Categories
Affirmation of Faith Liturgy

Affirmation of Faith: Creator God-with-us, whose existence is relationship

We believe in the Triune God whose very existence is relationship,
a dance of mutual love that overflows into Their creation.

As beings made in the image of this relational God, 
we are most human when we live outside of hierarchy and individualism
and live into community with God, with each other, and with all creation.

We believe in Jesus Christ, the surest example of God-with-us,
of God-for-us, of a God whose power is not dominance and control
but rather a love that empowers, liberates, and invites us into partnership. 

We believe in the Holy Spirit
who brooded over the deep until She birthed the universe,

who is the breath that animates us,
the air that whispers to seeds till they sprout and bloom,

the wind that stirs up stagnance,
the flame that burns up deadness to make a way for new life.

We believe that this Triune God invites us to join Them 
in sowing a Kin(g)dom of equity and justice here on earth

where God’s blessings are shared fairly and there is plenty for all.


I wrote this for a service with a central theme of imagination, and how God’s gift of imagination can help us envision and enact a better world, a world liberated from oppressive binary and hierarchical structures like cishetero-patriarchy and white supremacy. My sermon’s text was Genesis 25:19-34 and explored the relationship between Jacob – with his marginalizing identities who assimilates into patriarchy – and Esau with his privilege who eventually seeks out reconciliation with his brother. You can read or watch the sermon here.

While the Genesis text was my sermon focus, I wanted to fit the lectionary’s Gospel reading into my liturgy. That reading was Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, the Parable of the Sower.

Categories
Affirmation of Faith easter Liturgy Other search markers

Affirmation of Faith in the Wounded God who calls us Good

We worship a Mystery, a Being too vast to capture in words,
who reveals Godself to each of us in different ways.

While making room for different understandings,
let us affirm the faith that draws us together:

We believe in the God whose Word birthed the cosmos,

Who shaped human beings from the rich topsoil,
breathed Her own breath into us,
blessed both our earthy bodies and celestial spark,
and declared us Good, very Good!

When evil taught us shame
for those very bodies God had blessed,

God became a seamstress,
tenderly dressing Her children, Adam and Eve —
never dismissing our distress
but giving us what we need
to believe in our inherent dignity again.

This God reminds us at every opportunity
That we are destined for freedom:

God did what it took to liberate Her people
from enslavement in Egypt — and from countless future captors,
human powers who wield control through violence and fear.

The God who walked through Eden put on wheels —
the throne Ezekiel saw rolling through the heavens
to follow Their people into exile, and back again.

And then, this same God settled into flesh: 

For God so loved the world They’d made
that They entered into it Themself,
weaving Godself a human form within a human womb.

From boundless power to an infant in the lap
of his teenage mother, God learned to crawl, to walk,
to speak with human tongue the news They’d been proclaiming
through pillars of flame and cloud, 
through prophets’ cries and in the stillest silence.

In Jesus, God brought restoration to bodies and spirits aching
under the yoke of empire, the shackles of shame —

and then God died. 

But no tomb can restrain Life itself for long:
Christ rose with wounds — reminders of what happens
when we allow violence and fear to reign unchallenged.

This wounded Christ ascended into heaven,
but his Spirit abides with us still —
stirring up our indifference, whispering hope into our despair,
and whisking us up into the hard but holy work
of unrolling a kin-dom accessible to all.

Amen.


About this piece:

If you this piece it in your own service, please credit it to Avery Arden — and I invite you to email me at queerlychristian36@gmail.com to let me know you’re using it!

I wrote this affirmation for a worship service centered around John 20:19-30’s account of Jesus inviting Thomas to touch his wounds.

God created us to be inspirited bodies, embodied spirits — in Genesis 1, God calls not just our spirits but our bodies good — and not just some bodies, but all bodies, disabled bodies included.

Disability theologians have long been inspired by the idea that Jesus’s resurrected body keeps its wounds — wounds that would impair mobility and fine motor skills, that would cause chronic pain.

In rising with a disabled body, Jesus “redeems” disability: he evinces that disability is not brokenness, is not shameful or the result of sin; and he evinces that disability can exist separate from suffering — that suffering is not intrinsic to disability.

The idea of a wounded Christ also connects to Henri Nouwen’s concept of the “wounded healer,” which I recommend looking into if that phrase resonates with you.

The description of God as seamstress restoring a sense of dignity to Adam and Eve is inspired by Cole Arthur Riley’s book This Here Flesh, where she writes:

“On the day the world began to die, God became a seamstress. This is the moment in the Bible that I wish we talked about more often.

When Eve and Adam eat from the tree, and decay and despair begin to creep in, when they learn to hide from their own bodies, when they learn to hide from each other—no one ever told me the story of a God who kneels and makes clothes out of animal skin for them.

I remember many conversations about the doom and consequence imparted by God after humans ate from that tree. I learned of the curses, too, and could maybe even recite them. But no one ever told me of the tenderness of this moment. It makes me question the tone of everything that surrounds it.

