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
Affirmation of Faith Holy Days Liturgy

Affirmation of Faith: Trinity whose very existence is relationship, you have made us for relationship

Leader:

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

All:

We believe in the Triune God
whose very existence is relationship.

Although this Trinity is the one Being 
who could be fully self-sufficient
They chose instead to let Their love flow out 
into the formless void
and explode emptiness into life.

The dance of planets around stars, 
stars around galaxies,
each body’s gravity tying it to 
the bodies spiraling all around,
exemplifies the truth of all created things:
that we are bound to one another.

It is as God proclaimed
after  fashioning the first human from the earth:
“It is not good for the human to be alone.”

Leader:

And that is why, trans Jewish Bible scholar Liam Hooper says, God took the lonely first human and split them into two humans who would depend upon each other:

“This earthling now is two. … So everything is exploded, and re-formed, and re-shaped, and re-imagined for the sole purpose of relationship. …God is telling us that self-sufficiency, and self-reliance, and self-care alone isn’t enough — ….that we need to be in full authentic relationship with each other in order to be in full relationship with God.”

All:

We believe that this Creator God 
so loved and desired relationship with the world They’d made
that They squeezed their infinity into finite flesh
to live among us, share our joy and grief, pleasure and pain.

This miracle relied upon the yes
of one poor Jewish teenager in Rome-occupied Palestine.
Ever respectful of our free will,
The Sustainer of the Universe asked Mary
if she would sustain Them with her own body,
conceiving and birthing and nursing her own Creator.

Mary’s daring yes was not the only yes in this story!
She would rely on her bonds with others
Elizabeth and Joseph, Simeon and Anna, 
Mary Magdalene and the Beloved Disciple — 
to live into God’s call.

We believe that these are the kinds of bonds
that tie all of us together,
and that the Body of Christ is not whole
until all voices are honored, all gifts celebrated.

Leader:

As Christian writer Rachel Held Evans once wrote,

“My theology is only as rich as the diversity of the people who have contributed to it, and it is a poor theology indeed that considers only the perspectives of those who look, think, and live just like me.”

All:

We believe that God’s gift to us through Jesus 
is the restoration of all relationships.
We strive towards that restoration 
here and now wherever possible,
and look forward to enjoying it in full 
in the world to come.


I wrote this liturgy for a Trinity Sunday service that focused on Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth, connecting our relationships with one another to our relationship to God and God’s own self-relationship in the Trinity.

The quotation from Liam Hooper comes from an episode of his Bible Bash podcast.

The quotation from Rachel Held Evans comes from a Facebook post she wrote in 2014.

Categories
Affirmation of Faith Call to worship Charge and Benediction Confession and Pardon easter Holy Days Invitation to the table LGBT/queer Liturgy Opening prayer Prayer after Communion Prayers of the People

Acts 8 & John 15 Liturgy: eunuchs, intersex & trans persons, & all outcasts welcome in God’s expansive love

Call to Worship

Beloved community, let us draw the circle wide!
And draw it wider still.

Each of us is here because something draws us to the Divine
as expressed in the Person of Jesus.
We come to explore what it is that draws us here,
in community with neighbors who can teach us 
what it is that draws them here.

We come with questions, struggles, doubts.
We come with unique perspectives that enrich the whole community.

We come in vast diversity of mind, body, being,
to live into a unity that does not quell our differences, but celebrates them.

We come to abide in the love of Jesus,
and to learn to bear good fruit that lasts.

Come, let us join in worship of the God of love
Who teaches us what true love is.

OPENING PRAYER

O God whose love sustains us, restores us, abides in us,
Send your mischievous Spirit whirling through our midst
in the many different spaces from which we gather.

Let Her galvanize our hearts
so that our worship will empower us for the work
into which you invite us:

For you do not call us servants,
nor does your power rely on dominance;
But instead you call us friends, co-laborers whose joys and sorrows
you know as deeply as if they were your own.

Loving God, Living God,
you guide us into true love, into true life
that consists of enough for all humans, all creatures,
and that will restore all relationships
between neighbors, enemies, strangers
and with you, our Friend.

Amen.


Confession and Pardon

CALL TO RECONCILIATION

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. 

