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Waiting with Mary Magdalene — lament that wrestles God

A reflection that draws from John 20 and Isaiah 56. Happy Easter, all.

As Mary Magdalene sits alone in the predawn stillness, she weeps — but her tears are not only grief: they are tears of frustration. Tears with questions. Tears that demand something of Divinity.

Mary is not passive in her weeping: she is wrestling the divine.

Rev. Dr. Rachel Wrenn of the First Reading podcast calls what Mary is experiencing “exasperated hope.” She parallels Mary in the garden to God of Isaiah 65, who is “ready to be sought out” by Her people who “sit inside tombs, and spend the night in secret places” (vv. 1, 4a). Magdalene reverses the image of Divinity waiting exasperatedly for humanity — now the human awaits the Divine.

God of Isaiah 65 says, ‘I said, “Here I am, here I am,” to a nation that did not call on my name.’

Magdalene too is saying, “Here I am,” to a God who WILL call her name, soon — but not yet.

First, she must endure the excruciating in-between space.

And she endures that space alone. Peter and the Beloved Disciple enter it for a moment, as first light tentatively touches the tomb’s rolled-back stone.

They sprint into it — that pregnant space between question and answer, death and rebirth — past Mary weeping without a word to her.

They enter the empty tomb and they see the burial cloths that God has stripped off and left behind. They see and the beloved, at least, “believes” (John 20:8). Believes that Jesus is risen — does he also believe that Jesus will return? That they will all see Jesus again, and soon?

If he does, his action is not to hunker down with Mary into the waiting space. He and Peter “return to where they were staying” (v. 10).

They cannot bear the waiting space. Most of us can’t. Who would choose to settle down in hospital halls with figures hunched and haggard, to wait with them for whatever news there may be?

Most of us wouldn’t. Magdalene might.

We can’t skip past the waiting, though. So Mary waits — waits for whatever will come, whenever it comes — and as she waits, she weeps. Her tears are not despair — they are lament.

In This Here Flesh, Cole Arthur Riley describes the power and purpose of lament:

“Lament is not anti-hope. It’s not even a stepping-stone to hope. Lament itself is a form of hope. It’s an innate awareness that what is should not be. As if something is written on our hearts that tells us exactly what we are meant for, and whenever confronted with something contrary to this, we experience a crumbling. And in the rubble, we say, God, you promised.”

Mary believes in the promises of her teacher, his proclamations of a world turned on its head, a new creation born where the poor are lifted from the ashes.

Her hope in that world has crumbled, but she doesn’t abandon the rubble: she settles into it. Makes her home there to wait and see what rises from the ruins.

Mary is crying, “God, you promised!” And she in turn promises God, “here I am — whenever you come, you will find me. I’m not going anywhere.”

In her describing of lament, Cole continues, “Our hope can be only as deep as our lament is. And our lament as deep as our hope.” Mary’s lament is long, because her hope is deep.

Mary Magdalene does not sit in the garden in despair. Her lament expects response — demands it. Like God of Isaiah 56, she is waiting to be sought — waiting for her call to be met with response…and it will be! Her God WILL call her name — “Mary!” — and she will know the joy of lament answered, of hope fulfilled.

Magdalene is actively waiting for what she KNOWS will come. And she’s not going anywhere till it does.

Thank God for those who wrestle blessing out of pain; who brave the liminal lament and don’t let go.

Mary, your waiting is not in vain. Joy comes with the morning. Hallelujah!


I originally posted this as a twitter thread, which you can see here.

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Christmas Holy Days My poetry Reflections for worship services

Revisiting Nativity: Jesus bursts in

we are more comfortable when you are tucked
into your designated corner — but
you were never one to stay put where you’re told.

from birth, you have been bold
about breaking right into the thick of things —

pinpointing the pulse of human happenings
and blaring through with news of God’s Kin-dom, come.

into the cliffsides outside Bethlehem
we have constructed with our word and song

a nonexistent edifice —
some banished barn along
your hometown’s outskirts where you can be born

where no one has to hear your mother’s groans;
where Joseph midwives her, untrained, alone.

meanwhile, your wet head crests
from a nest of straw built in the home’s hot heart.

your mother gasps and grasps
the hand of some old woman she just met
tight enough to knit them into kin.

just one wall over, rising from within
the side room filled with other guests who’ve come
to Bethlehem for Caesar’s census, prayers are sung
to secure your safe delivery.

we like it better when you wait for us
in remote places we can journey to
when we are ready.

we like the tale of shepherds, rich men too
who visit you forewarned what to expect
by angels or by astral signs

— but you
burst into our bustling

compel us to make room
in the chaos of the everyday —

you will not sit and wait
till we’ve tidied up the mundane mess
we never seem to get to dealing with.

you’ll write your own
invitation into our homes —

you’ll let yourself inside
draw up a chair
at our tables
and preside.

the night is here
the hour is now

though we’ve got half-baked plots
and chores undone —

ready or not
here you come.


About this Poem:

I wrote this piece for episode 52 of my Blessed Are the Binary Breakers podcast: “Revisiting Nativity — Was Jesus born in a barn or house, and why does it matter?” which you can find wherever you get podcasts; or on this website, along with an ep transcript.

In the episode, I discuss how the Greek of Luke 2:7 might not say Jesus was born in a stable after all — that rather than any inns being full, the text tells us Mary gave birth in the main room of a peasant home (likely belonging to Joseph’s family), “because there was no room in the guest room.

I argue that such a reading can be powerful from a liberationist perspective. Among other things, it claims that, rather than accepting the marginal space that is the only space that imperial powers or any “powers that be” would allow him, Jesus makes the margins the center. It’s my friend Laura who first put this idea in my head, in a podcast episode they put out last December titled “…and a Tax Collector in a Fig Tree.” 

In the episode, Laura first talks about the story of Zaccheus that takes place way later in Jesus’ life, and in Luke’s Gospel: in Luke chapter 19, Jesus calls to a tax collector, who would have been spurned by the Jewish people as a collaborator with the Roman Empire, “Zaccheus, come down at once — I must stay in your home today.” That’s right, Jesus invites himself over to this guy’s house! In doing so, we see how Jesus doesn’t wait for us to invite him into our world; he bursts on in of his own accord.

Laura parallels that story with the reading of the Nativity story that sets it in a peasant home in the heart of Bethlehem — our traditions put Jesus on the outskirts, alone in a barn; but Jesus makes himself comfortable right in the midst of a crowded house. This concept inspired me to write the poem you just read.

Further Reading:

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advent Catholic vibes Holy Days My poetry Other search markers Reflections for worship services

Nativity Beads: a poem & an essay exploring alternative interpretations of the Luke 2 story

Nativity Beads

pendant.

we think we know the story
of how you birthed our God into our midst
— but this
is not quite accurate:

the tale of your time in Bethlehem
is overlaid by two millennia
of retellings —
tradition lining up beside tradition and

when my mind becomes
a tangled mess
trying to divine
which ones Really Happened

you come.

you calm.

you guide me from

my need to know one truth
into the sacred splendor
of a whole string of stories —

each one a bead
pregnant with its little piece of Truth,
a little link between me and
your Son and you.

___

first decade.

