Author Archives: Priestly Goth

About Priestly Goth

Pastor, prior, artist, goth and iconographer. I live in Chicago, with my wife in an intentional Christian Community (the Community of the Holy Trinity). I pastor the Church of Jesus Christ, Reconciler, an ecumenical congregation in Chicago. I have been writing icons for 9 years.

On Paczki’s, Fat Tuesday, and Ashes

What’s going on with Packi’s and Mardi Gras?

Today in many grocery stores In Chicago you will find the polish pastry paczki, prominently displayed for sale. Today is of course Paczki Day, or Mardi Gras. If one is from New Orleans the celebration of Mardi Gras isn’t confined to this Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, in Brazil and other Countries this SEASON before Ash Wednesday is known as Carnival. Tomorrow, many Christians of various traditions will begin the season of Lent by receiving ashes on the forehead. This all may appear to be very disjointed and individualized. How does this all fit together? What connects Mardi Gras, the eating of paczkis and receiving of ashes upon the forehead?

A sense one may have from all this is individual indulgence followed by Forty days of individual self-denial. Celebration of life and abundance and the confrontation of mortality and limits. This picture isn’t entirely wrong but it largely misses the point. Carnival, Mardi Gras Ash Wednesday and Lent are all of a piece. We feast and we fast aiming for the same goal. In each we are preparing to receive again the mysteries of the faith of the church.

The dishes of Mardi Gras, are intended to use up items that one won’t be eating in one’s fast. In this way, the feasting of Mardi Gras is a holy act of preparation, so that we might be prepared (through not having in our cupboards empty of the items from which we will be fasting during Lent. Of course, buying the paczki from the grocery store on Fat Tuesday forgets this aspect of our feasting.

Preparing to Receive again the Mysteries of the Faith

Yet even if our feasting doesn’t literally empty our cupboards, we should recall that feasting and celebration of Mardi Gras are as much part of our preparation for Holy Week and Easter as is the fasting of Lent. However, we may observe the Lenten fast Today is part of that practice. Feasting today is part, our observing Lent.

In the liturgy for Ash Wednesday before ash is put upon the forehead and we hear “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We are called to the observation of a holy Lent. What is a holy lent? It is one in which we take up with greater focus the practices fasting, alms giving and other acts of pious act of charity and justice. This all from carnival to Ash Wednesday up to Holy Week is all preparation. A holy Lent is one that prepares us to return to who we became through our baptism, ready to reaffirm those vows of baptism and receive again the mysteries of our faith, “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again”. A holy lent is preparation is what we do as the Church, members of Christ. None of this is some individualistic celebration and navel gazing upon our individual mortality.

Unfortunately the way we often observe lent reduces it to individual piety, “What will I give up for lent” and we focus on one aspect of the liturgy of Ash Wednesday (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”) that we forget that this remembrance of mortality is to send us into the arms of Mother Church, the body of Christ, to regain and renew our being as the baptized who are being joined together as the body of Christ, holy stones of the holy temple of God. Our repentance, our fasting, our alms giving all are oriented to this goal or remembering who we are that we may be renewed by the great mysteries of our faith.

We should stop and question the ways we may individualize and separate ourselves off from this corporate feasting and fasting in preparation to receive the mysteries of our very being as the body of Christ. Lent is to return us to ourselves as the Church, the Body of Christ. However, we observe Lent, we are to seek to be more like Christ and to grow more into our Baptism. If we aren’t focused growing father into Christ anticipating and preparing ourselves to renew our baptism and return to the Church, then we aren’t observing a holy Lent. So, do what your community or your spiritual director encourages you to do. Don’t worry if you are doing too little or too much, don’t worry about how strict or lax you are. Focus on being ready for Easter. Whatever you do have as your goal to renew and deepen your sense and understanding of yourself as a member of the Church, our mother.

Examining a practice “Ashes on the Go”

A few years back some priests and ministers experimented with getting Christian liturgy in the streets on Ash Wednesday with Ashes on the Go. I wonder if Ashes on the Go by focusing on the moment most individuated within the liturgy of Ash Wednesday if this fails to communicate the meaning of receiving these ashes in this time of preparation? Given that we already have the tendency to view Lenten disciplines as individualistic private pious acts disconnected from our being called back into the church and back to our baptism, there’s a danger this innovation reinforces individualistic interpretations of Lent and Lenten disciplines.

If Ashes on the Go is just this one moment of the Ash Wednesday liturgy I see “Ashes on the Go” reinforcing an individualistic pious interpretation of the day. How would one communicate the corporate nature of this act without a gathered body of believers? There would need to be some reminder in the liturgy of Ashes on the Go that those who receive the ashes should also be finding and involved with a local body of believers in following through on their having received ashes, some reminder of their baptism and membership in the body of Christ. Otherwise this innovation risks (whether the priest intends this or not) of reinforcing the individualized misinterpretations of Lent and Ashe Wednesday that are prevalent in our treatment of Lenten practices.

Ash Wednesday as an act of becoming church.

Ash Wednesday isn’t about confronting my own mortality, nor an individual penitence. It includes those things, but only as an act of joining with the other members of Christ. It is more importantly a collective entering a time of self-examination and repentance to be prepared to receive again the central mysteries of the faith of the Church.

