Jesus Christ

The Perplexing Remembrance of Saint Nicholas

 

Saint Nicholas is one of the first Saints of the church, after those mentioned in the New Testament, that I learned about as a child (Santa Lucia was the other one, but that’s for another post). Protestants aren’t big on Saints, “All Christians are saints.”, so the logic goes. But being German remembering Saint Nicholas on December sixth was a significant for my father. He relished telling us of the real Saint Nick. I grew up hearing about that fourth century bishop, Saint Nicholas of Myra when most other kids my age were hearing about some guy in a read suit at the North Pole with flying reindeer. I never received a gift from Santa Clause. Each  year dad would remind my sister and I of the “real Santa Claus”. We didn’t really celebrate St Nicholas day. On occasion there might have been chocolate, European chocolates, but no gifts and no mention of Krampus. I didn’t learn much about St. Nicholas of Myra, beyond his being a bishop and that he gave a gift of bags of gold to three daughters of a poor widower.

This limited knowledge created a great puzzle for me. Why in the world did Saint Nicholas a bishop from what is today Turkey, ever end up being associated with a figure that lives at the North Pole with magical reindeer? Why is St Nicholas associated with Christmas at all even in the distorted figure of Santa Claus? As a child December sixth was a long way off from Christmas. Except for Saint Nicholas and Santa Lucia we never celebrated Saints days. We celebrated Advent, but I was also a little vague on its relationship to Christmas (there was a time I attempted to figure out how the Twelve Days of Christmas counted in the song fit in Advent) . Myra wasn’t in Germany, Nicholas wasn’t German. It was all very perplexing.

Saint Nicholas was a popular saint among Europeans, he wasn’t German, or French, or Italian, or Dutch, he was Middle Eastern, a citizen of the Roman empire. Our love of Saint Nicholas wasn’t because he was German, but because we came to belong to him, that is we became Christ’s.

This puzzle kept a fourth century Middle Eastern bishop as a significant figure for my Christian identity. Eventually I learned more about the Liturgical calendar and embraced the Saints as those that imaged for us Christ, and with whom we are in communion, as those who have died in Christ. In this fuller knowledge of the life and culture of the church, the puzzles resolved themselves as I had all the pieces. My dad’s strange Germanic affection for this Bishop of Myra (who wasn’t even German) worked itself in me, kept me asking who is this Saint Nicholas and why is he so important.

As my parents spoke of this Saint, I was taught the story of what it means to be like Christ, through the example of someone different from me and the community in which I grew up. Saint Nicholas taught us that exchange of gifts at Christmas wasn’t supposed to be about things and receiving. The gifts were a reminder that the Christian life was to be one of self-giving, because God gave of God’s self to us. Generosity and justice, not greed and accumulation, was the meaning of the gift giving at Christmas, St. Nicholas of Myra a Fourth century bishop helped us remember this. He was an exemplar of this divine self-giving, the divine generosity in which we were to share in and emulate.

One won’t get this from the cultural celebrations of the Germans and the Austrians and other Europeans any more than you will get this from the Jolly man in the red suit who comes down your chimney bearing gifts. But my father gave me a gift of remembering this fourth century bishop, the “real Santa Claus.” Dad allowed the cultural memory of this Saint, to instill in me a sense of generosity and love, that bound me, an American son of immigrants, to someone beyond my nationality and ethnicity.

There’s no reason, neither based on American Manifest Destiny nor German heritage, that I should know or care to remember Saint Nicholas. There is only one reason, that God entered the world in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, and in a chain, that crossed all boundaries, grabbed hold of a fourth century orphan of wealthy merchants, whose Christ like generosity and zeal for justice, grabbed the hearts and souls of Germans. This Saint Nicholas ever teaches us of Christ. Through him we are called to be zealous for a world transformed by love, generosity, and justice, given to us in Jesus Christ, God in human flesh.

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

Unbounded Love as Resistance, Part 2.

The sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7) concludes with the parable the wise and foolish builders. The wise builder builds on a rock as the foundation for the 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, also uses 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 a 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 on which to build. Any one 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 atomised, 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 individually by ourselves. This way of being isn’t an individualistic path anymore then the teachings of Jesus are individual disconnected rules 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 Clare, St. Benedict, St. Scholastica 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 of the teaching 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. Jesus warns of 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, Lord” and claimed to do great works in Christ’s name but who don’t do the will of God as found in Jesus’ teachings. The harmful interpretations of the sermon on the mount, 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 such misapplication misinterpretation and false teaching doesn’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.

