Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “Judith

Mary of God

Annunciation Tryptich by Robert Moore

Let us pray:

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.

Our liturgical calendar is a spiral tracing the contours of the same story across time. At this moment we are celebrating the Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary in the midst of the season we recall the Church’s first flush of growth. There is another layer to the spiral: in March we added a new liturgical season, Coronatide, and as a result, the Feast of the Annunciation passed almost unobserved. On that date, nine months before Christmas, we commemorate the whisper of God putting on flesh in the womb of Mary of Nazareth. And according to that turn of the spiral, the Blessed Virgin has been navigating the unfamiliar territory of a miraculous pregnancy for about five months now. We celebrate all of the layers of this spiral in the life, legacy and ministry of the mother of our faith, the mother of our Redeemer whom some would call the Matrix of Redemption and others the Theotokas, the God-Bearer, the Mother of God and, the Mother of Sorrows. Her story unfolds in nine chapters:

Chapter 1: A Holy Name

Miriam the mother of all prophets saves Israel’s savior while just a child herself (Exodus 2:5-10); it was she who led Israel through the sea while Moses held the waters open through the power of God (Exodus 15:20) and, she grows up to become a prophet so beloved that the fledgling nation sat down on God and went on strike, refusing to move without her (Numbers 12:15). Her name Miryam, would become the name so many Jewish families chose for their daughters that we can’t keep them straight in the gospels. Mary of Nazareth was Miriam of Nazareth.

Chapter 2: An Inconceivable Conception

Young Miriam of Nazareth, on the cusp of womanhood, innocent and wise, ordinary and extraordinary (Luke 1:27-56) and on her way to being the kind of woman, wife and mother the scriptures often overlook when heaven and earth collide in an angelic annunciation. She draws on the sacred songs of her people, Hannah’s hymn in 1 Samuel 2 and, on Psalm 113. She seeks the company of her cousin like so many young girls who find it easier to talk to a favorite aunt about sex and sexuality and unexpected pregnancies. And there she hears the words that will follow her through the ages as they had followed others: Blessed are you among women. We will return to those words. 

Chapter 3: A Marriage on the Rocks

            Young Mary’s matrimonial plans come to a screeching halt (Matthew 1:18-20). The truth is that there are not a lot of men who will raise someone else’s child and even fewer who will do so when their bride has supposedly been saving herself for him but turns up pregnant with a whale of a tale. But Joseph trusted God over his bruised ego.

Chapter 4: Blood of My Blood; Flesh of My Flesh

            The virgin bride has become the Virgin Mother and heaven and earth rejoice (Luke 2:15-51). Angels sing and shepherds and sages seek her son. She is an observant Jew and will raise him as one from the moment of his birth so they travel, even in her tender state, to honor God with their gifts, sacrifices and offerings and mark the baby as a son of Sarah and Abraham through his circumcision.

Chapter 5: A Life on the Run

            Happiness turns to horror as Herod puts out a hit on the baby and sends his goons to butcher any baby boys they find (Matthew 2:13-15). God sends the brown-skinned family into hiding someplace where they will blend in, pre-Arab North Africa when skin tones would have been even darker than they are now.

Chapter 6: Preacher and Prophet

In the story of the wedding of Cana (John 2:1-12) the Blessed Mother tells her God-born son that it is time for him to live into who he is publicly as only mothers can do. And for those around her who do not yet know who her Son is, she preaches a powerfully simple sermon that we would do well to heed ourselves, “Do what he tells you to do.” Do what he tells you to do. Is there any finer sermon that gets to the heart of what we are called to as Christians?

Chapter 7: His First Teacher and First Disciple

            She who was his first teacher was also his very first disciple. She was with him (Mark 3:31-35) when he taught that “Whoever does the will of God is my sister and brother and mother.” One day a woman was so taken by his teaching that she shouted out a blessing for her (Luke 11:27), “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!”