In the garden, when shame had replaced Eve’s and Adam’s dignity, God became a seamstress. He took the skin off of his creation to make something that would allow humans to stand in the presence of their maker and one another again.

Isn’t it strange that God didn’t just tell Adam and Eve to come out of hiding and stop being silly, because he’s the one who made them and has seen every part of them? He doesn’t say that in the story, or at least we do not know if he did. But we do know that God went to great lengths to help them stand unashamed. Sometimes you can’t talk someone into believing their dignity. You do what you can to make a person feel unashamed of themselves, and you hope in time they’ll believe in their beauty all on their own.

People say we are unworthy of salvation. I disagree. Perhaps we are very much worth saving. It seems to me that God is making miracles to free us from the shame that haunts us. Maybe the same hand that made garments for a trembling Adam and Eve is doing everything he can that we might come a little closer. I pray his stitches hold. Our liberation begins with the irrevocable belief that we are worthy to be liberated, that we are worthy of a life that does not degrade us but honors our whole selves. When you believe in your dignity, or at least someone else does, it becomes more difficult to remain content with the bondage with which you have become so acquainted. You begin to wonder what you were meant for.

The idea of God on wheels comes primarily from Julia Watts Belser’s article “God on Wheels: Disability and Jewish Feminist Theology.” I highly recommend the whole article (check out the gorgeous art piece that accompanies it, if nothing else), but here’s one excerpt:

“…On the morning of the holiday of Shavuot, Jewish communities around the world chant from the book of Ezekiel, reciting the Israelite prophet’s striking image of God. The prophet speaks of a radiant fire borne on a vast chariot, lifted up by four angelic creatures with fused legs, lustrous wings, and great wheels. …One recent Shavuot, Ezekiel’s vision split open my own imagination. Hearing those words chanted, I felt a jolt of recognition, an intimate familiarity. I thought: God has wheels!

When I think of God on wheels, I think of the delight I take in my own chair. I sense the holy possibility that my own body knows, the way wheels set me free and open up my spirit. I like to think that God inhabits the particular fusions that mark a body in wheels: the way flesh flows into frame, into tire, into air. This is how the Holy moves through me, in the intricate interplay of muscle and spin, the exhilarating physicality of body and wheel, the rare promise of a wide-open space, the unabashed exhilaration of a dance floor, where wing can finally unfurl.

On wheels, I feel the tenor of the path deep in my sinews and sit bones. I come to know the intimate geography of a place: not just broad brushstrokes of terrain, but the minute fluctuations of topography, the way the wheel flows. When I roll, I pay particular attention to the interstices and intersections: the place where concrete seams together uneasily, the buckle of tree roots pushing up against asphalt, the bristle of crumbling brick.

I have come to believe this awareness reflects a quality of divine attention. Perhaps the divine presence moves through this world with a bone-deep knowledge of every crack and fissure. Perhaps God is particularly present at junctions and unexpected meetings, alert to points of encounter where two things come together…”

A similar theology around God on wheels can be found in the perspective of a Christian teen named Becky Tyler, found here. Becky says:

“When I was about 12 years old, I felt God didn’t love me as much as other people because I am in a wheelchair and because I can’t do lots of the things that other people can do. I felt this way because I did not see anyone with a wheelchair in the Bible, and nearly all the disabled people in the Bible get healed by Jesus – so they are not like me.”

She felt alienated by much of what she read in the Bible – until she was given new food for thought.

“My mum showed me a verse from the Book of Daniel (Chapter 7, Verse 9), which basically says God’s throne has wheels, so God has a wheelchair.

“In fact it’s not just any old chair, it’s the best chair in the Bible. It’s God’s throne, and it’s a wheelchair. This made me feel like God understands what it’s like to have a wheelchair and that having a wheelchair is actually very cool, because God has one.”

Categories
bible study easter Holy Days Reflections for worship services

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.

Categories
bible study Holy Days lent Other search markers Unpacking Antisemitism

Jesus Flipping Tables: Unpacking antisemitic readings of the “Temple Cleansing”

Lent is one time of year we talk about Jesus marching into the Court of Gentiles, sitting down and braiding a whip, and proceeding to wreak havoc upon money-changers’ tables and sacrificial animal cages.

It’s a weird, fascinating, fun story (that you can read in Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 2)! Progressive & leftist Christians like myself have a particular love for it, pointing to this story as evidence that sometimes our “meek and mild” Jesus used violence to combat injustice. If you hang around progressive Christian spaces online, I bet you’ve seen this meme more than once:

A portrait of Jesus wielding a whip in the teple, with tables overturned and people on the floor looking confused or afraid, with text overlaid that reads "If anyone ever asks you What Would Jesus Do? Remind him that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibility"
Image description in alt text.

He did indeed break out a whip, according to the Gospels! But why? What exactly was Jesus’s purpose for causing a ruckus in the Temple?