“it’s not so bad,” Joseph says hopefully
as he helps you settle down onto the straw.

the cave walls cut the chill;
the goat who ambles close to sniff you stinks but
oh, she’s warm.

you think of births you’ve overheard
at home — the neighbor women rushing in
to help. you expected the same for yourself

but, ah well, what has been expected
about this pregnancy?

___

second.

Joseph hovers, fervent but unsure
how to help.

“if i could take your pain upon myself…”

but there is no pain!
conceived as you were
free from Eve’s bane,

as you give birth
to heaven on earth
all you know is
bliss, bliss, bliss.

___

third.

Joseph is gone.
you can picture his desperate dash
from door to bolted door
off in the town

as you lie alone
on old straw — and, God! the baby crowns

with no one to help — so you reach down
into the mess of your own blood and

yours are the first hands to wrap around
the Son of God, red and slick and — oh sacred sound!  — screaming.

___

fourth.

Joseph is gone, but near — you know he waits
pacing and praying just outside the door.

in his place — women’s faces, smiling and soothing,
letting you squeeze their hands as hard as you need

or bustling about to heed Midwife’s decrees.

the guest room was too small to hold this congregation
so you were helped into the central room
to birth the Son of God right in the heart
of this small peasant home.

the poor know how to serve one of their own.

___

fifth.

you close your eyes as agony subsides
between contractions. see yourself as one bead
upon a long strong string stretching centuries —

you are one

with Jochebed biting down to mute her moaning,
Rebekah grateful for an end to her rough pregnancy,
with Hannah, Ruth, Bathsheba, Hagar, Rahab, Leah, Eve,
and millions more unnamed. you share their groaning,
their labor, their relief, their ecstasy.

your baby crowns; the women round burst out in Glory be!


This poem was written by Avery Arden and belongs to them. If you want to use it in a worship service or elsewhere, let Avery know! You can reach them at queerlychristian36@gmail.com.


Essay

My Advent devotions this year include praying a daily rosary. Meanwhile, I’ve been fixating upon a certain reading of Luke 2’s “no room at the inn” passage that suggests Mary gave birth not in a stable, but someone’s home (more on that in a bit). As I meditated on various iterations of the Nativity tale while moving through my rosary, this poem was conceived.

This poem is structured after a rosary. For my non-Catholic friends out there who may not be familiar, a rosary is a long string of prayer beads with a crucifix or other cross hanging down from five decades, or clusters of ten beads each. Here’s a diagram (from this site):

id: diagram of a Catholic rosary with blue beads. A crucifix dangles from the bottom of a string with five beads on it, which is connected to a longer string that connects like a necklace; this longer string has five clusters of ten beads each, and every cluster has one bead between. The diagram labels different beads with their assigned prayers; for instance, each cluster is labeled as one of five decades, with 10 Hail Marys, a Glory Be, and an O my Jesus prayer. The beads between each decade are labeled “Our Father.”

You start at the crucifix and pray along the “pendant,” the strand that hangs down with five beads; then you make your way around the five decades. For me, the rosary offers a way to embody my prayer and to enter into a meditative state as I move from bead to bead and repeat the prayers. As an autistic person, having a tactile point into which to pour all my energy, one point of sensory input to overshadow all the others, is a powerful way to put aside all else and hone in on Divinity.

Pondering one story each decade is a traditional way to pray the rosary — the recommended ones are explained on this site; but for the past week or so, I’ve been imagining the Nativity over and over, a little differently each decade.

Versions whose events contradict each other — a painless Mary versus a groaning Mary; Mary alone or Mary with midwives; Mary dismissed to the outskirts or settled in the heart of a Bethlehemite home — all found their place, side-by-side, along that line of beads. As I took time with each story, the sense of contradiction as conflict faded away.

Little truths rose to the surface of each version, something to savor, a fresh facet of the story of God entering into human life. I can’t know which one was “most historically accurate,” but I could contemplate what each version says about God’s movement in Mary’s life and ours — what good news each version proclaims into our world.

So what is some of that good news? I’ll touch upon the various visions visited by each “decade” of the poem.

The first decade is self-explanatory, I think — it sets up the version we encounter in Christmas pageants, nativity sets, the Charlie Brown Christmas special… In this version, “no room in the inn” means that whatever lodgings a visitor to Bethlehem could usually expect were all full up. Though no Gospel mentions an innkeeper at all, we can all picture that figure well enough; he’s been woven into being by the dramatizations of generations. Whether heartless or apologetic, he can’t provide a bed for a pregnant girl and her husband; but look, there’s the stable, with plenty of straw and a little space among the livestock.

I have long cherished this narrative through a liberationist lens — that God chose to enter the world at the margins of the margins emphasizes Their intimate identification with the most oppressed and erased of our world! Humanity did not make room for the God who so loved the world They squeezed Their infinity into finite, vulnerable flesh; just as our human systems fail to make room for the survival and thriving of so many persons.

The second decade incorporates a bit of Roman Catholic doctrine that states that Mary felt no labor pain — since Catholicism holds that she was born miraculously free from original sin, she was likewise free from the consequences of that sin (see Genesis 3:16, where God informs Eve that her labor will be painful). Though raised Catholic, I didn’t learn about this tidbit of Mariology till late high school. I remember feeling…oddly betrayed? A facet of Mary’s relatability, her humanness, felt stripped away; her pedestal of larger-than-life perfection seemed to stretch a little higher. But this past week, I’ve taken the time to imagine a painless labor for her, and even if it’s not the story that speaks to me loudest, I have found some richness in it.

The third decade imagines Mary alone, following after Eastern Orthodox tradition. I pondered the significance of this version of events — why place Mary by herself as she births God on earth? Does her isolation foreshadow the sense of desolation her Son would feel decades later, on the cross?

What arose most strongly in me as I envisioned this version was a sense of joy and rightness — that Mary’s would be the first hands to touch the Divine she’d carried within her for nine months; that hers would be the first eyes to take in Word made flesh.

The fourth and fifth decades move away from the Nativity versions that have enjoyed the most traction and expansion over the centuries. We do away with barns and innkeepers, and bring some new characters to the stage: midwives!

Bringing midwives into the nativities I imagined as I prayed brought me deep joy. Midwives show up in various places throughout scripture — God Herself is depicted in the role of midwife in places like Psalm 22:11 (see this article for more on midwives in the Jewish Bible). Meanwhile, the most famous human midwives are probably the named, heroic women Shiphrah and Puah of Exodus 1, who protect the newborns of enslaved Hebrew women from Pharaoh. The role such women played was a life-bringing one, and imagining the relief and comfort a skilled midwife would bring teenage Mary filled me with gratitude for whoever this unmentioned woman may have been.

In “The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem,” Stephen C. Carlson explains, “Childbirth was the riskiest moment in the entire pregnancy during antiquity, potentially lethal for both the mother and child. Whenever possible, women about to give birth relied on the help of relatives, friends, and midwives in and around town” (pp. 340-341). I love imagining Mary encircled by so much support as she labored to birth the God of the universe.

Carlson and other scholars suggest that it was the presence of all these Bethlehemite women at Jesus’ birth that necessitated a lot of space for the event. This brings us at last to that famous line from Luke that notes a lack of room…in the inn? or somewhere else?