Chapter 8: Heartbreak and Hope

There is line from Lamentations that we pray on Good Friday, casting our sanctified imaginations to imagine her praying it at the foot of the cross, “Is there any sorrow like my sorrow?” We move quickly through those three holy days, too quickly and too easily, knowing the end of the story where she had only hope, fierce and fleeting, soaring and stumbling, and the memories of his life, birth, death and her pregnancy, all jumbled up with an unbelievable moment of tenderness at the moment of his death (John 19:23b-27). Jesus said to her and to one he loved and trusted, “He shall be your son and you shall be his mother.” She is silent on Saturday and on Sunday. Perhaps another trip to the tomb of her son was just too much, too soon. We rush her past her grief instead of sitting in silence with her like Job’s friends.

We cannot comfort her in her grief but we can remember it. And in her name we can comfort Geneva Reed-Veal the mother of Sandra Bland and, Judy Shepherd the mother of Matthew Shepherd and, Lezley McSpadden the mother of Mike Brown and, Sybrina Fulton the mother of Trayvon Martin and, Allison Jean the mother of Bothan Jean, and all of the mothers who have lost children to the violence of the state and its actors and would-be actors.

Chapter 9: Touched by God, Again

On the day of Pentecost, the Blessed Mother was in the house when the Holy Spirit she knew more intimately than anyone else fell on her and the other women, men, disciples and followers of Jesus in the upper room. (Acts 1:14)

The text is silent on her after that. There are traditions that she and John retired to a little house in what is now Turkey. There is a church there you can visit. There is also the tradition that after her death, her body was taken up into heaven.

The life of her Son, his love – for her, for us, for God – all bear witness to her as do those resounding and redounding words, “Blessed are you among women.” Elizabeth drew those words from the treasury of scripture. We heard those words in our First Lesson, spoken to the widow and warrior Judith by one of the town magistrates:

Judith 13:18 Uzziah said to Judith, “O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth, and blessed be the Holy God, who created the heavens and the earth, who has guided you to cut off the head of the leader of our enemies. 19 Praise of you will never depart from the hearts of women and men who remember the power of God. 20 May God do these things for you as an eternal exaltation, and may God visit you with blessings, because you did not withhold your life when our nation was humiliated, rather you rallied against our demise, walking straight before our God.” And all the people said, “Amen. Amen.”

The context of Judith’s blessing might make it seem a strange or even unwelcome blessing for the Virgin Mother. After all, Judith prayed for God to make her deceit believable and successful and, that deceit was that she was succumbing to the charms of the king blockading the city. She allowed him to think he was seducing her, got him drunk and sawed off his head with his own sword. That is a most unsettling blessing story.

And before Judith, there was Jael. When she killed the enemy of her people by hammering a tent peg into his skull, he was likely attempting to rape her which is why he fell between her legs or in biblical idiom at her feet. His mother, not knowing he is dead, thinks he is late because he is abusing women as spoils of war.

Perhaps you’re thinking this sermon has taken an ugly turn. I am convinced that this ugliness is exactly why Elizabeth drew on her knowledge of her scriptures and chose these words and these women to bless her cousin. Redemption is a bloody business because this crucifying world is a bloody place. While she was presenting her baby at the temple, blessed Simeon spoke over the Holy Child to the Blessed Mother (Luke 2:34-35):

This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.

Today, we remember and commemorate and celebrate a woman who is more than a two-dimensional Christmas card. We remember a life of joy and sorrow, faith and discipleship, a woman who loved God enough to say yes to the unimaginable, a woman who speaks across the ages and bids us come and follow Jesus and do whatever he tells us to do knowing that we too may come to our death and in so doing, yet live.

In the Name of God who is Love, Jesus the Love that is stronger than death and the Holy Spirit who covers us and fills us with her Love. Amen.


Resistance Is Not Futile

donatello-judith-halofernes-detail

Image: Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes

Resistance is Not Futile

#Resist. There was a man who rose to great power and became very wealthy along the way. He expected his whims to be met with instant acquiescence and held grudges against those who did not comply. He kept lists of his enemies and used his power to destroy those who defied him. I’m talking about Nebuchadnezzar as he’s portrayed in the book of Judith, but since Judith is scripture and scripture lives and speaks beyond its originating context, surely these sacred words speak to today when grudge-holding tyrants target those who didn’t support them fully or soon enough or contradict them or mock them.