A common progressive interpretation of the story is exemplified by this Tweet by ELCA pastor Eric Clapp:

"Just a reminder that the only time Jesus flipped tables is when religious people put a bustling economy over the well-being of their neighbor."
ID in alt text. Click here for the original Tweet.

Hey, I’m all for a reminder that God calls us to care for human beings over economic gain — and that religious leaders often find ourselves in prime positions to make some money ourselves. But before embracing this interpretation, we need to pause and consider what assumptions about Temple goings-on are present within it. For starters, this reading assumes:

  • that the selling of animals for sacrifice right on the Temple premises was inappropriate and even unjust;
  • that Temple leaders did so in order to line their own pockets;
  • and that they charged exploitative prices to the detriment of the poor.

So what’s the problem here?

Well, according to Jewish scholar of the New Testament Amy-Jill Levine, these assumptions about Temple corruption have no historical backing to them. As this post will get to in a bit, both within the Gospel narratives and in extra-biblical sources, we don’t have any reason to believe that money changers were cheating anybody in the Temple, or that Jesus was protesting such a thing!

Even worse, such readings easily lead into antisemitism that impacts our Jewish neighbors even to this day. For example, I can easily imagine the above list of explicit assumptions yielding various implicit ones:

  • that Jewish leaders were greedy & money-obsessed — hmm, doesn’t that sound uncomfortably like an antisemitic stereotype that’s pervaded centuries?
  • that one of Jesus’s priorities in his ministry was to shut down the Temple system and institute a brand new religion that would replace the “legalism” and hypocrisy of Judaism with a “law of love” — a foundational concept of supersessionism, or the idea that Christianity supersedes (replaces) Judaism; click here for information on the pervasiveness of supersessionist views in our churches today & why such views actively harm our contemporary Jewish neighbors.
  • (And if you don’t think this Bible story promotes supersessionism, pause and ponder why we traditionally call it “The Cleansing of the Temple” — implying the Temple, which was at that time the hub of Jewish religious & political life, was unclean.)

I used to hold the same assumptions expressed in the above meme and tweet. Jesus flipping tables to protest exploitative economic and religious systems is a compelling story! It’s relatable to our own activism, it showcases a countercultural Jesus — but is it worth fueling anti-Jewish theologies?

Those of us who claim to care for the oppressed need to rethink our readings of this story, in order to prevent its misuse as a weapon against our Jewish neighbors.

Thus I am grateful to Dr. Amy-Jill Levine for sharing historical context that can help us with our re-readings, and for offering her own interpretation of why Jesus really decided to weave that whip and flip those tables.

The rest of this post is me sharing excerpts from Levine’s book Entering the Passion of Jesus at length (and then ending with further resources, for those interested).

The images I share below condense her argument into concise bits that you could easily share on a church Facebook page or website, or at a Bible study. They can stand on their own as helpful conversation material; but I’ve also interspersed them with longer excerpts from Levine that provide even more information. (If you want a post with just the images and not the lengthy excerpts, click here.)

If you do share these images, please simply credit back to this site! Also, each one has an image description in the alt text; if you share them online, I request that you keep that alt text to make them accessible to people who use screen readers.

Images show slides with text and illustrations based around the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus flipping tables and wielding a whip in the Temple. This first slide shows one such illustration, with Jesus as a middle eastern man with black hair and beard wearing yellow and blue robes with traditional tassels looking angry and wielding a whip, surrounded by frightened looking people and animals escaping their cages, with an overturned table by his side. Text reads “Jesus flipping tables: Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s Interpretation” and “In Entering the Passion of Jesus, Levine unpacks traditional readings of the “cleansing of the Temple” and offers an alternative that resists antisemitism and applies biblical & historical context…”

The incident known as the ‘Cleansing of the Temple’ is described in all four Gospels. Most people have the idea–probably from Hollywood–that this is a huge disruption. When we see this scene depicted in movies, we find Jesus fuming with anger, and we inevitably see gold coins falling down in slow motion. Everything in the Temple comes to a standstill. …But we are not watching a movie: we are studying the Gospels. …

Excerpt from Levine’s Entering the Passion of Jesus
a detail from a painting of the Jesus MAFA series where Jesus is depicted as an African man in a traditional Cameroon marketplace; he’s got deep Brown skin and close-cropped hair, a red robe, and likewise wields a whip and looks angry as people run frightened around him. This image will repeat on every other slide from now on (all slides that include bullet points summarizing Levine’s points). This slide’s text reads, “What follows is a summary of the points Levine makes in her chapter on the “cleansing of the temple”:
- Jesus’s whole table flipping, whip-wielding stunt is more symbolic than practical (echoing similar performances by his people’s prophets).
- Jesus’s anger isn’t about gentiles being excluded from Temple life; they weren’t.”