In Ash Wednesday, we are asked as members of Christ to face how we have both individually and collectively exhibited a failure to live into the call l or baptism and our collective mortality. We are reminded that being a member of Christ isn’t a space of triumphalism nor a celebration of our ability as individuals to bravely face our limits. Rather, it is a space of humility, to again remember we need God and each other, to be what we are called to and that we often forget in a short time, what it means to be the body of Christ, we were initiated into at our baptism.

When we receive ashes, and reflect upon our mortality as an act of corporate repentance and humility, we are called back to who we are as baptized members of Christ Body, the temple of God.

As you feast today, and as you receive ash and begin your Lenten practice tomorrow, let it be focused upon return, renewal and receiving again the mystery of who we are as the church, baptized members of Christ. Then we can know that we are observing a holy lent no matter what we do, or don’t do, as we prepare ourselves to come face to face with the mystery of our Faith.

Building Upon a Foundation: Practicing the Sermon on the Mount

The sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7) concludes with the parable the wise and foolish builders. The wise builder builds on a rock for the foundation of his house. This builder who builds upon a firm foundation is the one who hears Jesus’ teaching and practices what Jesus teaches. Putting Jesus’ teaching into practice is to build upon a solid foundation.  The apostle Paul in his letters use this image of building upon a foundation, which is Christ. However, we tend to treat the sermon on the mount as a structure that we are to live in and which we must remodel or deconstruct. The parable suggests that practicing Jesus’ teaching is more like building a structure than inhabiting something already in existence. The sermon on the mount provides a foundation for living in a way that builds upon Jesus Christ and Jesus’ teaching.

How is Jesus Christ and the teachings in the sermon on the Mount foundation? Are we building upon this foundation? What does it mean to build upon Jesus and these teachings of Christ.?

Taking Jesus Christ and the Sermon on the Mount as foundation means reading the Sermon on the mount not so much as rules to be applied in all situations, but teaching that gives us a dynamic life giving way of being. In hearing and studying the sermon on the mount we become familiar with this way of being.

Some aspects of this we won’t go into here: The Sermon on the mount is itself a summary of Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah. Jesus is describing himself in his own teaching, Jesus is the way and fulfillment of the Torah. As the Word made flesh Jesus is the Torah interpreting Torah.

Jesus’ teaching is a whole not discrete isolated instructions. Only as a whole are they the firm foundation to be built upon. Anyone saying or teaching isn’t isolated and discrete able to stand on its own, rather Jesus’ teachings provide the interlocking basis for life and for our building upon this foundation. Take for instance the teaching of turning the other cheek this instruction is bound up with Jesus teaching on hate and murder, with the charge to love enemies, the charge to not worry, the blessing of those who seek after justice and righteousness etc… Seeing this as foundation and way of being means that every part is part of the other unable to be removed and atomized, and picked over for its supposed utility in following Jesus.

Once we accept Jesus and Jesus instruction as foundation we are not meant to build upon this foundation alone. This way of being isn’t an individualistic path anymore then the teachings of Jesus are individual disconnected rules to be applied by our own wisdom. We are to build upon this foundation with others, namely other baptized members of the Church.

This is Christ’s way of being, the very nature of the church. We can’t answer how we are to live out this way and build upon the foundation individually.  We can do this only as the body of Christ, only in conversation with others, both those who are living and those who have lived upon the foundation out in the past: Like St. Francis and St. Benedict and the Benedictines, and the first monastics like St Anthony of Egypt. The lives of the Saints show us how others have lived upon this foundation. This is a spiritual and Eucharistic practice of becoming Christ, it requires regularly taking in Christ and being with other’s who are baptized members of the body of Christ, encouraging each other to practice and build upon Christ and Christ’s teachings.

A note on false prophets and those who teach but don’t live on the foundation Christ:

If you still have misgivings about the Sermon on the mount or some of Jesus’ sayings, because some interpretations seem to support the status quo, or oppressors or the wealthy remember Jesus warns against those who would twist his words for their own ends, false prophets and those who would claim to speak for Jesus but do works that have nothing to do with the Jesus or Jesus’ way of being.

Jesus wraps up the Sermon on the Mount with warnings against false prophets and those who say “Lord, Lod” and claimed to do great works in Christ’s name but who don’t do the will of God as found in Jesus’s teachings. The harmful interpretations of the sermon on the mount can come back to these false teachers and false disciples. We are called to watch out for those who distort the foundation or who teach but do not live upon the foundation of Christ. But they don’t alter the solid foundation which is Christ. Turn aside from those false prophets, and those who claim knowledge but know nothing of Christ. Do not let them shake your confidence in this foundation and the life-giving way offered by Christ.

Unbounded Love As Resistance: Standing against Sin and Evil, Part 2

Part 1: Love command as interpretive framework for the Sermon on the Mount

Part 2  Love command as Standing against Sin and Evil

A careful reading of Matthew’s version of Jesus saying reveals a humanizing act both for the one being struck and for the one striking the other. one that counters the received interpretation from the powerful and the privileged to the marginalized and oppressed, that Jesus means we must merely accept abuse.