The tyrant in this story set his sights on Judith’s people and her land. Judith can be read as an archetype for the land of Judea, the Jewish people, Jewish womanhood or Jane Q. Public, make that Judith Q. Jewish Public. Yehudit, the feminine of Yehudah, Judah—also feminine in form reminding us gender is more complicated than binaries even in binary languages and systems—Yehudit, Judith, is the quintessential Jewish woman. She is Daughter Zion herself or just a faithful daughter of Zion. More importantly, Judith is not captive Daughter Zion; Judith is the resistance of Zion; she is an agent-provocateur, a provocatrix. She is a woman who resists tyranny because she knows resistance is not futile; it is essential.

The tyrant sent his second-in-command, Holofernes, to do his will. Some quibble over the historicity of Judith, and characters like Holofernes, I am not among them. Judith may well be less historical than other biblical texts, and more so than yet others. What is sure is that scripture, in or out of the book of Judith, does not have to be historical to be true. Judith is true in more ways than one. Take the tyrant’s second-in-command. A whole lot of folk are exorcized about the tyrant in the story and the modern day exemplar he may evoke, but they forget that tyrants are not singular occurrences. They are the fruit of tyranny, nurtured, cultivated, harvested and deployed. And, they are waiting in line, waiting in the wings, waiting for their shot. That’s why empires don’t die when emperors do. Tyranny’s bench is deep. Tyranny survives violent upheaval even when tyrants and their functionaries are swept aside and tyranny does not even blink at the peaceful transfer of power.

The tyrant in our text decided to punish the people who hadn’t stood with him in his previous campaign. (This is just the literary background of Judith, a book some folk cut out of their bibles because they couldn’t find a living word in this story about a woman who resisted tyranny with her fully sexualized woman’s body—but I’m getting ahead of myself.) The tyrant sent his second to execute his policies. They decided to deprive the people of the basic resources they needed to live, to punish them for their disloyalty. In our story the resource that is snatched back from the people is water, the very fabric of life for this earth and her creatures. Tyrants are still depriving communities and their children of water, poisoning it, rerouting it, outright stealing it and then selling it back to them befouled.

The text says that for thirty-four days Edomite and Ammonite armies that had sworn fealty to the tyrant did to Judith’s people what had surely been done to them. Don’t miss that the foot-soldiers of tyranny are often oppressed peoples themselves. Some of them have been taken captive, pressed or sold into service, but some of them have sold themselves, coveting the privilege and power of the empire that was never meant for them, which they will never be granted. It will continually be dangled before their eyes, poisonous fruit from a poisonous tree. And even though they will never get to dine at the table where tyrants dine, they will be thrown a few scraps and convince themselves that they aren’t as bad off as those the empire disdains most. And maybe if they work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps they too can get a seat at the table.

Then when every well was dry and humans and animals began to collapse some people said: It would be better for us to be captured by them. We shall indeed become slaves, but our lives will be spared, and we shall not witness our little ones dying before our eyes, and our wives and children drawing their last breath. (Jdt 7:27)

What they were really saying was that resistance is futile. The empire was saying submit and they were ready to say yes, not because they were cowards, not because they wanted to be collaborators, but because they were desperate. It’s easy to judge them from outside the text. But what do you do when the empire seizes the resources you need to live? What do you do when your child is lying listless, dehydrated, dying or dead and there is no water, milk or medicine? This is how empire works. Those it doesn’t destroy outright it grinds into submission, sometimes making its subjects beg for the degradation of being dominated by them.

One member of the governing council conveniently named Uzziah, God hears, begged the people to hold out a little while longer, to pray and trust God. In so doing he offers the only resistance he can muster. But he says, if God doesn’t come through, he will personally hand over whoever is left to the regime, surrender and accept whatever depredation, whatever indignity, whatever retribution the tyrant has in mind for those he governs but doesn’t consider to be his people. Uzziah doesn’t see that he has any other options if he wants to save his people. For him the paths of resistance and submission collide at the intersection where the bodies of his people lay dying. What else can he do?