Here’s what we know about the actual setting. We begin by noting that the Temple complex was enormous. It was the size of twelve soccer fields put end to end. So, if Jesus turns over a table or two in one part of the complex, it’s not going to make much of a difference given the size of the place.

The action therefore did not stop all business; it is symbolic rather than practical. Our responsibility is to determine what was symbolized. For that, we need to know how the Temple functioned.

The Jerusalem Temple, which King Herod the Great began to rebuild and which was still under construction at the time of Jesus, had several courts. The inner sanctum, known as the “Holy of Holies,” is where the high priest entered, only on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, to ask for forgiveness for himself and for the people. Outside of that was the Court of the Priests, then the Court of Israel, the Court of the Women, and then the Court of the Gentiles, who were welcome to worship in the Temple. 

Excerpt from Levine’s Entering the Passion of Jesus
a detail from a painting, showing a flipped tables and a mess of coins and sheep and doves. There’s another quote from Levine reading, “Pilgrims…would not bring [sacrificial] animals with them from Galilee or Egypt or Damascus. They would not risk the animal becoming injured and so unfit for sacrifice. The animal might fly or wander away, be stolen, or die. …One bought one’s offering from the vendors. And…there is no indication that the vendors were overcharging or exploiting the population. The people would not have allowed that to happen. Thus, Jesus is not engaging in protest of cheating the poor.”

The outer court, the Court of the Gentiles, is where the vendors sold their goods. The Temple at the time of Jesus was many things: it was a house of prayer for all nations; it was the site for the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot/Pentecost, and Sukkot/Booths; it was a symbol of Jewish tradition (we might think of it as comparable, for the Jewish people of the time, to how Americans might view the Statue of Liberty); it was the national bank, and it was the only place in the Jewish world where sacrifices could be offered. Therefore, there needed to be vendors on site.

Pilgrims who sought to offer doves (such as Mary and Joseph do, following the birth of Jesus, according to Luke 2:24) or a sheep for the Passover meal would not bring the animals with them from Galilee or Egypt or Damascus. They would not risk the animal becoming injured and so unfit for sacrifice. The animal might fly or wander away, be stolen, or die. And, as one of my students several years ago remarked, ‘The pilgrims might get hungry on the way.’ One bought one’s offering from the vendors. …

Despite Hollywood, and sermon after sermon, there is no indication that the vendors were overcharging or exploiting the population. The people would not have allowed that to happen. Thus, Jesus is not engaging in protest of cheating the poor.

Next, we need to think of the Temple as something other than what we think of churches. A church, usually, is a place of quiet and decorum. …The Temple was something much different: It was a tourist attraction, especially during the pilgrimage festivals. It was very crowded, and it was noisy. The noise was loud and boisterous, and because it was Passover, people were happy because they were celebrating the Feast of Freedom. …We might think of the setting as a type of vacation for the pilgrims: a chance to leave their homes, to catch up with friends and relatives, to see the “big city,” and to feel a special connection with their fellow Jews and with God. It is into this setting that Jesus comes. …”

Excerpt from Levine’s Entering the Passion of Jesus
more bullet points summarizing points from Levine’s chapter:
- Jesus’s anger was not about animals being sold in the temple’s outer courts
- There’s also no evidence of unjust prices, so he’s not angry about the poor being cheated here either.
- Various Gospel stories show that Jesus did not reject the Temple or its laws & rituals (also – he has “zeal for his father’s house”)

Driving out the Vendors 

…It seems to me that Jesus, in the Temple, was angry. But what so angered him? I hear from a number of people, whether my students in class or congregations who have invited me to speak with them, that the Temple must have been a dreadful institution; that it exploited the poor; that it was in cahoots with Rome; that Caiaphas, the High Priest in charge of the Temple, was a terrible person; that it banned Gentiles from worship and so displayed hatred of foreigners; and so forth. …Some tell me that the Temple imposed oppressive purity laws that forbade people from entering, and so Jesus, who rejected those laws, rejected the temple as well. No wonder Jesus wants to destroy the institution.

But none of those views fits what we know about either Jesus or history.

First, Jesus did not hate the Temple, and he did not reject it. If he did, then it makes no sense that his followers continued to worship there. Jesus himself calls the Temple “my Father’s house” (Luke 7:49: John 2:16). …

Second, Jesus is not opposed to purity laws. To the contrary, he restores people to states of ritual purity. Even more, he tells a man whom he has cured of leprosy, “Go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them” (Mark 1:44; see also Matthew 8:4; Luke 5:14). 

Third, Jesus says nothing about the Temple exploiting the population. As we’ll see in the next chapter, when we talk about the widow who makes an offering of her two coins, Jesus is concerned not with what the Temple charges, but with the generosity of the worshipers. 