If a right-handed person strikes one on the right cheek, that person has back handed the other.  The back handed strike isn’t what takes place between equals or between people simply engaged in a struggle or fist fight. This is an insult, an assertion of superiority over an inferior.  Thus, Jesus’ instruction to turn the left cheek is to demand to be struck as an equal, or at least to prevent the insult from being repeated.  It is symbolically in one’s body saying to the other I’m your equal, I do not accept your terms. I will not strike back but if you wish to strike me again you must punch me like you would your equal.  This is love of enemy, seeing the enemy as human, like you, and insisting that your enemy also recognize your humanity. Thus when the Elder King confronts the police officer for calling him boy one, the Elder King was turning the other cheek. Any refusal of the dehumanizing by the elder king (or any African-American) was acting on Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek and was a fulfillment of the command to love one’s enemies.

We may then take a moment to reflect on what nonresistance to evil then really means. Clearly it isn’t acquiescing or acceptance of dehumanization and oppression.  It might mean in the least not taking actions against enemies or oppressors that mimic the dehumanizing and othering tactics of the oppressor.  Non-resistance of evil is choosing to in the face of evil act from the stand point of radical love.  Love of enemies is resistance that refuses to dehumanize even the human that acts towards others in the most dehumanizing fashion. Non-resistance of evil says I will not only treat you the oppressor as human and with love but in that love I demand that you treat me and all people as equally human deserving of the very same dignity and good things that you the enemy and oppressor demand for yourself and those like you.

Taking this point of view of Jesus Christ and of Jesus’ teaching, should lead us to ask the question about any action in the face of oppression: does it invite the oppressor to both see the oppressed as equal human beings and does it humanize the oppressor and the oppressed?

In a paradoxical moment of great extremity Dietrich Bonhoeffer admitted that there are instances, such as his moment in opposition to Hitler, when the demand that the enemy see the other as human means a willingness to in a singular instance violate Jesus love command, eg. assassinate Hitler so that the love command might be kept. In other words under the extreme situation of Nazi Germany and the genocide of the Jews meant that insisting on the humanity of all and refusing the extermination of ones neighbors fellow human beings came in conflict with the command of love of enemy. Bonhoeffer recognized that in such extremities it might be impossible to maintain the unity of Jesus’ teaching of demanding humanity for all including the evil person. one may be required by Jesus love ethic to fail in loving one’s enemy. Bonhoeffer could not escape the connecting Jesus makes in the sermon on the mount between hate and murder, thus assassination of Hitler (even the attempt of it) lead him for the sake of Christ and the demand of love to violate Jesus love command in the name of love. Bonhoeffer admitted that his participation in the assassination plot was a failure of the demands of love and  Gospel for the sake of love and the Gospel. Bonhoeffer accepted this guilt and through himself upon the grace of God.

Love of enemy, turning the other cheek and non-resistance of evil are to serve radical love and radical humanization of all people including, to jar the oppressor out of their inhumanity. This radical love can lead us in extremity to a contradiction that catches us in the human inability to uphold Jesus radical love ethic, at which moment we embrace our flawed humanity and throw ourselves upon the love and grace of God.  Such is the resistance of the disciple of Jesus Christ, member of the church the body of Christ. Many interpretation of the sermon on the mount which to preserve the church the members of Christ’s body from the possible contradictions that taking this teaching seriously may lead one into.  Many interpretations treat Jesus’ teaching as a means to avoid Sin.  Yet what the Christian monastics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rosa Parks Martin Luther King Jr and Sr, and many others show us is that the life of the Church isn’t the avoidance of Sin but the direct conformation of sin which will expose our human limits and our complicity with Sin.  This radical confrontation is undertaken in the name of Christ and by the power of the cross so that Sin , injustice a d oppression may be driven out of our minds, hearts and of all creation. These are acts of exorcism, a life of exorcism dependent upon the work of God in Jesus Christ: Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension.

Unbounded Love as Resistance: The Sermon on the Mount (part 1)

There is an extremism in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7, parallel in Luke 6 as the Sermon on the Plain). Many in the history of the church have attempted to soften and or restrict the application of these teachings to certain class. Part of this radicalism, is Jesus Christ getting at the root of Sin and injustice/unrighteousness. This extreme teaching is also, an articulation of Jesus’ ethic, the way of life or being for his body, the Church.

This ethic or way of life is nurtured in the soil of the Torah. The teaching is enriched by going beyond surface adherence of the commands of the Torah, so that one can dig into the richness of the Torah as life. This ethic also has its source in a radicalization of the Love command taught in the Torah: Love of God and neighbor as self. Jesus accepts this Love command as a summary of the Torah. In the sermon on the Mount love of neighbor (if neighbor is taken as someone one knows and with whom one shares an affinity) is radicalized as love of enemy. This radical neighbor love exposes how we justify our failures to live by the Torah and love of neighbor by cordoning ourselves off from certain others. We know this well: treatment of our in group (whatever that might be) stands in stark contrast to our treatment of the out group. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus makes explicit that the way of love Jesus exemplifies and exhorts us towards doesn’t allow us to hate anyone even those who may harm us, that is our enemies.

