A vast carpet of stars

A sermon preached at First Congregational Church of Minnesota, UCC
January 5, 2014

When I began my first year at seminary, it was as a religiously wounded young person who had been spiritually mistreated throughout my youth and young adulthood, in the same way that I imagine many of us in this congregation have been. When I was in high school, my personal salvation had been linked to all kinds of things: I must not drink, I must not be pro-choice, I must not have sex before marriage (in fact I really should not even kiss before marriage), and God forbid that I might come out as queer. During my sophomore year, one of my teachers told the only Jewish student in school, in front of 30 other students, that she would go to Hell if she did not “accept Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and Savior.” To this day, I shake to remember the abuse of power and the anti-semitism inherent to my teacher’s action.

To be clear: there were many things that were perfectly nice about my high school experience, and I also remember parts of those years as more nuanced than the broad strokes with which I’m painting now. But what I felt, I know to be true. And I felt confused and hurt by many of the teachings endorsed by those in leadership at my school. And, despite my misgivings, the psychological, social, and spiritual consequences of challenging these teachings proved to be too stressful for my teenaged self. I feared the wrath of God. So I believed what I needed to believe; I said what I needed to say, and I hoped it would be enough to help me escape the fiery confines of Hell – which, others assured me, was a very real place.

By the time I arrived at seminary, I had done enough processing to know that none of these things would condemn me to an eternity in Hell – I even knew that there were reasonable Christians who doubted Hell’s existence altogether! Nevertheless, on my first day at seminary, I told people that I was “culturally Lutheran” – but I couldn’t quite bring myself to carry the identity of “Christian”. Unable to make sense of how to rectify the pain of my adolescence, I had six months earlier left Christianity behind in frustration and anger, telling myself I was only going to seminary as an academic pursuit.

And yet, by the end of the semester, although I could not yet identify it, and wouldn’t for years to come – and although I could not interpret it, and although I did not know from whence it came, still I knew that a star called to me from out of the deep. And I felt deeply compelled to follow it.

5340907410_208539ca33_b

Photo by Zanthia on flickr

We humans have long been taken with the night sky, searching for answers in the patterns of the stars’ passing, or traversing the oceans with the north star as our faithful guide. We read our horoscopes (albeit with varying degrees of seriousness), predicated by the locations of the constellations at a given moment in time. We tell futuristic stories with characters who are pioneers on space’s next frontier, and we catapult our astronauts and galactic machinery to places like Mars, and the Moon.

The stars hold so much mystery for us, and yet we are surrounded by them. We are hemmed in, crowded, enfolded by all the questions and ideas and possibilities the universe has to offer.

Perhaps for this reason it is something of a shame that our story of the wise men and the star has lost some of its original context. Christian tradition determined long after the time of Matthew that there were three wise men, and that in fact they were kings, named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Lovely though the story may be, the Magi were not kings but royal priests thought to come from Persia, in the East, and they were often advisors to kings and leaders. They were dream-interpreters, sages, teachers, and yes – they were followers of the stars.

Richard Horsley, author of The Liberation of Christmas, claims that the Magi were figures of religio-political importance in the ancient middle east, known for their wisdom, but also for their political role in affirming or denying divine support for a king. The Christmas story we tell – of the Magi’s recognition of the infant King of the Jews in the time of Herod – is at once a political story of rejecting the onerous and oppressive rule of Rome, AND it is a profoundly religious story of reading the symbolism in the night sky and following the star to Bethlehem.

Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong adds his voice to the mix on the topic of the magi. Like Horsley, he says rather than focusing on whether the story of the star and the magi are historically or literally true, as readers of the text we ought to seek rather the truths inherent to the story. In doing so, Spong points to the use of the Jewish literary tradition known as midrash, which expounds upon Biblical stories, often filling in gaps in the storyline, and bringing new meanings to familiar ideas and motifs.