Excerpt from Levine’s Entering the Passion of Jesus
a detail of an illustration of a courtyard in the Temple with large pillars and crowds of people, with a quote from Levine’s chapter reading, “…The Temple has an outer court, where Gentiles are welcome to worship. They were similarly welcome in the synagogues of antiquity, and today. They do not have the same rights and responsibilities as do Jews, and that makes sense as well. When I [a Jewish woman] visit a church, there are certain things I may not do. …”

Fourth, we’ve already seen that the Temple has an outer court, where Gentiles are welcome to worship. They were similarly welcome in the synagogues of antiquity, and today. They do not have the same rights and responsibilities as do Jews, and that makes sense as well. When I [a Jewish woman] visit a church, there are certain things I may not do. We might also think of how nations function: Canadians, for example, cannot do certain things in the USA, such as vote for president; nor can citizens of the USA vote in Canadian elections.

As for Caiaphas…Caiaphas is basically between a rock and a hard place. He is the nominal head of Judea, and he is supposed to keep the peace.Judea is occupied by Rome, and Roman soldiers are stationed there. Caiaphas needs to make sure that these soldiers do not go on the attack. He needs to placate Pilate, and he needs to placate Rome. 

At the same time, as the High Priest, he has a responsibility to the Jewish tradition. Rome wanted the Jews to offer sacrifices to the emperor…but Caiaphas and the other Jews refused to participate in this type of offering because they would not worship the emperor. The most they were willing to do was offer sacrifices on behalf of the emperor and the empire.

When Jesus comes into the city in the Triumphal Entry, when people are hailing him as son of David, Caiaphas recognizes the political danger. The Gospel of John tells us that the people wanted to make Jesus king (John 6:15). Caiaphas has to watch out for the mob. Caiaphas also has to watch out for all these Jewish pilgrims coming from all over the empire celebrating the Feast of Freedom, the end of slavery. When he sees Roman troops surrounding the Temple Mount, Caiaphas has to keep the peace. And Jesus is a threat to that peace. But none of this has to do directly with Jesus’ actions in the Temple. He is not at this point protesting Caiaphas’s role.

Sometimes I hear people say that Jesus drove the “money lenders” out of the Temple. That’s wrong, too. Money-lending was a business into which the medieval church forced Jews, because the church concluded that charging interest was unnatural (money should not beget money). Yet people needed, then and now, to take out loans. The issue for the Gospel is not money lending but money changing. These money changers exchanged the various currencies of the Roman Empire into Tyrian shekels, the type of silver coin that the Temple accepted. We experience the same process when we visit a foreign country and have to exchange our money for the local currency.

So, if Jesus is not condemning the Temple itself, or financial exploitation, or purity practices, what is he condemning? Let’s look at what the Gospels actually say. …

Excerpt from Levine’s Entering the Passion of Jesus
another bullet point summarizing points from Levine’s chapter: “What Jesus’s anger is about: in the versions in Matthew, Mark, & Luke, he quotes Jeremiah 7:11 in calling the Temple “a den of thieves” – it’s become a place where people who sin and oppress in their everyday life feel perfectly comfortable, instead of being called to repent and reform.”

According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, …the concern is not the Temple, but the attitude of the people who are coming to it.

In Mark’s account Jesus begins by saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?” (11:17). Indeed, it is so written. Jesus is here condensing and then quoting Isaiah 56:6-7… Jesus’ rhetorical question should be answered with a resounding “Yes!” – for the Temple already was a house of prayer for all people. More, he is standing in the Court of the Gentiles when he makes his pronouncement. …Thus, the problem is not that the Temple excludes Gentiles. 

Already we find the challenge, and the risk. Are churches Today houses of prayer for all people, or are they just for people who look like us, walk like us, and talk like us?

How do we make other people feel welcome? Is the stranger greeted upon walking into the church? Is the first thing a stranger hears in the sanctuary, “You’re in my seat”? When we pray or sing hymns, do we think of what those words would sound like in a stranger’s ears? …

Matthew and Luke drop out “For all nations,” and appropriately so, for they knew it already was a house of prayer for all nations. Matthew and Luke thus change the focus to one of prayer. And prayer gets us closer to what is going on in the Synoptic tradition. …

Excerpt from Levine’s Entering the Passion of Jesus
another quote from Levine: “Some people in Jeremiah’s time, and at the time of Jesus, and today, take divine mercy for granted… The church member sins during the workweek, either by doing what is wrong or by failing to do what is right. Then on Sunday morning this same individual…heartily sings the hymns, happily shakes the hands of others, and generously puts a fifty-dollar bill in the collection plate. That makes the church a den of robbers… It becomes a safe place for those who are not truly repentant and who do not truly follow what Jesus asks.”

Den of Thieves

Jesus continues, ‘But you are making it a den of robbers’ (Matthew 21:13). Here he is quoting Jeremiah 7:11: “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?”

A “den of robbers” (sometimes translated a “den of thieves”) is not where robbers rob. “Den” really means “cave,” and a cave of robbers is where robbers go after they have taken what does not belong to them, and count up their loot. The context of Jeremiah’s quotation – and remember, it always helps to look up the context of citations to the Old Testament – tells us this.