I promised I’d return to readings of Luke 2:7 that argue Jesus was born not in a stable, but a house — so here we go!

At first glance, Luke 2:7 seems fairly straightforward. Since we’re talking about tradition here, I’ll offer the KJV’s version:

"And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn." 

However, digging into the Greek of the text and into the socio-cultural context of the story uncovers some complications.

It turns out that the Greek word that most traditionally gets translated as “inn” here has a broader meaning than that. The word is kataluma (κατάλυμα), and it’s only used two other times in the Gospels (or the NT as a whole): in Luke’s and Matthew’s accounts of how Jesus’s disciples found a room for the meal that we now call the Last Supper. Here’s Luke’s account (22:10-12; NRSV translation this time; with the translation of kataluma bolded):

“Listen,” he [Jesus] said to them, “when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters and say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there.”

(Side note: if you want to read about that person with a jar of water through a trans lens, check out the section of my webpage over here titled “A Simple Jar of Water.” It’s fun stuff! but not related to the discussion of kataluma.)

How can one Greek word mean both “inn” and “guest room”? The noun kataluma is tied to the verb kataluó (καταλύω) — kata + luó = “to loosen thoroughly.” When journeying with pack animals, you’d only “thoroughly loosen” their straps and packs when stopping for a long rest. Thus the verb came to mean “to take up lodging;” and the related noun, the kataluma of both Luke 2:7 and 22:10, came to stand for those lodgings — whether that was some natural shelter like a cave; a tent; an inn; or a guest room in someone’s house.

Meanwhile, there is another Greek word that means “inn” specifically — and the author of Luke uses that word in his version of the Good Samaritan story, when the Samaritan brings the man mugged and left for dead to a pandocheion (πανδοχεῖον).

So if Luke’s one other use of kataluma (22:11) refers to a guest room in a private home; and the one time he wants to specifcally refer to an inn (10:34) he uses a different Greek word…why do the vast majority of English translations of Luke 2:7 state that there is no room for Mary’s labor “in the inn” rather than “in the guest room”? (Or, to avoid making a claim in either direction, why don’t more translations apply a broader phrase like “there was no room in the lodging place”?)

To reiterate, it’s certainly possible that kataluma refers to an inn when used in Luke 2:7 — but it’s not the only possibility, or even necessarily the most likely one.

If Luke 2:7 is saying that there is no room in Bethlehem’s inn, then the classic stable setting (or a cave, as in the second century Protoevangelium of James) makes sense. However, some scholars contest

  1. whether Bethlehem, being so small, would even have had an inn, with the duty of taking in strangers passing through instead falling upon individual families; and
  2. whether Joseph and his wife would have stayed in such an inn, even if it did exist.

The reason Joseph and Mary are journeying to Bethlehem is for a Roman census, for which “all go to their own towns to be registered” (Luke 2:3). In “An Improbable Inn,” Andy Mickelson explains that Roman censuses typically required people to register not in their ancestral town, but wherever they owned property; thus one might conjecture that Joseph “had traveled to Nazareth previously to seek work or (more likely) to retrieve his fiancée Mary and bring her back to his native Bethlehem” (p. 14).

Mickelson cautions that there are some complications in the Luke text that curtail certainty in what exactly happened (visit page 15 of his article to read more about that); but

"regardless of whether Joseph’s family home was in Bethlehem or whether it was just his ancestral home, Joseph’s ties to the village are key in determining how the κατάλυμα of 2:7 should be understood. If Joseph truly was a native son of Bethlehem, then he almost certainly would have stayed with close family members. Bruce Malina remarks that Joseph 'would have been obligated to stay with family, not in a commercial inn.' He also points out that 'if close family was not available, mention of Joseph’s lineage would have resulted in immediate village recognition that he belonged and space would have been made available.' Thus, even if Joseph was only linked to Bethlehem through lineage, that lineage would have been enough to earn him the hospitality of a distant relative. Arguments that the homes of Bethlehem would have been filled to capacity due to the census disregard the simple fact that Roman registrations took place over a period, not a single day. Regardless, an added measure of hospitality could certainly have been expected due to Mary’s pregnancy."

In placing the Nativity in a barn, stable, or cave, we run the risk of disregarding how central hospitality was to the people of Jesus’s time and place.

When I imagine the people of Bethlehem failing to find proper accommodations for the pregnant Mary and her husband Joseph, I can’t help but think of another city destroyed nearly two thousand years before Jesus’s birth — Sodom, which invoked God’s wrath by replacing hospitality to strangers like Lot with attempted violence against them (see Genesis 19). The people of Bethlehem may have been poor and oppressed, but hospitality was their way of sharing what they had and practicing their devotion to the God who instructed them to care for the stranger (e.g. Exodus 23:9; Deuteronomy 10:19; Leviticus 19:34).

Hospitality was a vital virtue not only for the Jewish people, but for various other groups in this time and place. In scripture, we find a gentile widow sharing what she believes is the last of her resources with a stranger, the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 17). Under the epithet Xenios, the Greek God Zeus embodied the moral obligation to provide strangers with hospitality. Likewise, the Romans viewed hospitality as the divine right of any guest, and the divine duty of any host. I imagine that members of any of these cultures would have expected divine wrath to follow the failure of a whole village consigning a pregnant traveler to a lonely stable!

No matter how poor, crowded, or busy Bethlehem was, I have come to doubt the presumption that not one of its residents took pity on Mary and Joseph and welcomed them in.

So let’s say we accept that Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, but someone’s house — likely the home of Joseph’s relatives. In that case, there’s still one more bit of cultural context we need to make sense of this “new” version of the story:

No matter how we translate kataluma, Luke 2:7 says that Mary laid Jesus in a manger — why the heck would there be a manger, a feeding trough for livestock, inside a house?

It turns out that mangers were totally something you’d find inside first-century Judean village houses: rather than having a separate building for their livestock, families would keep their animals outside in the courtyard during the day, and bring them inside their own homes at night. The same room in which the majority of human work and life took place during the daytime became the sleeping quarters for livestock, complete with feeding troughs:

"Typically, the main room was divided into two sections at different elevations separated by about a meter. The animals were housed in the lower section, the people slept in the upper section, and mangers were located between them." (Carlson, p. 341)

Levant homes had followed this practical arrangement since the Iron Age: one space for livestock and humans kept the animals safe from theft; plus all that body heat kept everyone warm in colder months (Mickelson, p. 17).

id: Here’s a diagram from Kenneth Bailey’s book The Bible through Middle Eastern Eyes depicting a “typical village home in Palestine with attached guest room. The diagram is a rectangular shape; the largest room is labeled the family living room and has two ovals labeled “mangers” to the side, next to a smaller segment labeled “stable.” To the right of the family living room is a “guest room,” or kataluma.

To wrap up our exegetical exploration, let’s tie all this — the manger, the midwifes, the word kataluma — together…

starting with a return to Luke 2:7:

"And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the kataluma."

In this “new” reading, Mary is surrounded by village women headed by a midwife as she gives birth. And she is not alone in a stable on the outskirts of town, but in a peasant home — and not in a guest room or little side room of that home (because that kataluma is either full of other guests or simply too small for all the women), but right in the house’s central space.