Then Judith, whose sixteen-generation genealogy—the longest of any woman in scripture—which traces her back to Jacob-become-Israel through the womb of Leah, Judith began to speak. She called the members of her governing council and began her resistance by opening her mouth (sometimes you’ve got to call the folk who govern you and tell them about themselves):

Jdt 8:11 What you have said to the people today is not right; you have even sworn and pronounced this oath between God and you, promising to surrender the town to our enemies unless the Holy One turns and helps us within so many days. 12 Who are you to put God to the test today, and to set yourselves up in the place of God in human affairs? 13 You are putting the Sovereign God to the test, but you will never learn anything! 14 You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart or understand the workings of the human mind; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out God’s mind or comprehend God’s thought?

Judith calls for prayer as an act of resistance. Her language is so powerful and compelling that the men of the governing council asked her to pray for them. They want her to pray that it might rain and buy them a little more time. But Judith understood the real fight wasn’t about the resources that the tyrant cut them off from. The issue wasn’t the tyrant’s latest tweet, plot, plan or rant. The problem was the tyrant and his tyranny. So she prayed starting with the sexual violence against women that accompanies every war. We ought not be surprised to see tyrants boasting about sexual assault as proof of the deformed manhood that passes for their twisted notion of masculinity.

Judith prayed that God would use her deceit because she didn’t plan to fight fair for she understood there were no rules of engagement that the empire would honor. Sometimes resisting the empire means doing things that will get you branded a terrorist. Judith’s ethics of resistance were revolutionary. Sometimes the only difference between a revolutionary and a terrorist is in the mouth of the one who gets to tell the story.

Judith’s prayer was an act of resistance but it wasn’t her only strategy. I believe there is a real critique to be had of folk who only talk, even if they’re talking to God and do nothing to resist that might cost them some skin. Judith put her whole skin in the game, but first she prayed the line that makes her a liberation theologian:

For your strength does not depend on numbers, nor your might on the powerful. But you are the God of the lowly, helper of the oppressed, upholder of the weak, protector of the forsaken, savior of those without hope. (Jdt 9:11)

Judith got up from her knees and she got to work. If you know the story, you know that Judith intentionally used her body, her sexuality, as a weapon; more to the point, she used Holofernes’s sexism, patriarchy, and lust against him. She stripped her body. She bathed her body. She anointed her body. She perfumed her body. She adorned her body. She dressed herself to show herself, covered in jewels from her tiara to her toes.

Judith took herself to the tyrant’s camp, displayed herself before his eyes, just in reach but out of his grasp. She batted her eyelashes and stroked his ego, she told him what he wanted to hear about how he was perceived, admired and feared. She dined with him and drank with him. While he drank his private stock she drank her kosher wine and when they were through only she was still standing. She cut off his head with his own sword and put it in her little kosher dinner bag and carried it back to her people as a trophy.

Be clear, I am not calling for the assassination of tyrants in our day. We do not live in the Iron Age. The fact that our scriptures are rooted in the Iron Age does not limit us to their theology or ethics, in spite of what those who bow down at the altars of patriarchy and homophobia preach. Judith, like all scripture, offers much more than a literal paradigm to be blindly followed.

The triumph of Judith teaches me that tyrants do fall. Judith teaches me that prayer is an act of resistance, but it is not enough by itself. Judith teaches me that that we must resist together as a community. Judith teaches me that the strategies for our resistance are not always going to come from our leaders. Judith teaches me that respectability politics won’t lead to a revolution. The revolution will not happen without the sisters and we won’t be at the back of the bus. We will be seen and heard and folk will have to get over their issues about what we wear and how we do our hair. Judith teaches me that sometimes someone from your community has to be in the room to take a tyrant down. And Judith teaches me that something else. It is the lesson I believe our author wanted to pass on: Judith doesn’t have to get into bed with the tyrant to take him down. There is a line she will not cross. You don’t have to sacrifice your integrity or moral authority to resist tyranny.

Lastly, even though empires don’t collapse upon the deaths of their tyrants, they can be dismantled and placed under new management. Resistance is not futile. Amen.

Benediction:

May the God of Judith and Jesus strengthen our hearts and hands for the work ahead.

May we stand with the people of God, standing for what is right.

May we resist tyranny wherever it is found.

And may we never be cut off from the water of life. Amen.

You can view the entire service here.

 

Postscript: There is a wonderful blog by Judith Robinson chronicling images of Judith.