For example, the author of Matthew may have been using midrash when constructing the story of the Magi and the star. By inserting the Magi into the story – these mysterious teachers from a faraway nation – Matthew made new today’s prophetic text, Isaiah 60, which prophesies all nations being drawn to the light of God. Similarly, Matthew gave reference to texts like Numbers 22, which tells the story of a seer from the East who sees the star of David at its rising. The recasting of these familiar stories within a new context was never intended to be understood as literally true. Instead, it was a literary tool, employed to convey a meaning about the world as it should be: a world free of oppression, a world in which love abounds, a world in which an equal number of stars carpets all of our skies.

Photo by redeye^ on flickr

Photo by redeye^ on flickr

Knowing what we do about the Magi, I like to think of them not as followers of just one star, but as perpetual star-chasers. What dreams, and whose dreams, had these Magi divined before discovering this infant, Jesus? What mysteries unfolded in their minds as they gazed up into the star-studded sky? And as they departed along their way, what new star guided their path?

The gleaming star of Bethlehem represents so much more than a pretty story. Depending on how the story is told, if we are lucky, the star can be the voice of God, calling us to the place where human life encounters the Divine;

Or, depending on how the story is told, the Star may also be portrayed as the single beacon of truth leading all of humanity to one and only path to salvation.

That might not sound so bad, unless you overlay it with memories like I have from high school, or other experiences you might have had in your life. For those of us who identify as inclusive or progressive Christians, we often struggle with the knowledge that some parts of our tradition intentionally, even hatefully, exclude others. We struggle with the categories of “saved” and “unsaved” – perhaps we might even wonder where we would fall on the spectrum. Certainly I am Christian. But do I “accept Jesus Christ into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior?”

The question reads more as a cultural signifier than a confession of faith.

And so we are presented with more questions: What does it mean to be Christian today? Who is it that we say we are, and how should we communicate that identity to others? What role does the title “Christian” assign to us – in what ways does it restrict us, and in what ways does it release us to be who it is that we say we are?

The answers to these questions are as varied as the stars in the sky. Each one can lead us to a infinite number of places, to magnetic black holes and cream milky ways and gleaming northern lights. One could get lost amidst the deep.

And yet, here we sit, all together, on this very frigid January morning. The temperature today will not make it above zero, and school is cancelled statewide tomorrow because it’s so cold. Our church has no parking lot, and exposed skin can get frostbite in less than ten minutes in these temperatures – and still – here we are, gathered together today.

But why?

What star compelled you here this morning?

Was it the star of hope, that small but steady flare that rises early in the twilight, climbs high into the atmosphere, and does not fade ‘til dawn?

Or was it the star of grief? That star which originates in a big bang!, streaking hot across the sky, pummeling downward with breakneck speed until it settles – but never coming fully to rest?

Was it the constellation of community, which weaves its graceful dance across the night, twinkling like a cluster of festive flames across the universe?

Or was it the star of wonder, peering out from the darkest depth of the most velvet black, the light of it having traversed millions of miles and eons of years to find its way, right here, right now, to shine down on just
exactly
you?

For our lives our rife and ripe with a vast carpet of stars. They are beyond us and behind us and within us and between us, each one glinting a clandestine whisper of love.

Like the Magi of the East, the stars we chase are multiple. There is not only one star in the Universe, waiting ominously to be discovered. No, there are infinite quantities of constellations, each with its own meaning as they splash their way through the night.

The stars lead us to each other. They lead us to the Sacred. The stars lead us home.


Why I’m queer, too

Because I am in a male-female relationship, you’re probably wondering what’s going on with the title of this post. Possibly even Shannon, my friend who called me to this synchroblog on queer theology, might being wondering where I’m going with this. I’ll get there: just hang around, k?

Back to Shannon, aka the Anarchist Reverend. In response to the frustration he’s been feeling about having the same tired conversations on queerness with Christians,

I am calling for a synchroblog on Wednesday August 10, 2011. On that day I want people to blog about what queer theology means to them. I want you to share your story of how reading the Bible queerly has changed your life. I want you to talk about how your sexuality or your gender identity has brought you deeper into relationship with God. If you’re straight and interested in solidarity I want you to share how being in relationship with queer people has deepened your faith and spiritual practice. [Emphasis mine.]