As Mickelson summarizes,

"Luke records Mary as placing Jesus in a manger because there was no space for them in the κατάλυμα. There are two plausible reasons for this. First, the guest room might have been taken by other guests, requiring Joseph and Mary to stay somewhere else in the house. While the traditional image of Bethlehem teeming with visitors for the registration is an exaggeration, it is likely that if Joseph had come for the event, others (even members of his family) may have returned as well, and the guest room may have been occupied by someone else.

The other possibility is that there was not sufficient space in the κατάλυμα to accommodate Jesus’s delivery. Childbirth in antiquity was a dangerous procedure for both mother and child, and it is likely that Mary would have been assisted by a midwife as well as the women of the house. The κατάλυμα of the Last Supper was noted for being large, but these guest rooms likely varied in size. If the room in which Mary and Joseph were staying was small, Mary would have relocated to the main room of the house, where there would have been plenty of space for the other women to help with her delivery." (p. 17)

Mickelson moves on to explain why all this matters — which I bet you’ve been wondering if you’ve read this far (or even just skimmed to this point).

If the traditional placement of the Nativity in a stable on Bethlehem’s outskirts emphasizes God’s entrance into the most marginal space possible, what does placing Jesus’s birth in the heart of a peasant home emphasize?

Mickelson argues this setting also fits the theme of Jesus’s intimate identification with the marginalized and oppressed, as it solidifies the everydayness of his arrival:

"This reading of Luke’s infancy narrative makes the story of Jesus’s birth even less unusual than the traditional reading of the story. Being rejected from an inn and being forced to give birth amid animals gives Jesus a humble yet noteworthy beginning: Jesus is born in desperate and memorable circumstances.

But placing Jesus’s delivery in the main room of a Bethlehemite home gives him a birth narrative similar to probably thousands of Jewish babies. Nothing about the circumstances is extraordinary: being swaddled was a common experience for infants, and the most that can be inferred by being placed in a manger is that the home may have been crowded and there was nothing else approximating a crib available. 

In short, Luke portrays Jesus entering the world in a rather unremarkable way." (p. 18)

Thus this “new” reading of the Nativity story is packed with richness for the liberationist reader! As a TL;DR to close this essay, I’ll summarize some of that richness now.

  • In any reading of the Nativity — whether it takes place on Bethlehem’s outskirts or in its heart — Jesus is born to nobodies in a nowhere town. His parents are brown Palestinian Jews living in subjugation to an Empire; they are impoverished; and they are dependent on the hospitality of others who share their poverty and oppression.
  • Though the narratives surrounding the actual birth scene in Luke’s Gospel — replete with angelic messages and praise-songs from priests and shepherds, a teen girl and an old widow — make the importance of Jesus’s arrival clear, for the actual moment of birth, Jesus is just one infant of thousands born in a typical peasant house. He really is just one of the poor, one of the common folk. He makes the margins the center.
  • Do we do a disservice to the poor whom liberationist theologies are supposed to center when we claim that the people of Bethlehem — from the innkeeper of our pageants to whatever relatives Joseph may have had there — fail to provide a pregnant teenager and her husband with better accommodations than a barn or cave?

    A reading that imagines village women supporting Mary through her labor; that imagines the main room of a house given over for her use, is a reading that celebrates the generosity and hospitality often demonstrated by poor and oppressed persons.

    From birth and beyond, Jesus relied upon the solidarity and generosity of his fellow poor.
  • Any possibility of an antisemitic reading of the Nativity story (that “the Jews” rejected Jesus from his very birth by refusing his parents space in their inns or homes — I’m not saying most people do interpret traditional Nativity stories in this way, but the possibility is there) are also avoided with this reading, where Jewish Bethlehemites assist in his birth.
  • This reading also speaks to how Jesus makes room for himself amid our mundane mess!

    Jesus does not wait for us in some remote corner, so that we can go to him when we decide we’re ready, on our terms; he bursts into our bustling, the everyday chaos of an average peasant home. God compels us to make space for the Divine in the center of our lives, ready or not!

Whether or not you are on board with this “new” version of the Nativity story, I hope that, if nothing else, my poem and this essay open you up to the possibilities of scripture — the richness that can come from daring to reimagine stories we think we know by heart. The more familiar a story, the less likely we are to consider new ways of reading it; but just look what is born when we step away from the familiar to explore what lies beyond, even if only for a moment!

What else? Which Nativity stories speak to you?


Resources / Places to Learn More:

  • This Guardian article, which sums the information up pretty succinctly
  • Stephen C. Carlson’s scholarly article that goes more in depth, and argues that kataluma has a generic sense of “place to stay” that fits a variety of readings
  • Andy Mickelson’s scholarly article that likewise goes in depth, including a look at extra-biblical Greek sources that also use kataluma; and that makes some arguments about the significance of one’s interpretation of kataluma to the broader Lukan narrative.
  • My friend Laura discusses the idea of the Nativity taking place in a peasant home’s central room in the context of disability theology in their podcast episode here. They parallel Jesus’s birth story with the story of Zaccheus, where Jesus invites himself over to the tax collector’s home (“I must dine with you!”) — in both stories, Jesus announces his reliance on others for shelter and sustenance, unabashed.
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intertwined inceptions:

written upon realizing that the first days
of Chanukah and Advent coincided this year

Happy Chanukah to those who celebrate it, and blessed Advent to those who observe it! Constructive criticism on this poem is invited and appreciated — particularly from any Jewish folks who take the time to point out any accidental misrepresentations of your holiday.

Image description below; or you can read the poem in its original format outside of screenshots in this google doc.

If you are interested in using this piece in a worship service or elsewhere, email me at queerlychristian36@gmail.com.


Images show the text of a poem titled “intertwined inceptions: written upon realizing that the first days of Chanukkah and Advent coincided this year.”

The poem’s format places lines about Advent to the left, and lines about Hanukkah to the right, with lines about both in the center. This is difficult to transliterate in a screen-reader friendly way, so I’ll put an “A” before each Advent bit, an “H” before each Hanukkah bit, and a “B” for shared lines.

A:
four tall tapers
ring round a fifth
on their bed of pine branches

H:
eight tall tapers
proudly flank the ninth
along their branching arms

B:
and one candle
lights another

A:
upon an altar draped
in royal purple.

H:
where passersby may glimpse
through windowpanes.

B:
we marvel at

A:
the Word made Flesh —
the miracle of Yes:

“I, Most High sovereign, will become
the lowest, weakest, poorest one!”

“I’ll bear my own Creator in my womb
— with joy, let it be done!”

H:
“a great miracle happened here” —
the miracle of
Enough:

a mighty army brought to shame
by one small hammer in God’s name

and a pittance of oil stretched
across eight days’ flames…

B:
we remember

A:
the stronghold of her stomach

stretched around
the Son of God:

seed of Divinity
growing in a womb-dark sea…

H:
the stronghold of the sanctuary
retaken and restored

by that dedicated band who’d rather die
than forsake their Lord.

B:
we praise!

A:
Magnificat anima mea Dominum
et exultavit spiritus meus
in Deo salutari meo

God casts down
the mighty from their thrones,
lifts up the humble,
fills the hungry with good things,
and sends the rich away empty!