Jesus’ love ethic and love command has two elements (shown in the parable of the Good Samaritan told in answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?”. The answer to that question is the seeming non-sequitur question “Am I a neighbor?”) One is seeking to be neighbor to all. The other is love of those who do not return my love- love of those who hate me and seek my demise, even death. Thus, If we conceive of love only as sentiment, we make pure nonsense of Jesus’ teaching. This radicalized ethic shows that the basis of love for Jesus isn’t only an emotion but also an action that extends love to all possible persons and circumstances. Jesus’ teaching tells us that what is usually grounded in an emotive response to familiarity and affinity, is deeper and grander than our habitual way of understanding love. Love is more human and more divine than we realize or usually notice.

The Sermon on the Mount or Plain needs to be interpreted from this extreme love ethic that is rooted in the Torah and its summary as Love of God and love of neighbor as self, and radicalized by removal of any limit we might put on love of neighbor. This is accomplished first through focus not on others but the self being a neighbor in any and all circumstances, this focus on self being neighbor and loving from that standpoint is further radicalized as the commandment to love neighbor becomes a command to love one’s enemies.

We turn now to the teaching on “love of enemy, resisting not the evil person and turning the other cheek that occur within in what is often called the antitheses; “You’ve heard it was said…. but I say to you…”. When we look at this section from the perspective of Torah summarized as Love of God and Neighbor as self, we can see this section as rooted in Torah and not it’s rejection. Jesus always has the Torah as the basis of the radicalized way of living and being he leads his disciples into, and moves it towards the extremity of the Torah’s meaning at points almost seeming to enjoin doing the opposite. Except that the Torah is never abandoned, but s clarified trough Jesus’ teaching.

We run into difficulty of hearing Jesus in truth due to some of the ways these three sayings are interpreted.  As often as not these sayings of Christ have been interpreted by powerful and privileged Christians to insist that the poor and the oppressed not upset the status quo, and endure their lot in life. While also being interpreted as not applying to Christians exercising the power of the state. There are interpretations of love of enemies, turning the other cheek and resist not evil all which subject the one suffering evil or oppression to accept the dehumanizing condition in the name of Jesus Christ.

James Cone in his book on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X recounts Martin Luther King Jr’s account of influences of Kings child hood in Atlanta and of the example of his parents as key to his views. one of the incidents Cones recounts from Kings autobiography is an incident of King’s father being pulled over by a police officer when King was a child.  Cone quotes King as saying that the elder King didn’t turn the other cheek but that the elder King insisted on being treated as a “man” and an equal. When the police officer called the elder King “boy” the elder King’s reply was that the younger king in the car with him was a boy but that he was a man. Turning the other cheek in Martin Luther King Jr.’s account is the opposite of standing up and demanding that one’s humanity be recognized in the face of degradation, oppression and injustice.

If this is Jesus intended teaching (accept and don’t stand against dehumanization) then what sense can we make of the Beatitudes (especially if we keep Luke’s and Matthew’s versions together), when what we see in the Beatitudes is the humanizing of those who are being dehumanized. When the Beatitudes are together with the command to love enemies, which obliterates any line that puts another human beyond the pale of human being, then we have a radical stance against dehumanizing any human being whatever they may do or have done, or however monstrous we may view the other. To refuse hate, even to refuse to hate one’s enemy but instead to love them, is a humanizing way of life that has no boundaries.

Jesus Christ’s love ethic is meant to humanize everyone and to eradicate within each of us the desire and need to dehumanize those who threaten us. We will next explore, In part 2, “turning the other cheek” and “resisting not the evil person” from this perspective of Jesus’ ethic as a humanizing way of life, that refuses all forms of dehumanization, and the ways in which this radicalism can lead us into a contradiction that is the very nature of our call as the church to confront (not avoid) Sin and unrighteousness/injustice.

Please leave your thoughts on how you’ve been taught to understand “turn the other Cheek” and “resist not the evil person.” How does viewing Jesus’ teaching from the perspective of a radical interpretation of the Torah from the perspective of love without bounds, including those who seek to harm us, reinforce or challenge interpretations of the sermon on the Mount you believe or have been taught?

On the Edge of Enlightenment: The Epiphany

Even on this day, as when we were waiting for God’s transformation of the world, we can miss the illumination. As often as not the illumination we seek is obvious and at the center while the epiphany we get is on the periphery just out of sight.

The Epiphany comes to us as odd foreigners speaking of an obscure star they saw. These same foreigners visiting an infant with rare gifts.

Enlightenment comes as an ordinary man, by appearance, who comes to the river baptized by a man in camel hair along with everyone else. Then the heavens are opened, Spirit descends, a voice speaks, or was it?

Epiphany is tasting excellent wine suddenly discovered after the momentary crisis of having no wine as the head steward of a wedding feast. But only the servants know what happened, they poured water into jugs and when the drew out the water there was wine. A parlor trick? For a very exclusive audience of servants.

This manifestation is not a sudden clear insight. What is manifest isn’t blindingly and unambiguously clear. It’s not entirely convincing.  It’s queer. Boundaries have been crossed and it takes place out of the way on the borders. It’s in our peripheral vision, and never quite comes into focus.