This was the final reflection in a sketch of a  theology of resistance that began with this post: Hope as Virtue and Discipline

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

Jesus’ Love ethic as the interpretive center of the Sermon on the Mount

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 the teaching or restrict the application of the teaching to a class of Christian. Part of this radicalism, is Jesus Christ getting at the root of Sin, injustice, and unrighteousness. The sermon on the Mount 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 off from ourselves 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 shows 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. One aspect is seeking to be neighbor to all (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?”). The other is love of those who do not return my love – love of those who hate me and seek my demise, even death.

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 all 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 rooted in the Torah and its summary as “Love of God and love of neighbor as self.” radicalized by removal of any limit we might put on “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 in the command to love one’s enemies.

Love of Enemy, Resist not the evil person and turning the other cheek

To hear correctly Jesus’ teaching on love of enemy, resisting not the evil person and turning the other cheek we must keep in mind that they occur in the portion of the sermon called the antitheses; “You’ve heard it was said (interpretation of the Torah…. but I (Jesus) say to you (new teaching on the Torah)…”. 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. This is what is going on in the antitheses. Jesus isn’t questioning Torah but offering a different or new interpretation based on the love ethic.

Jesus’ teaching to ‘resist not evil” and turn the other cheek are often interpreted without reference to the love ethic. 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. Jesus teaching is turned into a defender of the status quo, rather than a uncompromising insistence on love that upend established order.

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, 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, 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, unrighteousness, and injustice.

A prologue to this post is Hope as Virtue and discipline. The prologue this post and the following two posts on the Sermon on the Mount entail a sketch of my theology of resistance.

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?

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

Listening for the Mind of Christ in Time of Crisis: Do not be afraid, Part 3

12 Meanwhile, when many thousands of the crowd had gathered so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing is secret that will not be made known. So then whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms will be proclaimed from the housetops.

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom you should fear: Fear the one who, after the killing, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. In fact, even the hairs on your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows.   Gospel of Luke 12:1-7 (NRSV)

Fear is powerful and at times needed. Fear alerts us to danger and prepares our bodies for confronting that danger, either by fighting or fleeing.  Jesus though calls us to not fear those who would have the power to end our life, “…do not be afraid of those who kill the body”. Why might Jesus tell us not to fear such a threat as someone who has the power, opportunity, and means to kill us?

I suggest part of the reason Jesus encourages us to not live in fear even of those who can kill us, can be found in reflection upon the tenor of the GOP national convention in July.  That whole week the GOP and Donald Trump wanted us to be afraid, to be very afraid. We were told to Fear the terrorists, fear the refugees who might be terrorist, fear immigrants and the list of what to fear continued on. One may argue that there’s no need to fear these things. The terrorists aren’t refugees Yet there are those who aren’t controlled by any legitimate government nor represent a nation who seek to harm the U.S. and its standing in the world. There is a real danger, though, not an immediate danger to most of us residing in the U.S. One may even want to counter that it is more realistic to be afraid of a random person carrying a legal firearm than an Islamic Terrorist (who actually kill more Muslims than Americans).  Whether or not what the GOP and Trump wish us to fear is based in any actual potential threat, the effect is still the same: the focus on who or what is feared, a focus that doesn’t allow us pay attention to much else, let alone seeking to find other possible responses than fight or flight. Fear works at its best in instances of immediate threat, in which we can immediately respond in either standing to fight or in getting away. Then the fear and adrenaline can dissipate once the threat is dealt with. But to fear that there are people in the world who may harm or even kill when that threat isn’t imminent keeps us from seeing the larger picture. Fear about generic and non-immediate threats allows us to be manipulated by fear mongering and we begin to fail to make a distinction between actual imminent threat, possible future threat, and plausible but unrealistic threat. We saw this mix of real and unrealistic fear in the GOP convention in July.

Yet, Jesus’s remarks aren’t only set against this jumble of undiscerning fear mongering. For Jesus, the reason not to fear isn’t that the fear is misplaced, but that it is generic and not immediate. When we live in fear even if of a legitimate but not immediate threats our focus is still on the fear and the feared. Jesus, says do not be afraid of some future possibility that there are people in the world who can harm you.

In order to demonstrate this, Jesus goes on to say that if one must be afraid of a possible future bodily threat, then be afraid of God. Jesus isn’t counseling actually fearing God, but if one is going to fear a potential real future threat, God serves as good as anything else to fear, after all, God is much more threatening, and then at least your focus would be on the source of ultimate meaning and of all life. Jesus is pointing us to an awareness and a way of being beyond fight or flight of our fear response.

What is Jesus doing here? I suggest that the reason Jesus says to not be afraid of even legitimate possible future threat is that we know God the creator of the universe who knows us intimately and lovingly knows odd details about us (the numbers of the strands of hair we have on our heads). We are intimately known by and sacred to our creator. So if we are going to fear a legitimate but future potential threat then we should fear God, but if you know God, when you come to know God, you are aware that God is a ridiculous thing to fear. For the members of Christ’s Body, we know something further about this God who knows intimate details about ourselves that we can’t know about ourselves; this one not only cares for us but is joined with us in our humanity and suffers with us. In Jesus of Nazareth God went to the extremities of life even death.  This one who cares and upholds our life also knows what it is to suffer, to be oppressed and abused and knows what it is to die, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ.  This is the God we know and love.