In my typical “better late than never” fashion, I’m hopping on the bandwagon just slightly late, writing this post ON rather than BEFORE August 10, but hopefully within enough time to still be on time. So with no further delay, I give you my thoughts on queer theology, on being bodily and gendered people, and maybe even throwing God into that whole mess.

In seminary, I related more to queer theology than any other. Growing up in a Lutheran church that ignored sexuality more than anything else, and then attending an evangelical high school which treated sexuality as best only when it was heteronormative and non-existant pre-marriage, by the time I arrived in college I was thoroughly confused. Hook, line, and sinker, I believed I would go to hell if I had sex before I was married. Forget caring for the least of these, following Jesus was about purity, and purity was about (the lack of) sex.

In college I had the sense to realize that didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but I didn’t have access to many (really, any) resources that helped me to reconstruct what a faithful sexuality might look like. Enter Seminary. And into my life traipsed all kinds of amazing, amazingly queer theologians who didn’t apologize for being gay; who exegeted the Bible in interesting, innovative, and honest ways; who helped me to understand that my sexuality as a source of strength, beauty, and love.

It may sound strange to some, but I was able to accept myself as a sexual (and therefore whole) person only because I found solidarity in the struggle represented in the writings of queer theologians.

God is not only gender-neutral; God is amply and ambiguously gendered. It is still in vogue for liberal congregations to remove any gendered reference to God in their liturgies and litanies. This is all well and good, and it is true that God is neither male nor female. What is MORE interesting to me, MORE liberating, are all the multiplicities of ways that God is portrayed in the bible as being masculine, feminine, or quixotically neutered.

In seminary my concentration was in the exegesis (interpretation) of biblical texts, and so I want to share with you the many-gendered ways in which theologians uncovered God behaving in the bible.

God is portrayed in that protective, fatherly, strong-shouldered fortress mentality in which his masculinity seems inevitable. God is a bulwark. We all need a little more bulwark in our lives, and we will all at one point or another be called to be a bulwark to a neighbor in need. God is also a wise woman in proverbs, portrayed as instrumental in creating the world at the beginning of time, and nurturing her children into health and well-being. God is our mother as well as our father.

And God is also neuter. One of my favorite stories in the bible is the Annunciation story. You know the text–in the Gospel of Luke, the angel Gabriel visits Mary and tells her how the Holy Spirit will overshadow and impregnate her. You can’t tell in English, but interestingly enough, the pronoun for Holy Spirit in Koine (biblical) Greek is neuter. Meaning, not only is God impregnating Mary with Jesus, but God does it completely devoid of God’s masculine identity. That Jesus is the result of a queer pairing certainly opened me up to the opportunities and joys we might all experience if only we embraced whatever queer plans God has for us and for the world.

My queer friends taught me how to be an ally by not being one. I’m going to go ahead and wait while you click through that link and listen to Shannon explain why the term “ally” is simply not that helpful. (While you’re at it, check out his list of resources for allies, too.)

The number one thing I have learned from queer theologians and from my queer friends is that while we’re not all the same, we’re not all that different, either. My experience of sex, sexuality, privilege, etc., is of course different from Shannon’s, Kim’s, Lissa’s, Erik’s, Justin’s, Abby’s, Jane’s, Maggie’s, or any host of “straight” people’s experiences. But my sense of the erotic, as defined by Audre Lorde, is wildly, radically similar to theirs: in the awe-some discomfort of entwining one’s soul with another’s; in the banality of long-term relationships; in the power of love to pull each of us outside of our selves and to work for justice.

We are all quite different from one another, and that is how we are the same. No one’s sexuality is the same as anyone else’s. We’re all queer. And because of our shared queerness (one might say “our shared humanity”), we will work for justice together.

I know that this is not necessarily a statement that will be all-around well-received, and I’m okay with that. Labels and names are good and useful, and I understand their function and even their necessity. I will listen and understand your reasons for using them (or not), and then I will employ them happily and with gusto. But when it comes down to it, I will work for justice because you and I? We’re different, and thus we are the same.


and the cat came back

B took this picture of lu over the weekend, and of course i couldn’t resist posting it. she just looks too mischievous to pass this one up!