The Epiphany is odd. It is disconcerting, because such an illumination tells us the truly important doesn’t happen at the center: center of power, center of ourselves, center of meaning.

The Epiphany doesn’t give us a place of residence.  The manifestation sends us again on our way.  Our illumination on this day sends us to live unsettled at the boundaries.

What is revealed on Epiphany is a god who embraces the “neither nor” and the “both and”. We are invited to meet one who is neither human nor divine, who is both human and divine.  At this moment, we are invited into this transgression of the order of things. The mixing of creator and created for the sake of love.

If we affirm the doctrines of “incarnation”, “Virgin Birth”, “Trinity”, “Fully God and fully human” and “begotten not made” we should not do so because of their intellectual or philosophical power to convince. Rather we should affirm these dogmas because they give voice to our epiphany, our enlightenment and encounter with God. The Epiphany shows us that these doctrines describe something queer, transgressive. This all though is seen just out of the corner of our eyes.  They point to what we can’t quite grasp but can intuit.  A flash of light, a voice an appearance of a dove.

I invite us to speak of incarnation and virgin birth, and say Jesus of Nazareth is fully divine and fully human.  I invite us to do so not to grasp an insight, but to be embraced by the transgressor of our creaturely limits.  Allow this speech, and this contemplation to take us to the borders. So, we may live with God on the edges, in that place between human and divine. This borderland is the place of the one who was honored by Magi and who enraged the powerful. In this place, we are with the Beloved in whom God is well pleased.  I invite us to come to the Jordan, take up residence on the edge of the empire. It is in the borderland where love was revealed, and God affirmed God’s love and union with human kind and all creation. In this transgression of flesh and divinity we are illumined.


The Veil Over the Holy Nativity

The icon of the Holy Nativity has something that eludes us.  I return, again and again, to its contemplation because it is a rich image but also because it challenges me. I don’t see it completely. The meaning eludes us, there is a veil over the icon.

One layer of this veil is the familiar imagery of Christmas, which smooth’s out the edges, softens the light, ignores the presence of death that lurks in Holy Nativity.  Most images seek to honor this moment through abstraction of the material and fleshly reality the holy nativity inhabits. There is a veil (The “veil” is an allusion to Saint Paul’s usage in 2 Corinthians 3:12-14 ) over this icon and the reality the icon invites us to enter. Because of this veil we are unable to enter Christmas, we turn away from the crack in the world it created.

We look at this icon and we see only a dogmatic claim. VIRGIN BIRTH, screams out at us. Isolated, without context, we hear “Just accept and believe that Mary conceived without intercourse with Joseph.” What is at root of this dogmatism disconnected from a lived and material existence? Why might we only see in this image a dogmatic assertion? Why the fascination with and the rejection of the miraculous? More importantly why do we think the miracle is the point? (side note, it’s not!)

Asking the question of whether a Christian need to believe in the Virgin Birth as Nicholas Kristof does in his interview with Timothy Keller, misses the point. Timothy Keller’s answer that the virgin birth is integral to the Christian thought system, reinforces the veil over the icon of the Holy Nativity (though I agree with his point that the doctrine has meaning). What is this veil? Why the retreat into abstraction and systematic theology and the integrity of belief systems and organizations?  This is so far from the material and physical reality of a virgin birth. Why do we retreat from the holy nativity’s visceral moment? Keller, later in the interview, when talking about the Resurrection, will tell Kristof that these beliefs about Jesus were an offense to the Greek philosophers who couldn’t abide a God bound up in the messiness of the material and fleshly, and yet Keller answers with that same attitude of distance from the messy material world. What Keller presents is a tidy precise sterile world with discrete doctrines that ensure the precise relationships, and the protocol for dealing with God. If doctrine and belief is all you see in the Holy Nativity, then you aren’t seeing.

I think I’ve identified the veil and turning away from this sight. The eyes are veiled for both the one who professes to believe and the one who is skeptical or has abandoned belief. (for my purposes here, I make the distinction between faith and belief. Belief is assent to propositions, faith is about trust and relationship that can be expressed in propositions but whose referent isn’t those propositions.) From what are we shielding our eyes, as we rush to take these  postures.? From what do we veil ourselves, what can’t we bear to look upon in the icon?

Our turning away has been happening for a very long time. All I give at this moment is a quick sketch of this retreat and veiling. I will make some rapid connections of disconnect and retreat. Trump and his Christian supporters have more in common with those who don’t appear in this icon; the client King Herod (see, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s
use of this trope in his Open Letter to King Herod at Red Letter Christians
) and the other religious leaders who know the Torah (the Bible, if you will) and who in differing ways collaborate with the occupation of Judea and Galilee. White Christianity isn’t found in this icon. The “we” if you find this icon unintelligible, is a Christianity of Empire, in service to Babylon the Great (Revelation 17 and 18). The most recent iteration of Babylon is that which inherited the White supremacist system of European colonialism. This sketch of course isn’t convincing (for the case and argument for this sketch one must read Willie James Jennings, James Cone, Harry H. Singleton III, and others).