Jeremiah 7:9-10 depicts the ancient prophet as condemning the people of his own time, the time right before Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s Temple over five hundred years earlier: “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’ – only to go on doing all these abominations?“ 

Some people in Jeremiah’s time, and at the time of Jesus, and today, take divine mercy for granted and see worship as an opportunity to show off new clothes rather than recommit to clothing the naked. The present-day comparison to what Jeremiah, and Jesus, condemned is easy to make: The church member sins during the workweek, either by doing what is wrong or by failing to do what is right. Then on Sunday morning this same individual, perhaps convinced of personal righteousness, heartily sings the hymns, happily shakes the hands of others, and generously puts a fifty-collar bill in the collection plate. That makes the church a den of robbers – a cave of sinners. It becomes a safe place for those who are not truly repentant and who do not truly follow what Jesus asks. The church becomes a place of showboating, not of fishing for people. 

Jeremiah and Jesus indicted people then, and now. The ancient Temple, and the present-day church, should be places where people not only find community, welcome the stranger, and repent of their sins. They should be places where people promise to live a godly life, and then keep their promises…

Excerpt from Levine’s Entering the Passion of Jesus
one last bullet point: “Finally, in John’s version, Jesus foretells a time when the Temple is no longer needed, for all places will be sacred & God will speak directly to everyone of every nation – a future that prophets like Zechariah also foretold. (A key difference: Jesus identifies a “new temple,” his body.)”

Stop Making My Father’s House a Marketplace

John’s Gospel says nothing about the house of prayer or den of robbers. In John’s Gospel, Jesus starts not simply by overturning the tables, but also by using a “whip of cords” (since weapons were not permitted in the Temple, he may have fashioned the whip from straw at hand), and driving out the vendors. Jesus when says to the dove sellers, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:16). He is alluding to Zechariah 14:21, the last verse from this prophet, “and every cooking pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the Lord of hosts, so that all who sacrifice may come and use them to boil the flesh of the sacrifice. And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.”

Excerpt from Levine’s Entering the Passion of Jesus
one last quote from Levine: “…Jesus anticipates the time when there willno longer be a need for vendors, for every house not only in Jerusalem but in all of Judea shall be like the Temple itself. The sacred nature of the Temple will spread through all the people. He sounds somewhat like the Pharisees here, since the Pharisees were interested in extending the holiness of the Temple to every household.The message is a profound one: Can our homes be as sanctified, as filled with Worship, as the local church?”

In John’s version of the Temple incident, Jesus anticipates the time when there will no longer be a need for vendors, for every house not only in Jerusalem but in all of Judea shall be like the Temple itself. The sacred nature of the Temple will spread through all the people. He sounds somewhat like the Pharisees here, since the Pharisees were interested in extending the holiness of the Temple to every household.

The message is a profound one: Can our homes be as sanctified, as filled with Worship, as the local church?

Do we “do our best” on Sunday From 11 a.m. to 12 noon, but just engage in business is usual during the workweek? Do we pray only in church, or is prayer part of our daily practice? Do we celebrate the gifts of God only when it is time to do so in the worship service, or do we celebrate these gifts morning to night? Is the church just a building, or is the church the community who gathers in Jesus’ name, who acts as Jesus taught, who lives the good news? 

Jesus’ words, citing Zechariah, do even more. They anticipate a time when all peoples, all nations, can worship in peace, and in love. There is no separation between home and house of worship, because the entire land lives in a sanctified state. Perhaps we can even hear a hint of Jeremiah’s teaching of the “new covenant,” when “no longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ For they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). Can we envision this? Can we work toward it? …

Excerpt from Levine’s Entering the Passion of Jesus
questions for reflection:
1. Do you struggle to let go of the way you’ve always read a Bible story? What helps you embrace new readings?
2. How do we find balance between welcoming people as they are, sins and all, and resisting being a comfortable, unchallenging space for oppressors? Moreover, how do we protect vulnerable persons from their oppressors?

Closing Thoughts: Re-interpreting Jesus not as superseding, but tapping into his faith’s beliefs

Recognizing how much antisemitism is embedded in our theologies, especially the stories or ideas we treasure most, can cause defensiveness, guilt, even a sense of being overwhelmed about what we can keep amid the mess. I’ve felt all those things and more in the past several years as I’ve explored how to weed out antisemitism in my own faith life and help fellow Christians do likewise.

One big thing I’ve been digesting all this time is AJ Levine’s constant reminder that we don’t have to make Judaism bad to make Jesus look good — and that includes the Judaism of Jesus’s own time, even though that Judaism looked very different from the Judaism of today. We don’t have to accuse the Temple or teachers of Jesus’s time with corruption and hypocrisy in order to find meaning within any of the Gospels stories.