H:
Baruch atah Adonai
Eloheinu melech ha-olam
asher kid’shanu b-mitzvotav

G-d brings up the poor out of the dirt;
from the refuse piles
G-d raises the destitute
to seat them with the nobles!

B:
we await

A:
the Kin-dom of God —
the world made whole!
a table set for all!

H:
tikkun olam —
the righting of the world!
and we must play our role.

B:
we join
we wait
we eat
we praise

H:
and the candlelight

A:
and the candlelight

B:
and the candlelight extends
a hand to shadow —
scoops her up into a flickering dance
across the walls

H:
across the pains

A:
across our upturned faces

B:
and singing fills the darkness round and full
and singing fills the darkness round and full
and rises to the One who blesses
all

Categories
LGBT/queer My poetry Reflections for worship services

Reflection for Coming Out Day services: Fighting damaging silence, honoring formative silence

There are cocoons
of silence, soft merciful darkness enveloping you 
until you are ready to emerge as something
new—

And there are tombs
of silence. Darkness gone awry,
a heaviness that presses down your lungs,
so that your shouts of “I’m alive!” die
before they can escape your lips.

My shoulders ache with the ghosts of silences too long carried.

Mom, Dad, you always promised
to love me no matter what —
but so did my wife’s parents
and they nearly threw her out
when they found out.

I wanted to believe you really would love me “no matter what”
but how could I dare to hope it
when you never said a word
about gay or trans people,
and always changed the channel when two women
holding hands came on the screen?

Your silence weighed on me
almost as heavy as explicit condemnation would have.

Parents, guardians out there, please
tell your children when they are
young and only just learning what love is
that you will love them even if it turns out 
the wrong gender was stamped on their birth certificate
and no matter who they cut their wedding cake with. 

I came out to my parents eventually.
Piece by piece
I tore through the silence
we had built up together and they

have been wonderful. Slowly
they wrapped up the name
they gave me at my birth and put it away, replaced by
a name of my own choosing, a name that really is me. 

The pronouns took longer
but now when I go home 
arm in arm with my wife
I have no fear of being misgendered 
by those closest in my life.

And what of myself, the residue of silence
that still coats my inner gut?

Sometimes I forget that I am safe now
to speak up for other queer folk,
that I can say, “no, that joke was not funny
it was transphobic” or
“so why exactly would you ‘never date a bisexual’?”

My mouth stays shut. And silence wins. Nothing changes.
Other times I’m just too tired
to correct someone who’s called me ma’am yet again
to repeat like a broken record, please use they/them

and then silence wins.
I dodge falling stalactites as my identity caves in around me.

The seductive arms of silence 
reach out to all of us
and we all fall into them sometimes, too tired to resist
or too scared of saying the wrong thing to even try. 

But the key is to ask yourself: what will you do
to ensure that the old wounds etched by silence
don’t bleed out indefinitely? what will you do
not to cover over the scars or pretend like they never happened
but to keep new scars from jagging into existence?

Listen.
I know how your heart speeds up
when you try to speak up 
on your own behalf or another’s —
my heart does too.

I know the lump that forms in your throat 
and when you speak anyway, 

maybe people will be mad. Maybe you’ll have to fight.
Maybe you’ll even lose.

But speak anyway. And if you have to fight, 
then fight not with swords but with words, not with violence
but with love and truth. 

If we speak, 
the scars of silences once carried
will map themselves into a vision
of a future where no one
needs to bury themselves to stay alive. 

As for me and my house,
we will dig and dig and dig and free
the ones whom we have buried 
with the sin of all the times that we have failed.

We will not disturb those who have chosen
to wrap themselves in cocoons of silence
for their own protection,
but we will speak on their behalf;
while they form themselves in safety 
we will speak, so that when they emerge

the world will greet them not
with more tombs to shove them in
not with confused stares or snide comments
but with open arms
and a seat at the feast—

not with isolating silence
but with beautiful, life-reviving Song.


This piece was written by Avery Arden and belongs to them. Please do not publish it anywhere, or use it in a service, without permission from the author. Reach out to Avery at queerlychristian36@gmail.com for that permission, or just to chat!

I first wrote this reflection for a National Coming Out Day service at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in October 2016. The service included reflections from several individuals, each one responding to a different passage from Esther; the passage to which I responded was Esther 8:9-14.

I shared this reflection again, revised, for another Coming Out Day service for my friend Ainsley’s online Queer Church (you can watch the service on Facebook live here).

The first version of this piece included my description of how my parents were still working on getting my pronouns right; it was a joy to revise it saying that they now have that down pat! I also got to change “girlfriend” to “wife,” as we got married in 2019.

The concept of “coming out” brings up complex emotions in me. Western culture turns being “out” and “closeted” into a binary; assumes that all of us resonate with those terms; and centers cishet persons in discussion of those terms. Some incomplete thoughts:

My hope is that this reflection honors the many experiences and feelings around the idea of “coming out,” even while focusing on my own personal experiences.

Categories
Affirmation of Faith Call to worship Confession and Pardon easter Holy Days Liturgy Multifaith Opening prayer Reflections for worship services

Liturgy for the Ascension: joining the Cloud of Witnesses

Call to Worship 

Christ is risen! Alleluia!
Alleluia! Christ is risen indeed!

Christ is risen! Alleluia!
Alleluia! Christ is risen indeed!

Christ is risen! Alleluia!
Alleluia! Christ is risen indeed!

Opening Prayer

God in whose image we all are made,
God who pervades all time and space,
when you died and rose again 
you drew all people to yourself.

We in this congregation,
we in this denomination,
we who live in this small point in time
are not the only ones whom you have gathered
to sing your praise and delve into deeper relationship
with neighbor, with stranger, and with you.

As we join as one to worship you today,
open our minds to experience the cloud of witnesses —
the timeless community of all those who dwell in your love, 
past, present, and future,
whose many voices intertwine with our own
to weave one song of praise 
made richer by every added harmony and chord.

And as we worship as one from under many roofs,
in many different lands and languages and ways of life,
send your Spirit to fill us to bursting
both with joyful anticipation of Christ’s return
and an irresistible urge to seek God’s kin(g)dom here and now.

Amen. 

Reading and Praying with the Psalms

Psalm 47:1-2, 5-7 (my translation)

For the choirmaster of the Korahites, a psalm.

All you peoples, clap your hands!
Shout to God with ringing voice.
For LIVING GOD Most High inspires awe, great sovereign over all the earth.

God has ascended with a rallying cry, 
LIVING GOD with a trumpet blast.

Sing to God, sing!
Sing to our sovereign, sing! —
for God is sovereign over all the earth. 
Sing a wise song!

Silence

Prayer

God of all the cosmos,
whose sovereignty brings 
not subjugation, but liberation,

There are as many ways to praise you
as there are creatures on the earth —
ways familiar and dear to us, 
and ways that we think strange.

Some praise you by the name Allah,
faithfully prostrating themselves
when the call to pray sounds five times each day;

Others call you Hashem, and worship you
through torah and ritual passed down over generations
that many have tried but all have failed to stamp out.

