“Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.” (Collect prayer for the Second Sunday of Advent, Book of Common Prayer, p. 211)
“Can God open our mouths? And if that were to happen, what would God have us say?” (Hugo Olaiz, from a reflection originally published by @fwd_mov & shared today by @adventword)
There’s a denomination out there whose motto is “God is still speaking,” a phrase that I’ve always found both evocative & puzzling in its implications; of course, God *is* still speaking, but what do we mean when we make this claim? Are we certain we know what God is saying? Both the Catholic & the Reformed sides of my brain hesitate when hearing people talk this way—God is still speaking, but who are we to know?
Of course, the real question is: who are we NOT to know? Given the puzzle-piece part we play in God’s story, the stakes are too high to be too modest; the challenge before us is to listen with boldness & purpose, but interpret with care & humility, because when God speaks, action very swiftly follows—especially when God addresses us directly.
I’m not sure if God’s ever spoken to me the way that seems to roll off the tongue of many Christians, but if God has, it was with that still small, indoor voice that God is sometimes known for; so small, I could easily mistake it for my own.
Like that one time, on Zoom, when someone asked those gathered to name our “fighting saint”—the saint who inspires us for battle—& my initial thought was a quiet grumble & the desire to say “I don’t have one.” In fact, when I pressed unmute, that’s what my brain was telling my mouth to say, but what came out the other end was: “Oscar Romero.” It was a decent enough answer, as I certainly respected the man, but I only knew the bare minimum about him & he hadn’t been on my mind until that very second.
As I sat back in my chair, my face started burning with embarrassment: why did I say something so untrue?
So I busied myself with filling the gaps in my knowledge about St. Oscar & was soon shocked to learn about the place of media & communications in his life—his radio sermons were so famous, that it did not take long for this only-recently canonized martyr of the faith to be considered a patron saint of my chosen profession.
Did God open my mouth? And if so, why did God have me say these words?
The best thing about our prophetic tradition is how unprepared &/or inadequate the prophets have been. We see this across the Bible, with Jeremiah, Elijah & John the Baptist. But even in our own age, we see prophets stepping up to the podium who don’t seem like they should be there. Even Oscar Romero, who spoke about Christians as “microphones of Christ,” was considered to be the status-quo pick for Archbishop of El Salvador because he was thought to be too conservative & in love with churchy things to cause the ruling elite any headaches.
A few short years later, they had him assassinated.
Whenever I wonder about my place in this grand scheme of all sorts of things all around me, I remember that being too small in a story that’s too big is actually a good thing; God doesn’t need me to know anything with certainty. God just needs me. And God just needs you. And when we’re together, gathered in Christ’s name, searching for the right words to say, we should listen carefully—God will do the talking.
Growing up in Kuwait, my “westward leading” started early, at a British-run school, where my most vivid & cherished Christmas memories were always tinged in “pillar box red.” To this day, Christmas for me is the comfort & joy of chocolates shaped like oranges & English folk carols with three-line stanzas plus refrain. It never snowed in Kuwait, of course, but my Christmas was fundamentally white.
The shape of this symbolic winter hygge ebbed & flowed over the years, as I moved back to Lebanon—where Christmas had a different feel—lost my faith, travelled back, forth & across the British Isles—where I experienced Germanic Yuletide notes & learned how to put on a scarf properly—regained my faith, etc., etc., etc. It was only recently, however, that I reflected on what lies beneath the coziness of Christmas.
This is a quote from NT Wright that I shared on December 8, two years ago: “Christmas isn’t about an escape from the real world of politics & economics, of empires and taxes and bloodthirsty wars. It is about God addressing these problems at last from within, coming into our world—his world.” Wright would probably say the same about comfort—not that Christmas isn’t comforting, but that “comfort, in the Christian sense, is significantly different from the comfort that the world has to offer.” As he puts it in a sermon reflecting on the passage from Isaiah that gives us today’s Advent word, “every fresh wave of godly comfort picks up, or should pick up, energy and direction from the waves that have gone before…”
That notion of “godly comfort” immediately brings to my mind the Holy Spirit, whom I’ve always known—probably through some old-timesy translation—as the Comforter; thus, my idea of Christian comfort is unconsciously colored by the red of Pentecost: if the Holy Spirit is both dove & tongues of fire, then holy comfort is both peaceful & disruptive.