A rule of thumb that I’ve brought into my Bible reading of late (especially after reading Levine’s book on Gospel parables, Short Stories by Jesus):

  • Anything that suggests that Jesus was The Very First Jew to suggest that God is loving and merciful — that Jews before him believed in a violent and vengeful God — is inaccurate & harmful.

We might implicitly suggest such a thing without even meaning to do so, so learning examples of supersessionist readings can help us catch new ones when they crop up. Short Stories by Jesus is one fabulous place to learn some of those examples. If you’re interested in Levine’s points on various parables but don’t have time for her whole book, I’ve been posting excerpts on my tumblr blog. For excerpts specifically about the antisemitic interpretations of parables, click here.

Another prime example of supersessionist readings involves the “antitheses” of Matthew 5 — “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” Levine has a sermon you can read or watch here that discusses how these antitheses are misunderstood by Christians as Jesus superseding the Torah with new ideas, when they don’t have to be read that way at all!

Moreover, the progressive desire to depict Jesus is countercultural and, well, progressive definitely fuels a lot of these readings. As Levine explains,

The message of Jesus and the meaning of the parables need to be heard in their original context, and that context cannot serve as an artificial and negative foil to make Jesus look original or countercultural in cases where he is not.

Yes, today we like what is “countercultural” or “radical” or “unique”—but those are our values and are not necessarily what the parables are conveying. Instead, the parables more often tease us into recognizing what we’ve already always known, and they do so by reframing our vision.

The point is less that they reveal something new than that they tap into our memories, our values, and our deepest longings, and so they resurrect what is very old, and very wise, and very precious. And often, very unsettling. …”

Short Stories by Jesus

Letting go of the “Jesus chock-full of completely new ideas” can be hard. But I’ve come to love the “Jesus who knew and cherished his people’s traditions” — who saw the goodness within them and worked to make that goodness reality.

Now, to help you adjust to a Jesus whose theology wasn’t all Completely Fresh, there is one teaching Levine says Jesus was original in: the love of the enemy. The Torah commands love of neighbor and stranger, but not of enemy:

In Jewish thought, one could not mistreat the enemy, but love was not mandated. Proverbs 25.21 insists, “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink” (Paul cites Prov. 25.21–22 in Rom. 12.20).

Only Jesus insists on loving the enemy: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” He may be the only person in antiquity to have given this instruction.

Short Stories by Jesus

Further Reading

So that was a lot! I’ll leave you with some great places to go in the work of unpacking antisemitism.

Lent specific stuff:

More Stuff on Supersessionism, & Concrete Consequences of Christian Antisemitism:

Context around Pharisees, Temple, Torah:

If you have resources you want to share; or have questions, thoughts, etc. please let me know!

Categories
Christmas Holy Days My poetry

Mary’s in-laws

the in-laws you acquaint yourself with first
upon arrival in your husband’s home
are in-laws hen and cow.

as other travelers recline upstairs
on the best of this household’s cushions, you make do
with straw that in-law goat keeps trying to
snatch out from under you.

you hardly mind: these relatives are warm.
their smell obscures your smell — the sweat and dirt
of travel. they don’t pester you with questions
you have no energy to answer now.

your husband’s sister — when she finds the time
to sit a moment — takes your hand, and beams:
“we almost thought he’d never find a wife —
that maybe carpentry filled all his dreams” —
she winks, and Joseph huffs, but smiles too.
“and now, well, look at you!”
one motion to your belly, then she’s off
to cater to the other guests aloft.

not long from now, you will take center stage —
a gush of water like a parted sea
crashing back down will call all hands to you.
a little niece-in-law will be sent out
into the night to call all women to
your side… for now, though, you’re content
to fall asleep unnoticed by the rest
of this household splitting at the seams
with family you’ve yet to meet.

the rustling of the hens drifts through your dreams
while in your belly, God kicks his new feet.


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.

Further Reading:

Categories
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:

Categories
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.
Categories
advent Holy Days Liturgy Multifaith My poetry Reflections for worship services

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
Invitation to the table LGBT/queer Liturgy

Invitation to the Table: “If the world tells you that you are unworthy…”

If the world tells you that you are unworthy of a seat at the table,
that your presence is unwelcome or even unwholesome,
know that Jesus extends an invitation to you personally.

This table does not belong to human beings,
but to the God who delights in you,
Who welcomes you without demanding you be anything
but your own beautiful self.

Come, join this joyful feast without fear.

God has set a place just for you.


About this piece:

I wrote this affirmation for my church’s More Light Sunday service, an LGBTQA/queer-focused service. Themes included learning how to love ourselves, our neighbors, and our God; reclaiming scripture from those who have weaponized it; and the power of story.

If you this piece it in your own service, please credit it to Avery Arden — and I invite you to email me at queerlychristian36@gmail.com to let me know you’re using it!

I thought of a poem by slats toole as I wrote this invitation. You can read the poem here. And you can buy their collection Queering Lent here.