Your children worship you 
with prayer wheels and prayer beads, scriptures and songs,
in fasting and feasting, meditation and dancing

and in the worship of simply being —
the bursting of the bud, 
the burrowing of the worm,
the flashing of feathers in flight.

Let us praise you with all that we are,
O God of many names, God both dear and strange.

For wherever we go, whatever we do,
in life and in death we all belong to you.

Amen.


Confession and Pardon

Call to Confession

Our sin, individual and collective, is almost too much to bear. 
It would be easier not to face it — 
but to pretend it is not there is to let it fester. 

So let us face it together —
first with a moment of silent reflection,
and then with voices uplifted as one to God.

Silence

Prayer of Confession

Risen God,

You call us not to look toward the sky,
but into the faces of those who surround us —
to celebrate their many shapes and shades, wrinkles and scars,
the unique insights only they can share;
and to care for their needs as desperately as we care for our own,
according to the example you left us in your own ministry. 

Yet we live as though you abandoned us
when you ascended into heaven –
as though we should wait, dormant, for your return, 
gazing longingly to the sky 
as we dwell on bygone days 
and wish for an uncomplicated future.

When our siblings cry out to us 
from where they’ve been trampled into the mud
by systems like white supremacy, capitalism, and cisheteropatriarchy

we with eyes glued heavenward shrug off their suffering 
with assurances that it is fleeting –
anything to avoid acknowledging our own culpability;
anything to avoid the endless work of active solidarity.

When we fail to balance our hope in your return
with living out your already-present Spirit: forgive us. 

When anxiety or regret holds us back: encourage us.

When apathy or resignation leaves us feeling powerless: empower us.

Amen.

Assurance of Pardon 

My friends in the cloud of witnesses,

God has called us into a transformation 
of our minds, our hearts, our very lives,
and – miracle of miracles! – 
Xe has made that transformation possible!

Through our Creator, Redeemer, Comforter,
we are forgiven and set free
to be God’s people made whole.
Thanks be to the One Who Gives New Life.
Amen.


Responding to God’s Word        

While making room for questions and fresh insight,
and celebrating the diversity of thought
that sets the cloud of witnesses aglow,

there are some beliefs that we in the church
commit ourselves to holding in common.

As one, let us affirm some of that shared faith
while lifting up the wisdom of some of our fellow witnesses.

We believe in one Triune God, Creator of all things.

In that Beginning told in Genesis,
She brooded over watery darkness
and gave birth to Creation in all its remarkable diversity — 
the day and night, and the varied shades
of dawn and dusk between;
the sea and dry land, and the shifting shores
that blur them together;
the plants and all kinds of animals, and life beyond them
— coral and  seaweed and fungi, unicellular organisms…

Each one created by God, who declared all Good.

Finally, God fashioned human beings
— male and female, and intersex –
in Their own divine image,
intending and blessing
our vast diversity of body and mind.

Transgender theologian Dr. Justin Tanis writes,

“In the story of Genesis, even while God was creating apparent opposites, God also created liminal spaces in which the elements of creation overlap and merge. Surely the same could be said about the creation of humanity with people occupying many places between [and beyond] the poles of female and male in a way similar to the rest of creation.”

We believe that in the Person of Jesus
this same God put on flesh
and dwelt among us,
drawing all of us into abundant life –
not only in some far-off time,
but for right here and now.

Rev. Dr. Noel Leo Erskine writes,

“We are admonished to bear the cross now so that we may wear the crown later. We are instructed to sacrifice and do without shoes now so that we may wear shoes when we get to heaven. But Black religion helps us understand that all of God’s children need some shoes now, right here on earth.

Black religion exposed the false eschatology that taught us to postpone liberation for the ‘sweet bye and bye.’ It exposed the fallacy that we have to wait until we get to heaven to have basic human rights such as access to shelter, food, health care, education, and the other essentials of life.

…Eternal life was not relegated to the after-life but was understood as a new quality of life beginning in the here-and-now.”

We believe that Jesus ascended into heaven
But did not leave us alone:

We believe in his Holy, healing, mischief-making Spirit
who sweeps us up into the work of God’s Kin-dom
that is already transforming the world
even while not yet fully ushered in.

In the body and divinity of Jesus,
heaven meets earth –
thanks be to God!

Amen.


I wrote this liturgy for an Ascension Sunday service for May 2021.

Categories
Confession and Pardon Holy Days lent Liturgy My poetry Reflections for worship services

Combatting Antisemitism on Good Friday: An Alternative to the “Solemn Reproaches of the Cross”

Oh my church, my hands and feet on earth,
why do you not heed me on the cross?
Answer me!

From the moment I shaped humanity from the mud
and gifted you with my own Breath
I delighted in you, and called you good,

invited you to serve my diverse Creation,
promising that as long as you cared for it,
it would care for you  –

yet you trample my good works under your feet!
You consume and consume and consume beyond your need
even while many of your siblings starve.

In sentencing your siblings and the land
to a torturous death,
you sentence me.

Holy God,
we have no defense.

Holy God,
do what you deem just.

Holy God,
redeem and renew us!

Oh my church, my hands and feet on earth,
why do you not heed me on the cross?
Answer me!

I chose the children of Israel as my own
not despite but because Jacob dared to wrestle me;
I chose the enslaved Hebrews as my own
not despite but because of their littleness,
the way their neighbors sought to dominate or destroy them.

My covenant with them is eternal;
My Torah instructs them well on how to love me
by loving the stranger, the Other, the defenseless –

Yet you claim your relationship with me negates theirs!

You call their testament “old,”
and claim the God you find there
is bloodthirsty, barbaric, not the same God;

Across the centuries you have listened to the story
of how I was charged by Roman powers with sedition,
died on a Roman cross –
and then went out and blamed “the Jews” for my death!

You have coerced conversion,
enacted or enabled hate crimes against them;
you have shunned and slandered them
when you ought to have
embraced them as your kin!

When you reject and persecute my Jewish people,
truly, truly you reject and persecute me.

Holy God,
we have no defense.

Holy God,
do what you deem just.

Holy God,
redeem and renew us!

Oh my church, my hands and feet on earth,
why do you not heed me on the cross?
Answer me!

I so loved you, I wrapped my divinity in frail flesh
so I could share with you
both joy and pain, feast and famine, friendship and loss;

I so loved you, I accepted Rome’s cross
to show my solidarity with all
whom worldly powers crush —

But still you idolize the very forces
that brutalized my body unto death!

When you regard a flag above a life
and let your siblings perish
on the other side of a border you invented;

when you wage war against Black and Indigenous peoples
or look away as they are killed
you also kill me.

Holy God,
we have no defense.

Holy God,
do what you deem just.

Holy God,
redeem and renew us!

Oh my church, my hands and feet on earth,
why do you not heed me on the cross?
Answer me!

Why do you not help me when I cry out
in thirst and hunger, or nakedness?
Why do you not welcome me when I come to you as a stranger?
Where are you when I am sick, but can’t afford care?
Where are you when I am abused or contracting COVID in prison?

Oh, my church! when will you truly become
my hands and feet on earth?
Answer, answer me!

Holy God,
we have no defense.

Holy God,
do what you deem just.

Holy God,
redeem and renew us
and we will be your hands and feet.