And lately, she has been one mischievous cat. She’s also been spending a lot of time under our bed, snuggled up to yet another one of my unfinished knitting projects. Inside that bag is a half-knit yellow cardigan. Maybe someday I’ll finish and tell you guys ALL about it! But first, of course, because of my last post, I have to master worms and hydroponic gardens.

Also, another announcement (buried in the middle of a CAT post so that maybe no one will notice?): I’ve decided to (try to) get ordained. It’s going to be a long (YEARS-long) process that I will document here, which is going to be uncomfortable because I will actually have to start talking about stuff I “believe in” instead stuff that I don’t. Which is obviously difficult because I don’t really know what I “believe in”, first and foremost because I think “believing in” something is a post-enlightenment concept that we don’t conscienticize or evaluate for ourselves.

And now I’m going to stop writing before I lather myself into a hole of self-pity and theological consternation at 11:45 on a worknight. plenty of time for that over the next few years, my friends. PLENTY OF TIME.

But, I just thought I’d say it: BEHOLD. you are reading a future minister’s words. take stock and grains of salt as needed.


what’s a little vigil gonna do?

tea with Abby

welp. i’m still tired/emotionally drained from this whole learning-to-be-a-grown-up thing. (i don’t know exactly what i mean by that… perhaps something along the lines of rolling with the punches?)

i’ve been thinking a lot this week about the whole action vs. language thing that first i, then morgan and leslie, and finally atom weighed in upon. all three have really interesting, thoughtful, heartfelt responses to things that i’ve been haphazardly (exhaustedly) throwing up on my blog because of my whole blog-every-day-in-february thing. it’s funny: when i imagined myself blogging, prior to starting this blog, i don’t think i expected to receive the kind of support and pushback that i would get from my friends who follow along with me here. if i blow off steam in a way that’s less-than-mature, self-mocking, or illogical… y’all are calling me on it. i really appreciate that generous support that also challenges me to be more than who i feel like being at some particular moment.

i do think words–in the form of a vigil or not–contribute an action that is valuable and necessary, especially in a democracy. and, i’m proud of the words that i wrote, and that the group spoke them in our vigil. our voice overcame the buzz of the crowd and echoed up into the rotunda of the capitol building, as minnesota veterans, legislators, citizens, and advocates filed past us. yes, we were preaching to the choir, as leslie pointed out, but more than that: we were making a public, faith-centric statement about the value of human life and the government’s responsibility to protect human dignity when no one else will. THIS IS what i went to seminary for: to speak justice to improper power, to name indignity, and to challenge the world and people (and myself!) to live more responsibly, more respectfully of one another. i feel lucky to do this in the state where i grew up, and to do it on a local level, where change feels more concrete, and problems are on a smaller, more seemingly-manageable scale.

did the vigil help? cynicism about one’s ability to make change is rampant among those who fail to act in our massive democracy. my experience of going to d.c. to protest the probability of an iraq war in 2003 illustrated what i thought i learned: that the people’s voices are often ignored; that those in power will do what they want either way. but morgan pointed out that making our voices heard, or engaging in debate, does not always have the end goal of changing the other’s mind. registering one’s position is important. the u.s. may have invaded iraq regardless, but history will not forget that our population was divided on whether or not it was a good idea.

did the vigil help? was one person changed walking away from that experience? actually, i can answer that question: YES. i was changed. i found that having the courage to speak words of faith and of vision in the capitol rotunda changed the way i see myself as a citizen and as a person of faith. speaking out loud, in a small community of like-minded people, amidst a larger community amongst and around us, recommitted me to doing this work that i might now be claiming as my vocation. who knows, maybe someday soon i will actually gear up the courage to call it a CALL. (that’s very god-y language, there, folks. let’s get comfortable with the uncomfortable. oy.)

did the vigil help? was anyone BESIDES me moved by it, forward, in a direction that upholds the dignity of all people? god. how can i answer that question? what i can say is that it was part of a larger movement, and was a piece of a whole, in that one-body-many-parts kind of way. any one piece of a movement, apart from the others, might not amount to much. but put together? that can amount to real change.