I will add to this historical sketch a tableau, a “pastoral image”*, if you will: Christmas on the plantations in the “new world”, slaves and their masters at Christmas. In the celebration of Christmas, the White Christian slave holders would allow slaves a moment of reprieve from their harsh conditions. Some of the conditions of their enslavement were lifted, surveillance was lessened, work load lightened. Some slaves, tasting of this Christmas liberty, grabbed hold of it and fled to freedom. Some managed to gain their liberty at Christmas. There were also slave rebellions at Christmas. (see Christmas and the Resistance to Slavery in the Americas in AAIHS)

This is the veil, the reason of our retreat: White Christians instinctively loosening their grip of oppression, but not understanding that the Holy Nativity stood in opposition to them. The White Christian is nowhere to be found in the icon of the holy nativity. The religious collaborators do not make an appearance in this film. We’ve attempted to make the holy nativity a pastoral image of innocence that White Christianity can’t claim for itself, but must insist upon.

We are some distance from the above tableaux of Christmas on the plantations. Yet, it still reverberates. Babylon and its religious (often devoutly so) collaborators, who can answer the questions when those seeking truth come, and ask “Where is the messiah to be born,” and knowing the scriptures can give the correct answer. Even so, white Christians never come into the Holy Nativity.

Where are we, (by “we” I mean both those who seek to come out of Whiteness (Babylon) and those upon whom Babylon has fed and who cry out “how long” (Revelation 6:9-11)- people of color, who currently cry out “Black lives matter”).

In this icon. At this moment, I think most of us are at the bottom of the icon with Saint Joseph and the midwives. We are either caught in a moment of indecision, uncertain what to make of it all, without answers, full of doubts. We ask with Saint Joseph, has any of this been true, the apparition of angels, the message they delivered. Or we are with the midwives handling the holy as they’ve done year in year out, perhaps not fully aware of who they are handling, and washing, swaddling, protecting through their resistance, (recall the midwives, Shiphorah and Puah in Exodus 1)

The veil hasn’t been lifted, we can’t yet see the center of this icon. Even so, we are drawn into this holy nativity, we are here. We who sit with Saint Joseph this is a very melancholy Christmas. There is much to ponder, and the lies of Satan, and the lure of Babylon must be resisted. We who sit with saint Joseph need to pay attention to the resistance and the strength of the midwives. Yes, we must ponder and reflect, but we must also be drawn into the activity of the midwives who know Christ in the flesh ( 1 John 4:2), who handle and wash and protect and guard God in this vulnerable moment of newness and liberation. But many of us are frozen in Saint Joseph’s melancholy, the veil still hangs over our eyes and we have yet to remove the veil and gaze upon  the light emitting from this icon..

*by using “pastoral image” I’m intentionally referencing Billie Holliday’s reported explanation of the term as used in “Strange Fruit.”


When God-with-Us is no Comfort: Feast of Holy Innocents

Scriptures Readings: Holy Innocents:

The sound track for this post:

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What are we to make of the feast of the Holy Innocents? What is happening as we remember and celebrate these innocents, the unknown number of infants and toddlers who are martyrs? To what do these innocents witness? In what way do they give witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ?

Rachel weeps for her Children. Rachel a collective ancestral name, one of the mothers of Israel. Another name for Israel, just as Israel is also known as Jacob.

This is a strange feast combining lamentation and celebration of these martyrs, the Holy Innocents: infants and toddlers slain by king Herod.  The lamentation of Rachel refusing to be comforted.

Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus escape being warned to flee to Egypt. The hymn “Audit tyrannus anxius, in the Benedictine Daily breviary, for Holy Innocents speaks of these infants murdered by Herod as martyrs, and rejoices that these innocents are in the presence of God. It’s an unsettling sentiment. We, I suppose, are more likely to escape with Mary and Joseph than to sit with Rachel.

We, of whatever persuasion of Christian, we fail to let the reality of this day sink in. There’s the rushing to contemplate these infants in the presence of God singing the hymn of praise “Holy, Holy, Holy” without contemplating the horror of this moment.  The opposite response is to merely focus on the tragedy, which is making use of the tragedy to insist on the relevance of the Gospel and proof text the social gospel as a means to chastise those who seem indifferent to suffering injustice and oppression. We are avoiding what is most troubling: After God’s coming to be with us, God in human flesh, Jesus, escapes the massacre of the innocents, but God does not prevent the massacre.

We need the space of faithful Lament. We need the space to sit with tragedy when we see no action of God in which we are confronted with overwhelming evil and the power of death unleashed, and life squashed. We need a space to lament when Life has no answer. “Rachel refuses to be consoled.” Matthew recalls the words of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was also speaking of his time and the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah. In this story, there is the permission to not be consoled, when there is no comfort to be given.

In the Benedictine Daily Breviary, there’s a contradiction in celebrating this day: on the one hand the hymn appointed doesn’t let us grieve or lament (this is a feast day after all celebrating martyrs), but in the Day Time prayers we are invited to lament; the scriptures appointed for the day are from lamentations.

I wonder if there’s something to this contradiction. An invitation to in celebration not let ourselves be consoled. We are invited to lament the continued power of death even as God is with us in the word made flesh. The contradiction invites us to remember that this lament and lack of consolation is as much part of the Christmas story as “Peace on Earth, and Good will toward all.”