We will care for your Creation
and show gratitude for its care of us.

We will respect your Jewish people,
repenting of and uprooting our antisemitism;
we will learn to recognize your face
among persons of all faiths.

We will care for the most oppressed among us,
joining in solidarity with Black, Indigenous people of color,
with the LGBTQA+ community,
with the disability community, and all the disenfranchised,

uplifting their voices
and making good trouble
until the needs of all are met.

Truly, then, you will be my church
and I will give you strength, 
and you shall journey in the name of
God Who Draws All Peoples To Themself. 


You can hear me read this piece and explain it in other words in episode 39 of my podcast – find links here.

I wrote this piece to be used as an alternative in churches that on Good Friday traditionally read the Improperia, the “Solemn Reproaches of the Cross, the original version of which you can read here. My intention is to encourage Christians to examine our antisemitism during this week, rather than fueling it with language that blames the Jewish people past and present for Jesus’s death.

Holy Week has long been a dangerous time of the year for Jewish persons (See this article for the history of antisemitic hate crimes on Good Friday in medieval Europe; and this article arguing that “Centuries of Christian Antisemitism Led to the Holocaust“). The scriptures and liturgy that we choose to read in our churches during this time fuels that antisemitism not only this week, but the whole year round. 

As Jewish woman and New Testament professor Amy-Jill Levine writes in this article,

“Jesus of Nazareth, charged by the Roman authorities with sedition, dies on a Roman cross. But Jews ― the collective, all Jews ― become known as “Christ-killers.” Still haunting, the legacy of that charge becomes acute during Holy Week, when pastors and priests who speak about the death of Jesus have to talk about “the Jews.” Every year, the same difficulty surfaces: how can a gospel of love be proclaimed, if that same gospel is heard to promote hatred of Jesus’s own people?”

Among the most poisonous of liturgy read by many churches across the centuries is the “Reproaches.” As Elizabeth Palmer explains in her 2020 article “Thinking about Good Friday during a Pandemic,”

In the Solemn Reproaches, Jesus addresses people who have harmed him — and the text has a long history of stirring up violence against Jewish people. Many times over the centuries, in many places, Christians bowed before the cross on Good Friday and heard or sang some version of these words: “I led thee through the wilderness 40 years, fed thee with manna, and brought thee into a land exceeding good, and thou hast prepared a cross for thy Savior.” Then they’d leave the church, form a mob, and attack Jewish communities.

The “Reproaches” are coated in the blood of our Jewish neighbors. They should not be read or sung in our worship — but neither should they be hidden away outside of worship. We can’t pretend this text does not exist. We must grapple with it, guide congregations in understanding why it is so evil, and in doing so move towards acknowledging and dealing with our antisemitism, past and present.

My hope is that this alternative text, which includes a well-earned reproach for our antisemitism with examples of what that antisemitism looks like in our churches today, can be a jumping off point for conversations on this topic.

For more on antisemitism during Holy Week and what to do about it, I highly recommend Levine’s article ““Holy Week and the hatred of the Jews: How to avoid anti-Judaism this Easter.” In this article, Levine describes how the anti-Jewish language got into the Gospels to begin with; how interfaith conversations today help stem the tide of antisemitism; and explores and ranks the 6 strategies Levine has seen people use when trying to resolve these problems with the New Testament.

From least useful to most useful, she names these strategies as excision (just removing the problematic stuff and pretending it was never there); retranslation (changing up the way we translate problematic texts, such as changing “the Jews” to “Judeans”); romanticizing (this includes Christians holding their own Passover seders – read this part of the article to see why we should Not Do That); allegorizing; historicizing; and, best of all, just admitting the problem:

We come finally to our sixth option: admit to the problem and deal with it. There are many ways congregations can address the difficult texts. Put a note in service bulletins to explain the harm the texts have caused. Read the problematic texts silently, or in a whisper. Have Jews today give testimony about how they have been hurt by the texts.

Those who proclaim the problematic verses from the pulpit might imagine a Jewish child sitting in the front pew and take heed: don’t say anything that would hurt this child, and don’t say anything that would cause a member of the congregation to hurt this child.

Better still: educate the next generation, so that when they hear the problematic words proclaimed, they have multiple contexts – theological, historical, ethical – by which to understand them.

Christians, hearing the Gospels during Holy Week, should no more hear a message of hatred of Jews than Jews, reading the Book of Esther on Purim, should hate Persians, or celebrating the seder and reliving the time when “we were slaves in Egypt,” should hate Egyptians.

We choose how to read. After two thousand years of enmity, Jews and Christians today can recover and even celebrate our common past, locate Jesus and his earliest followers within rather than over and against Judaism, and live into the time when, as both synagogue and church proclaim, we can love G-d and our neighbour.’

For more resources for dealing with antisemitism within our Christian communities, see below.


RESOURCES:

First, let’s get educated on the basic facts about antisemitism in Holy Week’s typical scriptures, and alternatives to concluding that “the Jews killed Jesus”:

Next, let’s reimagine the stories we read during Holy Week in ways that don’t do harm to our Jewish neighbors!

  • I most highly recommend Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine’s book Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week.
  • Get a summary of and link to a pdf of her chapter on Palm Sunday and the “cleansing of the temple” (Jesus flipping tables) here
  • And if reading a whole book isn’t your thing, Levine also has a video series where she talks about the Passion story – here’s the first video, just 9 minutes long
  • And here’s an article interviewing Levine that sums up the purpose of her work with the Christian Gospels – “A number of Christian commentators feel the need to make Judaism look bad in order to make Jesus look good. Instead of portraying Jesus as a Jew talking to other Jews, he becomes in their views the first Christian, the one who invented divine grace, mercy, and love, and all that other good stuff. Such views neglect the presence of these same virtues within Jesus’ own Jewish context. There should be no reason this Jewish Jesus is used to promote anti-Judaism.”

Categories
Holy Days lent My poetry Other search markers Reflections for worship services

Crucifixion poem: “your death was nothing special”

your death was
nothing special

it was the death
of uncounted criminals
convicted under Roman law

in fact, two others died with you
on that same hill, on that same day
in that same way: bloody suffocation on a cross

so if you had lived today your death
would have been likewise ordinary
and likewise brutal:

exploded veins in the electric chair
after an unfair trial

or blood gushing out
on a road with a busted street lamp,
an officer’s bullet in your gut,
no trial at all.

Jesus, Jesus
this is why
your death matters.

because it didn’t — not to the ones who killed you,
not to the soldier who thrust a lance in your side
as he had done to so many men
on so many days like this one
not to the men who cast lots for your clothes,
profiting off your pain

your death matters, your death is precious
because it was common, ordinary —
you share the agony
of every tortured spirit who has ever walked this earth

you share every cry
muffled under the boot of one in power.

and so i know that
they with whom you have shared
agony
will also share in your rising.

…i have no words for this.
it is beyond words.
all i have is
thank you.
thank you.

thank you.


This poem was written by Avery Smith and belongs to them. Please do not publish it anywhere, or use it in a service, without permission from the author. Reach out to Avery at queerlychristian36@gmail.com for that permission, or just to chat!