Save GAMC protest in front of the Governor's Mansion, St. Paul (see if you can find my awesome mom!)

so what contribution does a vigil have to real, meaningful social change? i’m thankful for my friend abby, with whom i spoke about this today over tea. when i told her what that crazy mean person emailed me about the civil war, slavery and “little vigils”, abby laughed, looked at me and said, “What! Has that person never heard of the Civil Rights Movement?!”

How did I not think of that?


Let the institutions fall

It took me three years to complete my Master’s degree in Divinity. Of those three years in seminary, I attended a Sunday morning church service perhaps five times. It wasn’t a lack of interest, and I certainly wasn’t trying to abandon organized religion. Despite a commitment to my faith community at seminary, and a deep regard for faith-based justice work, something was lacking to compel me to attend a local community church every week.

Today, I usually grumble to myself while getting up on Sunday mornings for church. The community is great, and I adore the ministers. But at the risk of sounding wholly un-pious, I sometimes skip the service for no other reason than that I’d like to sip my coffee in peace, listen to Speaking of Faith on NPR, and do a crossword puzzle.

A Lutheran church in Brazil

In “the Church” (that is, the often mainstream and Protestant church) these days, there seems to be a lot of panic around the topic of young people: Where are they? How can we get them to come here? Why aren’t they interested in Sunday morning worship? Don’t they care about faith; values; community?

I certainly consider myself as a person who cares about community, faith, ethics, social justice, and even The Church. But sometimes—and I say this as someone with a degree specializing in parish ministry—the Sunday morning worship experience seems too creedal, too suffocating; trying to claim me too much as its own. In the midst of the grand pillars, the soft candlelight, the hymnody, my ancestral tradition, the question remains: what if I want to change my mind?

Rather than courting me as one more young-person’s-body in the pews on Sunday morning (as the Church sometimes does), I’d like to be appreciated as an individual whose identity sometimes transgresses traditional religious boundaries. I’m Christian, but I’m definitely not all that concerned with other people’s spiritual salvation. And although I belong to a congregation, my faith life doesn’t abide in a church alone.

One of the most spiritual experiences I had in seminary was outside the seminary walls, on the floor of a yoga studio in New York City. It was in savasana, after a particularly compelling practice, that I realized my seminary education was changing my religious life in an entirely irreversible way. Never again would I approach the Bible with the same sense of awe, assuming that hidden beneath the Hebrew and Greek was a Truth yet to be revealed. The Church became the church. The Bible became the bible. God even took on god’s own flaws – overtly masculine, strangely hierarchical, at times wrathful. As I, a Christian seminarian, opened my heart to a Buddhist practice, I found a space to mourn and accept the changes in my faith.

Instead of believing in something explicit, I now just have faith that there is something to believe in. My faith is that Good exists, and that good is what I call God. It is not that I am not reflective, or that I don’t care, or that I am not committed to what I believe. It is that there are very few religious institutions that are flexible enough to allow me to be constantly changing my own definitions of belief, ethics, social justice, and truth.

It is my experience that many fellow young people I meet also have conflicting feelings about the creedal necessities of religion. Despite caring deeply about theological concepts and ideas, it is sometimes asking too much to identify too closely with hard and fast beliefs. In a world of crossing boundaries, flexible identities, and intermingling concepts, mainstream Protestant churches have unfortunately become institutional fundamentalists. Too afraid to lose their own identities, they have begun to claw and grasp at the last hope for tomorrow: young bodies in the pews. Too busy gnashing their teeth at the absence of young people in their midst, they are not listening to our voices as we say we’re here. We care. We matter.

Change the infrastructure. Give us a voice. Let the institutions fall.


my virgin mary: birthing compassion, eschewing ‘virginity’

It is the classic story. We all know and love the well-worn features of the beautiful Christmas narrative: the angels, the shepherds, the journey to Bethlehem, the star shining brightly, and the miraculous event of the virgin birth. Transcending all else, this is a paradox of child birthing child, of holy producing holy. It boggles our minds. What can we do but walk away perplexed—much as Mary herself was?