The Pentecostal theologian, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, breaks this down even further: “One of the most distinctive features of Johannine pneumatology is the introduction of the Spirit as the “other Paraclete” (John 14:16), obviously implying that Jesus is the first (1 John 2:1 )…The term paraklētos (from para + kalein) in its elementary sense means “one called alongside to help,” thus an advocate or defense attorney. While the Paraclete acts as a defender of the disciples, his role is also that of a prosecuting attorney proving the world guilty. It has to be noted, though, that in addition to the forensic meaning, the term paraklētos also carries several other meanings, such as “comforter,” “intercessor,” and “the one who exhorts and encourages.” No single translation captures the complexity of the functions assigned to the Paraclete in John. This becomes evident as one looks at the various roles assigned to him: witness, revealer, interpreter, and leader into the truth.”
Christmas is godly comfort, and godly comfort is encouragement & exhortation, and exhortation is witness to the truth. Christmas is God among us—Pentecost is God within us; there is no contradiction between the cozy domestic scenes of the Nativity & the holy fire of doing God’s work in the world, because the Holy Spirit that overshadowed Mary is the same Holy Spirit that seals us as her son’s own.
This is one integral story that Mary knew intimately & intuitively—that’s why she sang these words before Jesus was even born: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.” She knew how this story would end.”
“Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.” (Psalm 27:14)
I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d read & been struck by this line some time in the past year, & a quick search through the lectionary revealed that this psalm was one of readings all the way back in January, on the Third Sunday after Epiphany. Digging through our sermon archives at work, I noted that that Sunday also happened to be our Annual Parish Meeting; the topic was the “attention economy” & my livestream was almost unrecognizable, with amateurish angles &—most jarringly—so very many people in the pews.
The service also featured a Prayer of Commissioning calling upon the Holy Spirit to help us “dance soul to soul” in our various vocations & ministries at the parish.
I’m not sure, but I think the Holy Spirit had other plans for us.
As I’m writing these words, I’m flipping through my notebook to see if I wrote anything down to flesh out this feeling of deja vu; what I find instead are page after page of aborted plans, untapped potentials, & accomplishments not fully realized. I don’t remember what I thought the first time these words of prayer crossed my path, though I’m sure you can imagine what I’m thinking now.
But it’s amazing how much is missed when something becomes too familiar; Advent is a season of waiting & “waiting patiently” is the quintessential virtue of this time of year. And yet, with only minimal digging, even this standard trope can be made strange again; looking up the Hebrew translation, I realize that this familiar injunction—sometimes translated as “trust the Lord”—has a depth that goes missing in English.
“To wait for,” or קַוֵּ֗ה (qaw·wêh), is not to sit idly by, a passive vessel of fate—this is not Fugazi’s Waiting Room. No, one dictionary says that “the orig. meaning prob. was ‘to twist, stretch’, whence ‘to be stretched, be strained’, whence ‘to await tensely’.” More than this, the word shares roots with neighboring languages: “Related to Arab. qawiya (= was strong), quwwa (= strength; also ‘strand of a rope’), Syr. קַוִּי (= he endured, remained, waited).”
This is active waiting; this is perseverance. This is a put your steel-toed boots on & stand your ground kind of mosh pit dance. And it would not be too much of a leap to compare this waiting to “steadfast love.”
So I will not be drawing any conclusions today; I will not regret nor lament nor hope to circle back & touch base; I’ll wait, and wait, and wait—the black is not where this ends.