In a mash-up of Luke and Matthew and John, what we find is that not long after God in human flesh is born, and the angels announce tidings of great joy, and proclaim “Peace on earth and Good will towards all”, this proclamation is contradicted by Herod.  At the moment God moves into our neighborhood in the Word made flesh, Death rears its head and strikes and God is powerless. God with us doesn’t stop Herod from his destructive and death filled evil ways. More troubling is that God with us draws out Herod’s furry and God with us becomes an occasion for Herod’s tyranny as he seeks to stamp out the Word made flesh.

What then does Rachel and her “holy innocents”, her saints, these martyred infants, give witness to? Acknowledging God with us and God at work in the world, is not consolation for suffering oppression and tyranny. God’s solidarity with us isn’t necessarily a comfort. These innocents as martyrs and saints must be among those numbered who in addition to “Holy, Holy, Holy”, sing out “How long…

On this day during the joy of Christmas we join our voice with those dressed in white before the throne singing not only “Holy, Holy, Holy”, but also in lamentation sing “How long, O Lord!”

*Edited for clarity and corrected typos, 12/29/2016

Torn Heavens and Shattered Earth: Advent Vexation

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O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!  (Isaiah 64:1, 2)

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This is a longing for God to act as God acted in the Israelite exodus from Egypt. “God why don’t you come down and kick some ass as you did with Pharaoh?” Isaiah asks in lament and frustration. This is an Advent frustration and longing. Desperate that the reign of God would manifest and the nations, the powers, that oppress would be brought to their knees, ending oppression. So that injustice would end and justice would flourish.

Isaiah cries out in anger and exasperation, God, come down, tear the skies, act against oppressors; like you did with pharaoh in Egypt, make yourself known like you did at Mount Sinai. God make those things that seem immovable and unshakable tremble and crumble, come like fire that sets dry brush wood aflame, be like fire to a pot of water causing it to boil over. Like brushwood catching fire from a spark to start of a conf20161219_220829lagration. Isaiah wants God to bring it all down.

If we slow down and let Isaiah’s simile take hold for a moment we find in the middle of the grand gesture there’s something small and imperceptible. Brushwood is also used for kindling to start a fire in a hearth that will then boil the pot of water put over the fire in the hearth. The image is domestic – boiling water and the fire in the hearth.
20161219_221041A rolling boil is certainly violent and the flames of a fire will rapidly lick up dry kindling, but it is all contained, and part of our everyday life, easily overlooked.

Isaiah moves form macro, “tear open the heavens” to micro, a boiling pot on a stove. A pot being brought to boil is such a small and everyday thing. Isaiah sees God’s advent in this way as both upending and earth shattering, like brush wood readily catching flame starting a conflagration, and like a pot of water in a hearth about to boil.

In this season of the Holy Nativity we are remembering and celebrating that God did tear the heavens and come down. 20161219_221038God rending the heavens took place in the womb of Mary, and the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. God comes vulnerable like the beginning flame, just after the first strike of the match to kindling. God tears open the heavens and comes down and it was nearly imperceptible like a pot of water about to boil.

The nations, the powers (Rome), did eventually sit up and take notice, though in the long run not always for the good.  Followers of Christ instead of spreading the fire and letting things shake and boil have shored up the structures of the powers and doused the flames leaving many vulnerable and becoming agents of death and oppression.

After all this, what a20161219_220947re we to say? Did God fail? Was God wrong to abandon the shock and awe of the Exodus and Mount Sinai? Was God wrong to abandon the direct confrontation with the powers as God did with Pharaoh? Was the incarnation, the crucifixion all a mistake? Have we lost God in God rending the heavens and coming down and joining with us? Or have we yet to see the fire spread? Have we yet to see the pot boil? Or is the transformation, the liberation we seek and the shaking of the powers we long for accomplished not through the language and practice of the nations and empire and grasping for power and violence, but some other means?. Does God rend the heavens and come down and show another way, one we have betrayed?

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Hope as Virtue and Discipline: “The arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards Justice.”

What follows is an essay written from my notes for recent Theology on tap for the Oratory of Jesus Christ Reconciler, written after the discussion. another version  was posted on the Oratory’s website.

“The arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards Justice.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used this aphorism in a sermon delivered at Temple Israel in Hollywood.  This is a hopeful image.  The aphorism is a snapshot of hope as virtue and discipline, before we unpack and interpret this aphorism, we need to ask some questions.

What is Hope? Hope can be a slippery thing to lay hold. We may buy a lottery ticket hoping to win the lottery.  A child might hope that she will get a gift that she asked to receive, from her parents. Such hope doesn’t seem to be either virtuous nor does it require any discipline.  The second case approaches more what we mean when we speak of hope as virtue and discipline. In the case of the hope of a child for a gift from their parents, is hoping in someone for something There is a difference between hoping to win the lottery and hoping to receive something one has asked for at Christmas. The hope of the child is rooted in the loving relationship between the child and their parent. The hoped-for outcome isn’t guaranteed, but it is more likely and is bound up with a relationship.  In this second type of hope what one is hoping in is distinguished from what is hoped for, yet they are bound up together. Even so, the hope of a child for a Christmas gift hasn’t yet brought us to hope that is virtue and discipline

All instances of hope aren’t virtuous. So, we need to ask what is common across various instances of hopefulness. So, that we then can lay hold of a hope that is something we can call a virtue and about which we can be disciplined. What covers all connotations of hope is that hope looks to a fulfillment; it also lives now in anticipation of that fulfillment.