When I was about 13 years old – Mary’s age, at the birth of Jesus – my pastor preached on this text. If I were to be honest with myself, it was probably one of the first times I felt that nebulous “Call”, a moment in which a person feels inspired to serve outside herself, perhaps in honor of something bigger than herself, something divine.

Pastor Judith spoke of Mary’s youth, and she talked about what an incredible feat it was for a girl so young to be ‘chosen by God’ to perform this amazing task of bearing and birthing God’s own child. I remember feeling empowered. I also was only 13, but if God chose Mary to do something that important, surely I could be capable of something wonderful, too.

Some time later, in college, I studied abroad in Quito, Ecuador. Nestled in the armpit of a smoking volcano, Quito is a city of nearly 2 million people. In the center of the city is a surprising hill, jutting up as quickly as it falls, on the top of which stands a statue of – who else? – the Virgin Mary. In this version, Mary is a winged goddess, standing on a serpent and reaching up toward the heavens. From anywhere in Quito, even from miles away, you can see her looking down over the valley. It’s hard to tell whether the Virgin or the volcano casts a greater shadow over the city.

The Virgin presides over Quito, Ecuador

I asked my new Ecuadorian friends what they felt growing up under that Virgin Mother. Despite their devotion, these young women admitted the difficulty posed by using her as a role model. How, they asked, is a human woman to be expected to both remain a ‘virgin,’ and yet also become a mother? What is the value in placing such societal importance on virginity? And why, when she herself is so powerful, does the figure of the Virgin Mary stand as the ultimate model of female submissiveness?

These are questions crucial to the way we understand the Christmas story. Have you ever stopped to wonder why it was necessary for Mary to be a virgin? Would it have been any different if God had caused the pregnancy of an already-married woman? To answer that, the reader must begin by understanding that the author of Luke was not writing in a vacuum. His words and thoughts, like ours, were influenced by the culture in which he wrote. And during his day, there were no DNA tests.

It may seem a strange point to make. But in a world in which there was no way to prove paternity, the virginity of a woman was everything: it assured new husbands that the child his wife just birthed was actually his own! This is why in the gospel of Matthew, we see Joseph struggling over whether or not to wed Mary after she becomes pregnant: Matthew is showing us that Joseph knows the child is not his. So Mary’s virginity in Luke is present as an agent to assure us that Jesus is God’s child.

Ancient temple dedicated to Isis, in Delos, Greece

The Gospel of Luke was also written for gentiles. Within the Roman Empire, virgin goddesses like the Greek hunter Artemis, or the Egyptian mother Isis, dominated the civic/religious scene, and this Christian movement was fashioned and defined by its new converts. So temples previously dedicated to Artemis were transferred to Mary. The feasts and festivals in honor of Isis, which celebrated all the fertility and promise that virginity symbolized, instead came to honor the Virgin Mary.

The tradition of Mary’s virginity when it first emerged thus meant something very different than what it means for many today: instead of an avoidance of sexuality, it rejoiced in the possibility of the new life that would emerge from her body. If anything, virginity in the ancient world was a promise of what was to come, not a preservation of purity, of things as they once were.

The Annunciation text describes how Mary became pregnant by God. At that time, it sounded to the gentile listeners a lot like Greco-Roman myths in which Zeus or Apollo descended to earth to mate with a beautiful mortal woman. Even in Genesis, we find a story in which divine beings—the nephilim—came down to impregnate human women. The idea of a god sleeping with a woman was not a new concept in the ancient world, and so this Annunciation was not nearly so sterile a story as we consider it today.

In fact, the Annunciation tells of a very charged encounter between Mary and the Holy Spirit. As the angel detailed, Mary was to be overshadowed (Gk: episkiazo) by God’s presence, an experience which ancient authorities such as Philo tell us was a union of a human’s soul with the divine, struck through with sexual connotations. Some ancient Egyptian texts even go so far as to speak of the seminal emission of the shadow of a divinity, so powerful that it could engender a woman’s pregnancy.