About this poem:

Womanist theologians and other Black theologians, joined with Latin American liberationist theolgians and many others, have argued that substitutionary atonement deeply harms some of the world’s most oppressed persons — the very persons with whom Jesus most intimately identifies. As Miguel De La Torre explains in Embracing Hopelessness,

“There is nothing salvific about crucifixion. We are not saved through unjust suffering; although the oppressive suffering of the many who offer up their broken bodies as living sacrifices does provide abundant life for the elite few.

…The eleventh-century theologian Anselm of Canterbury would have us believe the purpose of the cross was necessary to satisfy God’s anger, to serve as a substitute for us. Sinful humans could not redeem themselves before an angry God who required blood atonement. Only a sinless God-as-human could complete the process, make restitution, and restore creation.

In other words, in order to satisfy God’s vanity, God’s child must be humiliated, tortured, and brutally killed, rather than the true object of God’s wrath, humans. …The problem with Anselm’s theology of atonement is that it casts God as the ultimate abuser, the ultimate oppressor who finds satisfaction through the domination, humiliation, and pain of God’s child. …”

But as we let go of these beliefs in God’s “need” for a sacrifice to assuage “his” anger, does the cross retain any meaning at all?

The answer is, of course.

Jesus’s death was hideously ordinary — and hence infinitely meaningful. As Richard Rohr said, “God did not die for us. God died with us.”

Through the cross, Jesus exposed the violence that is so commonplace that many of us have become desensitized to it for the evil it is — a key example being antiblack violence that forms a core tenet of white supremacy and is one foundation of the United States. Jesus’s execution is akin to the lynchings, shootings, and executions of countless Black lives in the United States — and, James Cone argues in The Cross and the Lynching Tree,

“Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a “re-crucified” black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.

Through the cross, Jesus showed us that God’s power is not human power — is not control through violence, but rather is compassion, is co-suffering, is interdependence and solidarity and letting go of the need for control. But God’s power is antithetical to white supremacy and other oppressive powers, and so Christianity entangled in Empire will continue to promote the God whose anger demands blood and tortures it out of “His” own son.

Furthermore, the dominating powers of Empire — from first century Rome to today’s America — attempt to strip humanity and dignity from those they deem useless or dangerous. But through the cross, Jesus reaffirmed the humanity and dignity of the world’s most reviled, tortured, and discarded — for what they suffer, God has suffered. This is why Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion still matter, even if they are not the key to salvation. De La Torre’s discussion of the cross continues thus:

For Christians from marginalized communities, the importance of the cross is not its redemptive powers, for all aspects of Christ’s life, death, teachings, and resurrection are redemptive.

The importance of Jesus’s crucifixion is the point when Christ chose solidarity with the world’s marginalized, even unto death. Christ becomes one with the crucified people of his time, as well as with all who are crucified today on the crosses of classism, colonialism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and religious discrimination. For Christians to die with Christ so they can also live with him means they too must find solidarity with the world’s crucified people.”

We must find solidarity with the world’s crucified people. How will you and your communities do so?

Categories
Catholic vibes Holy Days lent My poetry Reflections for worship services

Lent births herself this year – Pandemic 2021

Lent births herself this year, no midwife braving
the cold to come to her and coax her out
with strong sure hands
into a thankless world.

Lent crackles like a sheet of ice this year
creaking underfoot her timeless chant
memento mori
remember the sudden plunge the icy fist that grasps the lungs
to beings sick to death of that same song
and bodies wrung bare
from holding themselves at arm’s length for so long.

Unbidden
Lent comes.

Unwanted
Lent comes.

Yoke gentle
this year
Lent comes.

One fist opens to expose the ash
she’ll paint upon your brow
if you’ll let her.

In a year bereft of touch
you may shiver as her fingertips brush flesh
and startle at their warmth.

And once
you’ve let yourself be marked by dust
Lent’s other fist will open for you
gentle as spring’s first petals.

This palm glows with embers
that flicker out Lent’s second song:
This too remember
o frail Dust — you’re born from Splendor
and Splendor thrums within you even now.

Lent births herself this year
into a world already stripped bare

and beckons to the embers in her palm.
Come. This year
they need only the faintest breath to stir them.
Come.



This poem was written by Avery Smith and belongs to them. Please do not publish it anywhere, or use it in a service, without permission from the author. Reach out to Avery at queerlychristian36@gmail.com for that permission, or just to chat!

About this poem:

I wrote this before the sun rose this Ash Wednesday morning, my sleeping wife’s warm limbs embracing me, her breathing a steady rhythm at my back. Be gentle to yourselves and to others this season, beloved.

Many souls are already weary in this time of pandemic, and Lent is the last thing they feel like embracing. But Lent is not suffering for suffering’s sake, or increasing our burdens as some kind of challenge for ourselves. Lent is for acknowledging what suffering already is present in the world, and bearing it together; Lent is an intentional remembering of what binds us, all of us, and nourishing those ties.

Lent is stepping into solidarity – alongside Jesus on his journey to crucifixion – with the tortured and discarded of the world.

Lent may just be what our tattered spirits and weary bones need right now.

The concept of splendor comes from Sister Macrina Wiederkehr, who writes in A Tree Full of Angels:

“Why shouldn’t our experiences be filled with God? Who do we think it is who is breathing in us? Where do we think this ache has come from? And has it ever crossed our minds that God, too, has a deep yearning for us? …You are the dwelling place for the Source of All Life. You are an offspring of the One who said, ‘I Am who Am.’ If the One who gave you birth lives within you, surely you can find some resources there in your sacred Center. An expert lives within you. An expert breathes out you. Your life is entwined with the God who gave you birth. Frail dust, remember, you are splendor!”

Categories
Christmas communion meditation Holy Days Liturgy Reflections for worship services

Communion Meditation for Christmastide – Jesus of the House of Bread

Two thousand years ago, 

Divinity entered the world in the form of an infant 
born in Bethlehem — a town whose name means “House of Bread”!
He was swaddled by parents poor in the eyes of the world,
but rich in love,
and laid in a manger —

a food trough for cattle!

Thus it is that from the very moment of his birth,
Jesus made known his intention to feed the hungry world
with his very being —
to be bread for empty stomachs
and nourishment for flagging spirits.

His life was a continuation of a Movement that God had begun
long centuries before Jesus:

a Movement that glimmered in the starry sky laid out for Abraham,
that invited Jacob to wrestle faithfully and fervently
until he came away wounded and blessed;

a Movement that carried the enslaved Hebrews out of bondage
and taught them how to live into true freedom;

a Movement kept alive in times of corruption, and empire, and exile
by fearless prophets who would not be silenced
and who looked forward to the liberation of all prisoners, the uplifting of the poor.

It was those prophets’ message that was boldly sung by Mary,
and that she and Joseph, faithful Jewish parents,
taught to the boy Jesus
with the help of their community’s synagogue. 

It is this message, the proclaiming of God’s World-Upturning Movement,
that infuses the bread and cup we share today.

Eat, drink, and let the sharing of this meal unite us across the miles
into one Body of the liberating Christ
who walks and breathes among us even today. 


I wrote these pieces for a virtual service on December 27, 2020 (First Sunday of Christmastide) centered around the story of the Presentation at the Temple as told in Luke 2:22-40.