What is hope as virtue and discipline?

Given this sense of hope, what then does it mean for hope to be both a discipline and a virtue? Hope is a virtue and discipline, if what is hoped in is a good that is more than a fleeting desire and more than wishful thinking. Hope that is a virtue is a hope bound up with a movement toward the good, something that in hoping for it we are moved towards our betterment. For hope to be a virtue and discipline requires something to be hoped in and for that can lead us to something greater than we are now.  Hope, which is a virtue and a discipline, is hope that moves us toward what is hoped for.  Hope as virtue and discipline is anticipation that actively waits for what is hoped for. This sort of hope isn’t passive; it is moving towards a goal or an end.

Hope can be a virtue through hoping in something that moves us towards that which we hope.  Such a hope requires an expansiveness, to borrow Obama’s phrase, it requires an audacity. Simultaneously it also requires humility to admit that what is hoped for isn’t yet realized. Hope as virtue and discipline is magnanimous and humble.

The enemy of hope as virtue is presumption. This may find itself in too great a confidence, too much assurance that at any moment what is hoped for is coming to fruition or fulfillment and completion in that very moment. Thus, it is destructive of hope to use hope as part of a political campaign as Obama’s campaign did.  This is so, largely because, what we hoped for in Barack Obama wasn’t going to be completely fulfilled by Obama’s administration. Rather a virtuous hopefulness in a political party, or a factional politics, or a politician is in there being able to bring us closer to that which we hope, not for their ability to deliver that for which we hope.  What was hopeful about Obama and his campaign and subsequent presidency was only hopeful to the degree that that hope was what propelled Obama, not in his or his administration’s ability to fulfill and deliver that for which we hope.  Thus, to the degree that Obama was hopeful with us and not the object of our hope then we have a truly hopeful politics, but the moment we hoped in Obama or his administration, we ceased to have hope in a way that is virtue and discipline and which can lead us toward a goal greater than ourselves.

Hope as virtue and discipline needs the humility to admit that in time there is always a remainder of what is hoped for in any movement towards what we hope. For hope as virtue and discipline there needs to be the simultaneous magnanimity of claiming to be able to achieve what is hoped for with a sense that the fullness of what is hoped for can’t be found in any one moment.

What sort of things might we say we hope for in this manner? What is it that we can both be audacious about and about which we can be humble?

Hoping in God and of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

The God revealed to us in the Hebrew Prophets and the divine human Jew Jesus of Nazareth, is a god who is about justice and who defines for us justice as the concern for and right treatment of those who are marginalized, most vulnerable and who are outcasts. Captives, prisoners, widows, orphans, those who can’t easily and financially hold on to property and means of production to provide for their daily lives, food, shelter and clothing.  In the letter from the Apostle James, we are told that true religion is one that has solidarity with the poor and the vulnerable.

Thus, hope for this sort of justice can reside not simply in some future wished for utopia, that may or may not be achieved, nor something that may or may not be realistic and realizable rather this hope is bound up in the very fabric of the universe and in the source of all that is.

When Martin Luther King Jr. affirms the aphorism “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”, this isn’t some generic hope, but a faith statement about the one has aimed the bow and the arrow is on target.  This is faith in the God who is revealed to us in the Hebrew prophets and in Jesus of Nazareth. That is Martin Luther King Jr. isn’t in that moment talking as a politician of a political party nor as a patriot of a certain nation state, but as a member of the people of God, Israel, the Church. He is speaking as a preacher and a prophet.

The above aphorism. isn’t a hope in humanity’s ability to progress based in humanity alone, but in God’s work in history

Hope then in its activist form is seeking to act in accordance with this goal. This is what makes hope a discipline.  The virtue of living in conformity with the long arc of bent towards justice, is to live in a certain way. Hoping in this manner is especially a disciple when a present moment seems at odds with what is hoped for. As a Rabbi friend says it is to act as if.

The difficulty and the virtue of hope is that some aspects of the current moment will appear to be an argument against having hope.  If hope is merely wishful thinking, if we can’t say truthfully that in some sense justice, wholeness, true life isn’t the goal isn’t the direction of things, then no living as if will counter what immediately appears.

Hope that is a virtue and can be a discipline is to have hope in something that is true beyond a certain instance. It is to hope in something that is true about our deepest selves and the entire universe and of human being.  Different philosophies and Spiritualties may give different reasons for it being there or exactly how to describe it but it must be an affirmation that our goal forms us into our truest selves.  Simultaneously it must also affirm that this goal is beyond any one of us or any moment. The fulfillment of this hope is beyond us but partly realized in us in moments even if not yet landing its mark in time.

Works consulted in writing this essay:

King, Martin Luther, Jr.  Sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood , February 25,1965 http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlktempleisraelhollywood.htm . Last accessed 11/25/

Pieper, Josef, Faith Hope Love, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1997, pp 87-138