PRAYER OF CONFESSION 

Jesus asks only this of us: 
that we love one another just as he loves us — 
a love without conditions, a love that liberates!

But again and again, we choose hate, or fear, or control
not only with those we call enemies
but even with our family, our friends.

The love of God is a love that acts,
a love that bears fruit that lasts,
but we continue to think of love in terms of simple words,
saying “love” with our mouths 
but acting in ways that harm,
or failing to act at all.

God’s Spirit bursts through all walls we build
to separate “us” from “them” — 
but we build them back, unsure of what we’d be
without an “Other” on whom to project our insecurities,
on whom to blame our misfortunes 
or the consequences of our own crimes.

Created for abundance, 
we live as hostages of scarcity.
We steal from our neighbors
and hoard whatever resources, whatever power 
we can get our hands on.

_____

Siblings in the One who lived, died, and rose for us,
even when we fail to abide in God’s love,
still, still God abides in us — 
chooses to call us friend,
chooses to lift us up.

Thus we are redeemed — 
not through any effort of our own 
but simply through love
deeper and truer than we can imagine.

Empowered by this remarkable gift of grace,
Let us share Christ’s love and peace with one another.

The peace of Christ be with you. And also with you. 


Affirmation of Faith

Even while celebrating our diversity of thought
and making room for questions and new interpretations,
there are some beliefs that we who join ourselves to the church
have committed ourselves to holding in common.

As one, let us affirm that shared faith:

We believe in the God from whom all life flows,
who created all that is — seen and unseen,
physical and spiritual — 
and declared all of it Good.

Her blessing comes before 
and follows after 
any curse — 

for every instant that
our existence is sustained
attests to Her unfailing love
in which we move, and live, and have our being. 

We believe in the irresistible Spirit
who pervades the world 
and abides with whomever Xe choses
with no regard for the boxes and boundaries 
that humankind constructs.

To the dismay of worldly powers,
this Spirit bestows special care upon the most reviled and despised,
those deemed weak and worthless in human eyes.

Among this number are the eunuchs of scripture
who hail from various cultures and faiths,
who knew both enslavement and status,
whose binary-breaking existence disturbs human norms
but delights the Spirit of Upturned Expectations — 

from the eunuchs who helped Esther navigate a fearful situation
to Ashpenaz, who loved the prophet Daniel tenderly;
and from Ebed-Melech, who saved the prophet Jeremiah;
to the eunuch who encountered Philip
with graciousness and eagerness to learn.

We believe in the Word Made Flesh
whose love for those eunuchs and all whom this world Others
is so strong that, upon entering embodied life,
Jesus identified himself as a “eunuch for the Kin-dom.”

In Jesus, God knows intimately what it is
to be marginalized, misunderstood,
and subjected to bodily mistreatment.

We believe that, after his life among us 
and his rising from death on a Roman cross,
Jesus restored us into right relationship 
with the One who made us, sustains us,
and whose Spirit guides us still
in the work of ushering in God’s Kin-dom.

Amen.


Prayers of the People / Pastoral Prayer

Sisters, siblings, and brothers in Christ,
though already God has gathered us together
to abide as one in Their unfailing love,
still, still so many of us feel cut off, outcast, unloved.

So let us pray:

For those who have been cut off from their communities 
because of who they love, who they are, or what they believe,
we pray that God’s unconditional love will guide them
into chosen families who cherish them as they are.

For those who feel cut off and discarded by societies
that shove people aside when age, illness, or disability 
keeps them from fulfilling impossible standards of productivity,
we pray for loved ones that honor their inherent worth,
and for more just laws to protect them from abuse and neglect 
and enable their full participation in our communities.

For those who feel cut off from their cultures:
For refugees forced to flee their homelands, 
immigrants who leave places and people they love behind,
Indigenous peoples and others whose traditions 
are attacked and targeted for extinction,
we pray for strength and courage to resist assimilation,
for solidarity and resources that empower them
to preserve and revitalize their cultures.

For those who feel cut off from the global community
as they cry out for support — 
particularly for the people of India and Brazil
as COVID19 ravages their nations;
and for the people of Colombia
who are under attack from their own government;
we pray for a global outcry, compassion, and action on their behalf.