Categories
Affirmation of Faith LGBT/queer Liturgy

Affirmation of Faith: Queer God who came out to Moses…& other biblical coming out stories

The love of our queer God
unites us into one Body —
not in spite of, but in celebration of
our varied gifts and roles in
the story God is telling even now.

As one, let us affirm some of what we believe
about the God who is for us
when we are in the closet, and when we come out,
when we receive our loved ones with rejoicing
and when we strive to understand.

We believe in the God who came out to Moses
from the midst of unburned branches
with a name They had never revealed before —

a name shared with love, shared as an invitation
into deeper relationship, deeper understanding
of the God Who Is and Who Will Be
the steadfast ally of shunned and shackled peoples.

We believe in the God of Joseph, 
who takes tattered lives
and weaves them into wholeness.

When Joseph came out to his brothers
as a dress-draped dreamer
and faced their violent rejection,

God went with Joseph into slavery, into imprisonment,
and out again, guiding his way into flourishing.

But They also stayed
with Joseph’s brothers,
never ceasing to work on their hard hearts,
preparing them for the tearful reunion
where they would embrace Joseph’s differences
as life-bringing gifts.

We believe in the God of Esther, 
who protected her from being outed unwillingly
in a place hostile to her very being;

and who, when the time came to act,
filled her with the courage and power she needed
to use what privilege she had
to save the more vulnerable members of her people.

We believe in the God of Mary,
the teenage girl who faced disgrace
by coming out as full of grace

pregnant with divinity —

yet she did so boldly, joyously,
recognizing the hand of God
in the status quo’s upturning.

We believe in Jesus, whose identity 
as God’s beloved son and God Themself,
as Word made Flesh and Life that died
is too complex for human minds to fathom —

yet Jesus yearned to be known,
to be understood by those who loved him most!
He asked them earnestly, “Who do you say that I am?”
but told them not to out him to the world
before he was ready to share his truth in his own time —
And oh, how he’d shine!

We believe that the God
who liberated Lazurus from his tomb,
and who overcame death
by rising from a tomb of his own,

is the selfsame Spirit
who enters into the tombs
we build around ourselves
or shove our neighbors into;

She looses our bindings
and pulls us into Her great Upturning.

Amen.


About this piece:

I wrote this affirmation for my church’s More Light Sunday service, an LGBTQA/queer-focused service. Themes included learning how to love ourselves, our neighbors, and our God; reclaiming scripture from those who have weaponized it; and the power of story.

If you this piece it in your own service, please credit it to Avery Arden — and I invite you to email me at queerlychristian36@gmail.com to let me know you’re using it!

Further Reading

For more on Joseph through a queer & trans lens:

For more on Esther through a queer lens:

For more on Mary through a queer & trans lens:

For more on Jesus through a queer & trans lens:

For more on Lazarus through a queer & trans lens:

[image: a digital painting of Joseph of Genesis by tomato-bird on tumblr, a figure with light brown skin, brown eyes, and curly dark hair sitting in a field. They have their head propped on one hand as they sit, gazing off into the distance with a sunset or sunrise blushed sky behind them. And from their shoulders extends a gorgeous, flowing cape, rising upward behind them as if caught on the wind so that its colors blend with the blushing sky – ripples of vibrant red and blue, with orange and yellow stars plus a moon and sun scattered along the fabric. / end id]

Categories
Call to worship LGBT/queer Liturgy Multifaith Opening prayer

Call to Worship & Opening Prayer: Queer God with diverse children

Call to Worship

Gracious God,
in this time of worship and wonder, story and song
into which you have gathered us,

we marvel at the wondrous diversity of your human creation.
Each of us — Black, white, Latine, Asian, Indigenous, and beyond — 
is an integral part of your magnificent spectrum.

You call us to join in joyous worship, just as we are.

Each of us — Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, and beyond —
is an integral part of your magnificent spectrum.

You call us into community, just as we are.

Each of us — with our bodies of diverse shapes, sizes, and abilities —
is an integral part of your magnificent spectrum.

You call us Good, you call us whole and holy, just as we are.

Each of us — of all sexualities and genders, all these ways of being and loving —
is an integral part of your magnificent spectrum.

You call us to share the gifts you gave us, just as we are.

Opening Prayer

Queer God beyond our knowing,
we glimpse your vastness in the diversity of your children
who together bear your image.

Queer Trinity, both One and Three,
your very Being shows us how to be:
honoring each person’s uniqueness,
and valuing our interconnectedness. 

Queer God, 
On this More Light Sunday, we humbly pray and act
for the full affirmation and inclusion of all of our LGBTQ+ siblings.

Amen.


About this piece:

I co-wrote this call to worship, and wrote the opening prayer, for my church’s More Light Sunday service, an LGBTQA/queer-focused service. You could edit the last two lines to take out the reference to More Light Sunday if using it for general worship.

If you use it in your own service, please credit it to Avery Arden — and I invite you to email me at queerlychristian36@gmail.com to let me know you’re using it!