me.

Yet in a world which did not necessarily recognize her sole ownership of her body and did not understand our notions of consent and rape, this very young woman had the dignity, courage, and temerity to question a messenger of the Living God about what would happen to her body before giving her consent. That is important. That gets lost when we rush to her capitulation. Before Mary said, “yes,” she said, “wait a minute, explain this to me.”

After the holy messenger explains the mechanics of the conception that is to take place—he is still saying, “this will happen to you”—then and only then does she consent, using the problematic language of the text and her world, “Indeed, I am the woman-servant-slave of the Lord (a slaveholding title).” Mary’s submission is in the vernacular of slavery, as is much of the Gospel. The language of “servitude” is a misnomer in biblical translation; even though they were not necessarily enslaved in perpetuity, they were enslaved. And while enslaved had no right to protect the integrity of their bodies or control of their sexuality or reproduction. We often soften the language to “servant” particularly with reference to God but the language of slavery runs through the whole bible and is often found without critique on the lips of Jesus.

In this light, her consent is troubled and troubling: Let it be with me according to your word. Given what we know about power dynamics and hierarchy, (not to mention the needs of the narrative), how could she have said anything else? I think that there is not much difference between “overshadowed” and “overwhelmed.” I also remember Jeremiah saying God had *seduced and **overpowered him. (*Translated “enticed” in Jer 20:7, פתה means “seduced” in Ex 22:16; Deut 11:16; Judg 14:15. **The second verb חזק, is one of two primary terms for rape in the Hebrew Bible.)

Did the Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary say, “me too?” Perhaps not. A close reading shows her presumably powerless in every way but sufficiently empowered to talk back to the emissary of God, determine for herself, and grant what consent she could no matter the power of the One asking. And yet in that moment after being told by someone else what would happen to her body, she became not just the Mother of God, but the holy sister to those of us who do say, “Me too.”

 

 


What If Jesus Doesn’t Return

IMG_0378

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.