O God who gathers the outcasts
and gives them places of honor,
hear and respond to every prayer 
we lift up to you aloud or in the quiet of our hearts.

We give you thanks for your faithful love:
guide us to abide in that love
so that we may learn to love our fellow human beings
and all your good Creation
with the same love you first extended to us.

Amen.


Invitation to the Offering

Only when we all come together, 
only when each person is appreciated
for the different gifts and perspectives they bring
is the Body of Christ whole.

So let us offer whatever we have — 
time, skills, resources — 
to the God from whom we receive all things
for the furthering of Her Kin(g)dom
where all needs are met at Her expansive table.


Invitation to Christ’s Table

If you ask, “Does anything prevent me from this communion table? Would anyone tell me I am not welcome here?” this is Christ’s reply:

“Nothing and no one can keep you from God’s table, from God’s community, from God’s love. Let no one tell you otherwise.”

Friends, come to the feast! You are not only welcome; you are needed and appreciated. 


Prayer after Communion

Words cannot express
the wonder of the Spirit’s gathering power,
the miracle of Christ’s life nourishing us across time and space.

May we who have been fed
enact our gratitude out in the world
by joining the Spirit in Her holy work
of breaking down the boundaries that divide
and building up communities that restore.


Charge and Benediction

Friends in Christ,

In worshipping the God who loves us,
we have been reminded of the goodness of our diversity
joining together in one Body.

Gratitude is our response: 
Gratitude for the God who chose us, who abides in us,
and who goes out with us now
to bring love, justice, and peace into a hungry world.

So let us go, glorifying God with our lives!


I wrote this liturgy for an Easter season service centered around Acts 8:26-40’s story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, also tying in John 15:9-17’s instructions to love one another as Jesus loved us. You can view the worship service here.

You can read my sermon transcript here. In the sermon, I discuss the importance of reading scripture together and interpret Philip through an autistic lens and the eunuch through a trans lens.

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
Affirmation of Faith Call to worship Confession and Pardon easter Holy Days Liturgy

Pentecost Liturgy: Spirit of breath & flame, howling gale & still small voice

Call to Worship 

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

We are a resurrected people! Alleluia!
Alleluia! We are raised up into new life!

The Spirit of God is upon us! Alleluia!
Alleluia! God’s Spirit dwells
among us, within us, around us, always!

Opening Prayer

Holy Spirit of breath and flame,
howling gale and still small voice,

We praise you in your elusiveness,
how you whirl through the world wherever you — not we — will.

You dodge every attempt to pin you down,
slipping through our fingers like thin air
when we try to claim control of you —

even as you pulse through our cells with every heartbeat,
settle deeper into our lungs with every breath.

Another Prayer

Holy Spirit, Giver of life,
We praise you for your multifaceted movement:

Like gale force winds you stir up stagnant spirits,
upturn tables in high places,
whisk us up from apathy 
into your heady dance;

Like a cooling breeze you comfort battered bodies,
refresh parched hearts;

Like oxygen you resuscitate the hopeless,
bringing life to lifeless places, 
dreams and visions that revivify the future.

As you, Irresistible Wind, pour over us now,
set our hearts on fire with passion
for justice and for your abundant life.   

Amen.


Confession and Pardon

Call to Confession

We have come to worship the Holy Spirit who whirls around us
as wind, as breath, as the air in our lungs,

But so many of our siblings find the breath of life
squeezed from their lungs;
and God’s good creation is suffocating.

Only in acknowledging our complicity
can we join in God’s restorative work. 

So let us confess our failings, 
first in silent reflection,
and then as one.

Silence

Prayer of Confession

We confess that we are bystanders and collaborators 
in the stifling of God’s children —

not only on national and global scales
but here in our own congregation.

Our society teaches us that to admit to being wrong
is a moral failing
instead of an act of courage, 
so we stick to our side out of spite,
resisting repentance,
refusing reconciliation.

In our refusal to budge,
meanness and malice engulf us all.

Lord, we forget that we are one Body, your Body.
We forget that you call us not to complete 
all the colossal tasks that stack up across the world, 
but to do our small part, in our small place, 
and to strive even when all seems hopeless.