Have we really been missing, over the past 2,000 years, such blatant allusions to eroticism in the supposedly PG Christmas story?

What is fascinating to me about reading the text in this way is that it allows us to approach it in a way that contemporary American life rarely does: through the fusion of the spiritual with the sexual. So many representations of sexuality today only allow us to see it with our bodies: gyrations, appendages, flesh, and nothing more. Similarly, so many representations of spirituality today only allow us to experience it completely devoid of our bodies: emotions, logic, heart, and with restrictions on how we may use our bodies, and in what ways. Must the two be so separate?

Consider the sensation of reading a moving piece of prose, solving an elegant mathematical formula, hearing a piece music that transports you elsewhere. Is it really so different from  the sensation of a good run, the warmth of sun upon skin, or the pleasure of clasping lover to breast? Listen to these words: wholeness, reverence, relationship, meaning, safety, transcendence, trust. Do they describe spirituality to you, or sexuality? Must they represent only one at a time?

So when I read Luke’s Annunciation text, I think he is playing with the boundaries between spirit and body, allowing the two to puddle together and intermingle. His logic might have been: if Mary encountered God and became pregnant, surely it was a spiritual experience, and also, inevitably, a sexual one.

This, then, is no story of a chaste and quiet virgin, the one whom we have always been told Mary must be.

Instead, this is a story of a brave young woman whose passionate, erotic encounter with God began a movement so powerful that it changed the world.

Rather than representing timidity and submission, Mary encourages us to step boldly into new possibilities, to live into our full selves, and to give birth to love and compassion wherever we go.

The world still thinks of Mary as perpetually a virgin, although the gospels themselves tell us Jesus had brothers and sisters. It still considers her asexual, as if this text were not imbued with eroticism and sensuality. And we make Mary’s role in the Christmas story about her virginity without even considering the text, or its implications for women and men in our world.

But the Christmas story is not and should not be about virginity. It is about that spiritual and bodily act of giving birth to the promise of life, and of love, for everyone.


in the fear of death, speaking only to life

there is something i love about the agreeable contrast and irresistible affinity between all hallow’s eve and all saint’s day.

Candles in Armenian church

Artnaz's photostream on Flickr

halloween recognizes the fear, dread, the grotesque nature of horror and of death.  kate moos, on the speaking of faith blog, speaks about the deliciousness of getting to ‘become a monster’ for only one night a year, and i think she’s right: there is certainly something in how humanity repeatedly seeks to wallow in the depths of death for (at least) one night a year. on hallow’s eve, we make light of it. halloween has become a day of raunch, of candy-guzzling, cheap thrills, and funny costumes. but it is also something richer, more nauseatingly terrifying: a staring into the cold heart of death that is essential to human experience. in the end, though, the night ends, and we are greeted with… candy, sensation, laughter. reminders of our very alive lives.

i love michael jackson’s thriller video. it encapsulates what halloween was to me as a kid: very eighties of course, lots of rotting skin, but playful, ending with a laugh. it tempts us into fear more than once, but never quite to seriousness — because who can really be that afraid of dancing zombies? michael had it under control.

then we come to the next day, far less grotesque but perhaps more graceful, and certainly more frightening: all saint’s day.

2996681913_78bae68457_b

this time, the chill of a cold october night has given way to the penetrating absence of those lost to death.

this time, we encounter death not as fantasy, but in how it has touched our lives.  the rotting flesh is not upon the faces of zombies, but instead is in our minds, in the reality of what we knows happens to bodies when their souls depart.

we light candles not to be spooky or funny or to light up the night with an orange playful glow.  now we light them to remember, whispering names too often unspoken.  alice.  leo.  george.  lindsay.  we think of the day we know will come when our loved ones will die.  or, when we die.

both candles serve purposes.  we need to mock and intimidate death as much as we fear it, else we are overcome with terror.  and yet, and yet.  and yet we remember, bringing to life again that which was lost, speaking into being the memory of days passed, serving the purpose of loving each other in life, despite the inevitability of death.