Now this doesn’t tell us what to do in the place of actual imminent threat. But it can and has led many to face and submit to violent death without fear. Yet, it has also led others to flee in the case imminent danger, until it was no longer time to flee the threat. To not be afraid doesn’t mean to be passive and do nothing in the face of a threat. But, it is to be put in the place of discerning beyond fight or flight. It allows us to be critical of all calls to fear something by the powerful (including the call of the Clinton campaign for us to fear a Trump presidency.).

So be not afraid, and oppose the powerful, but do not fear them. Don’t focus your attention on such potential threats.  Focus on God and the transformative work of God’s coming kingdom in the world through Jesus Christ.

Part two can be found here and part 1 here

Listening to the Mind of Christ In Time of Crisis: Nothing is Hidden that will not be revealed, Part 2

12 Meanwhile, when many thousands of the crowd had gathered so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing is secret that will not be made known. So then whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms will be proclaimed from the housetops.

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom you should fear: Fear the one who, after the killing, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. In fact, even the hairs on your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows.   Gospel of Luke 12:1-7 (NRSV)

“Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed.”

This Gospel text came to mind as the succeeding revelations that followed the WikiLeaks DNC e-mail leak, that lead to Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s stepping down as DNC Chair, which revealed the likelihood of Russian Intelligence as the source of the e-mails, and giving a possible glimpse into Russian attempts to influence the current election and possible ties between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.  In this one instance we had a cascading set of revelations of things done in secret (that even people would have rather been kept under wraps). I wondered is there something hopeful in these things coming to light? Depending on your political slant or loyalty one may spin those revelations one way or another, but that isn’t the same as something hopeful being found in the unveiling of secrets.  I wondered, and still am asking is Jesus here talking about a sign of the Kingdom of God?  In contrast to the hypocrisy that acts like yeast hidden in dough, unseen except in its eventual effects. Does the truth of the transforming work of the reign of God in the world simply expose what is hidden?

DNC e-mails and Russian covert operations aren’t the only thing being brought into the open this election, overt White-supremacy and racism has come into the open in the wake of Trumps campaign and rhetoric. Trump’s campaign and rhetoric has made overt white-supremacist feel they can more publicly display their opinions and attitudes. While dangerous and frightening I think this bringing out into the open what we as a culture and society had effectively kept out of sight.  What is hopeful in this is the possibility to also then recognize and bring to light the covert and social acceptable white-supremacy and racism

Overt and Covert White Suppremacy

Above image found in a the Salt Collective Facebook Page post August 8th 2016 p

Part of Socially acceptable white supremacy and racism, is being exposed as in the arena of policing and lethal force use against people of color. Exposure in and of itself doesn’t solve things, it can even worsen situations.  Such is the case of people feeling free to come out in the light and overtly show their White-Supremacy KKK affiliation, etc., creates a less safe environment for POC. The exposure of the DNC e-mails and Russia’s involvement has ratcheted up anti-Russian sentiment and rhetoric and accusations of collaboration and infiltration eerily and frightening analogous to Cold War Anti-Russian and Communist rhetoric and accusation.  Things being brought into the open in and themselves isn’t’ necessarily hopeful.

While things coming to light and into the open that were once hid away and in secret are often frightening and carry danger, there’s also the hope that once exposed change can happen. When overt white supremacy is hidden away it is possibly more difficult to see more covert-white supremacy. When certain things are kept under wraps and hid in a corner where there is no light there’s the possibility for yeast like hypocrisy to invade and lulled into a false sense of security and sense of progress

Due to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s,  overt and some forms of covert white supremacy were through Federal intervention, legislation and legal decisions brought to an end. Along with the ending of de jure white supremacy overt expressions of white supremacy where rightly marginalized and relegated to the privacy of one’s own secretly held opinions. Since overt white supremacy was now taboo and no longer supported by law gave the impression to many of us that white supremacy is merely a matter of attitude and hate, that could be addressed by individualistic transformation, ignoring the way that the de jure elimination of overt White Supremacy didn’t address or change the more covert and structural aspects of White supremacy woven into the very fabric of our nations consciousness, history and legal and political and economic realities. With the ascendancy of Trump giving people permission to express their overt White supremacist has exposed along with the Black Lives Matter movement, the lie that White supremacy is just in the past and simply has to do with personal hate of another person or fear of a group of people.