Assurance of Pardon 

Look! God is doing a new thing! 
In the hopeless void of suffering and sin, God’s Spirit comes: 

She revives parched hearts and desiccated bones,
opens us to visions and dreams, to possibilities for improvement. 

In the new life won for us by Jesus
and breathed into us by the Holy Spirit,
we are empowered to dream bigger, to act more boldly,
to join together in God’s liberating movement.

Alleluia!


Affirmation of Faith / Responding to God’s Word        

While making room for 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 one of our fellow witnesses.

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

When God formed human beings from the earth,
They brought us to life by breathing
Their own breath into us,
making us in Their own image. 

Though God made us for interdependence
we play-act self sufficiency,
severing ourselves with binaries and borders
and labels of “us” versus “them.” 

Still, God remains faithful, 
urging us ever towards justice and abundant life for all.

Professor Philip Vinod Peacock of the Church  of North India writes,

“No one human or even a set of humans can claim that they are made in the image of God or are God’s representatives here on earth. Rather, only the whole of humanity together can claim that they are in the image of God. …

[Thus] God is best represented by diversity: Only the whole diversity of the world in terms of different cultures, gender, sexual orientation, and religious experience can represent who God is. This means that no [one] culture, gender, sexual orientation, or religious experience can claim superiority over another. It is only together that all of them represent who God is.”

God’s breath that divinizes all flesh, 
God’s Spirit who whirls through communities
of all kinds of cultures and creeds, 
God’s flame that burns and builds anew
knits all of humanity into one Body.  

All glory belongs
to the God who made us varied
and the God who makes us one. 

Amen.


I wrote this liturgy for Pentecost, May 2021 that centered around Ezekiel 37’s valley of dry bones, but much of it would fit well in any service focused on the Holy Spirit.

An alternative prayer of confession that focuses on the Movement for Black Lives, environmental justice, and other global social justice issues can be found here.

Categories
Confession and Pardon Holy Days Liturgy

Confession: our siblings and God’s world are suffocating

Call to Confession

We have come to worship the Holy Spirit
who whirls around us as wind, as breath, as the air in our lungs,

But so many of our siblings find the breath of life
squeezed from their lungs;
and God’s good creation is suffocating.

Only in acknowledging our complicity
can we join in God’s restorative work. 

So let us confess our failings, 
first in silent reflection,
and then as one.

Silence

Prayer of Confession

We confess that we are bystanders and collaborators 
in the stifling of God’s children.

Eric Garner, George Floyd,
and the uncounted souls of lynched Black folk 
cry out to us even now,

“I can’t breathe!”

But we cannot bear to listen.
We would prefer to bury, not to say, their names.

Our siblings across the world
are desperate for vaccines, for resources

but in our dread of scarcity and the idolatry of nationalism, we hoard what we have.

We numb ourselves to stories of their need for oxygen, ventilators, the breath of life our greed denies them.

Others are being stifled by their own governments,
by settler colonialism, by xenophobic regimes:
From Colombia to Palestine,
Uighurs in China and Indigenous populations near and far;

But how can we pay attention to all this suffering? 
We ourselves languish under compassion fatigue,
a sense of helplessness or disconnect.

Our planet chokes on the fossil fuels we rip from its depths
as we burn its lungs, the rainforests, to the ground.

To slow our consumption would mean drastic changes
in our everyday lives, fewer luxuries,
and an active struggle against
the main culprits of climate change
a select number of corporations that seem invincible.

It is just too much. 
O God, it is all too much, and we are too small.

We forget that we are one Body, your Body.
We forget that you call us not to complete these colossal tasks, 
But to do our small part, 
to strive even when all seems hopeless.

Assurance of Pardon 

Look! God is doing a new thing!
In the hopeless void of suffering and sin, God’s Spirit comes: 

She revives parched hearts and desiccated bones,
opens us to visions and dreams, to possibilities for improvement. 

In the new life won for us by Jesus
and breathed into us by the Holy Spirit,
we are empowered to dream bigger,
to act more boldly,
to join together in God’s liberating movement
that loosens the ropes from wrists and throats.

Alleluia! Amen.


I wrote this piece for Pentecost Sunday, but it would work well for any service emphasizing the work of the Spirit or the breath of God.

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.”