There is an opportunity in this moment, especially for White members of the body of Christ, to fully acknowledge the depth and breadth of white supremacy in American institutions (including our denominational institutions) and turn aside not only from the overt white supremacy but all forms of it. As these things come to light we can truly repent and let our POC siblings in Christ to tell us how we should respond, and taking their cue rather than attempting to justify ourselves and our attempts to reform the White systems of government, and white religious institutions.  When things are exposed hypocrisy comes to light and there is the opportunity to repent.  Then change, healing injury, and mending what is broken can begin What is hidden away only fester and remain unacknowledged and unchangeable.  This is the hope of Christ’s word’s what you speak in secret will be shouted from the rooftops.  This is often painful, even frightening and far from safe, but it offers the opportunity for true repentance and radical transformational change of the Beloved Community God sent in motion in the life death resurrection and ascension of Christ.

Next week Part three, “Be not afraid.

And if you missed last week here’s the link to part one An Hypocrisy that is like Yeast

Having Nothing to Show: Spirituality without Accounts

Jesus said to the twelve, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”    Mathew 10:7-16

“Freely you have received, freely give.”
I was mulling over this aphorism of Jesus’ from Matthew’s Gospel a couple of days before the Feast of St. Barnabas. Then I found myself at a Mass on that feast and heard the full context of those words. “You received without payment, give without Payment.” The gift economy of this aphorism depends upon the hospitality of others, for others to receive and act within this gift economy. This is not easy; we can easily decide that this only applied to the Apostles during Jesus’ earthly ministry. I’ve lived as though this applies to me as a member of Christ, and a minister of word and sacrament. But now I’m wrestling with having taken Jesus’ words to heart. At times this part of the Gospel asks too much.

In a world where we are told we get only what we earn or take, saying we begin with something not earned, something which can’t be purchased, runs counter to our experience molded by concepts of earnings and profit.

There are costs to following these words. I’m at the end of my rope, uncertain how to evaluate how I’ve spent my life. I have given freely, convinced that I had been given something beyond payment and accounting. Yet, to give without payment is also to not earn. To give freely is to not accumulate: wealth, followers, supporters, congregations, fans. To freely give is to give without strings. The cost is this; giving freely looks a great deal like failure.

I have doubts. Have I given anything at all? This is the problem of being without accounts, of not keeping a ledger. There’s no means to call in debts, because there is no indebtedness. There’s no means to say look how much I have given, because to give freely is to give without account. Is this not complete foolishness? A voice in me accuses: “Did you not set out on this path knowing you could not succeed so, you kept no accounts so then you could avoid facing your own failure.”

“Freely you have received, freely give.”

A part of me says, the cost is too high in a world of ledgers, earnings, accounts, and debt, financial, emotional, psychological and social. I may freely give but others demand an account. I freely give but I still want to accumulate, receive payment for my efforts. I still want my earnings.

I still want to say I will succeed. I want recognition. I want wealth to eventually accumulate to me. Yet, I gave without demand for payment, and so there are no returns.

What this tells me is I’ve yet fully converted. I’ve yet to comprehend and ingest these words “You received without payment, Give without payment.” I’ve yet to learn the love of God Father Son and Holy Spirit, who gives without account, who reaps without sowing, who has wealth without accumulation, who loves without end or return.

When all is given freely there is no return for there was no investment. There’s invitation without RSVP, so that the guests that show up weren’t those invited.

Jesus says all this throughout the Gospels. Through the incarnation and the Cross, God removes the accounts and the ledgers, or proves to us there’s never been a ledger, or accounts, the reality remains that God isn’t keeping accounts. In Christ Jesus, God comes to us and says you have no debt, there are no accounts, no ledgers, only gift. Live accordingly. This is the life of faith, this is the way of the Cross, this is what it means to be a member of the body of Christ. Even so, we create again and again out of the gift, other economies. We bind people and wealth to ourselves in return for what we give. We accumulate people, money, property, debts (financial and social) to ourselves.

Or we do like I have done, give freely while attempting to reserve the right to demand a return on investment, and then become despondent realizing there is no ledger, no accounting, no measure.

Have I succeeded in ministry, and in life? have I failed? I have no idea. I can make no judgment.
What I can say is that I have lived with the conviction that I did freely receive what is beyond accounting. In my life and ministry I’ve sought to freely give. And at this moment all I can say is that my desires and my longings are divided and conflicted. I’ve held back, I’ve kept a ledger so that I could give an account, call in debts, account my earnings and my profits. Yet, now when I open that ledger the pages are blank, I have nothing to show.

What I received I received without account or credit, and I heard the call and gave accordingly. Thus there was nothing to record, nor proof to give, yet I held on to the ledger all the same.
Now I feel the need to keep accounts, and there’s nothing to show.

Is this failure or success I don’t know? There’s no measure. And I’m at a loss.