Mercy isn’t one of those words that can be easily made cool or acceptable in non-churchy company; it certainly hasn’t been on the top of my go-to God-talk words for very long—not until partway through this pandemic, in fact. And the way it crept up there was most unexpected.
You don’t hear it in Episcopal liturgies as much as you do in the Maronite Church, where itra7am 3alayn (“have mercy on us”) is a response almost as common as wa ma3a rou7ika (“and with thy spirit”); primal associations & the Protestant shape of my return to church make me biased against that kind of discourse—at first blush, praying for mercy smacks too much of a vengeful God & a works-based ritualism of appeasement.
But an episode of my friend & comrade @__sdrp__’s podcast @seminaryshow helped me make sense of something that happened this past Holy Week; I found myself growing fond of the word “mercy” & its variants—is there anything more mellifluous than “misericordia”?—and the reason was as simple as it was strange: I was profoundly moved by the Eucharistic chant from our Good Friday service.
“O Iesu dulcis, O Iesu pie,
O Iesu, fili Mariae.
Music has that power—I didn’t need church to learn that—but sacred music carries with it something even more profound; it’s a way of knowing differently, of absorbing truths about God that are otherwise obscured. And in that moment, as I pre-recorded our service on a cellphone with a liturgy that I’d just been handed—as my doubts about the wisdom of our being there together in the midst of a pandemic were growing, as public health officials dithered about who should wear a mask when, as the weight of new responsibilities bore down upon me—I experienced what made Good Friday so good; I felt God’s mercy.
Because our secret was that our very best work wasn’t our own; the scenes that still give me shivers just happened—one take, one shot. For some of them, I even had my eyes closed because I was in the presence of God.
Yes, we worked incredibly hard, but it was God’s mercy that got us through it all; the videos that used to take me 5 hours to render now take 45 minutes, & the only reason that anything changed was because generous benefactors were so impressed with what we could do with nothing but God’s grace that they wanted to free us up to do even more.
History will tell if we did the right things at the right times. For now, when I get grumpy & overworked, I try to remember that moment standing before God’s holy stripped altar. It doesn’t come naturally to me, but I do try. And when it comes, I close my eyes in prayer: “sweet Jesus, son of Mary, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
If “mercy” was a tough one to get clickthroughs for, then “baptize” might as well be offline; baptism is inside baseball at best, & a trigger topic most often—and I’m not even talking about non-believers. But the baptism of Jesus Christ is a big part of this season (or a little later for the Orthodox), so there’s no avoiding this most essential & essentially-contested feature of Christian life. Let’s wade neck-deep into this thing, shall we?
The disagreements over who should get baptized when & how (or how often) all spring from one basic question: is there a valid distinction to be made between outward & inward baptism? Whether you even dignify the question kinda places you on the theological & denominational map, but if you dig a little deeper & take “baptism” to mean some kind of process of personal regeneration, I believe that all Christians share that fundamental grammar but dispute the vocabulary; they agree on the ends, but can’t get past the means. Sounds simple, but no: try writing a coherent text with very different words meaning very different things occupying the same sentence form; you’ll end up with very different stories.
Those who traditionally find no inward/outward line will tend to emphasize regeneration as something done to you & for you, a free gift from God & God’s people—your family, your godparents, your church community. These traditions lean heavily on the cosmic dimension of what’s supposed to happen when you touch the waters. This is most striking in the Syriac tradition—when Maronites consecrate the baptismal water, the celebrant sings: “he abided in three places: in a womb of flesh, in the womb of baptism, & in the dark mansions of sheol.” In one extended metaphor, the priest draws a sprawling & imaginative line from incarnation to baptism to resurrection—one divine action.
The Episcopal Church does something similar in a prayer of thanks for the baptismal water, where the priest connects the whole cosmic drama together, from the Red Sea to the River Jordan to the waters she now touches & will soon pour.
While the emphases & maybe even the sacerdotal mechanisms are not exactly the same, both traditions employ narratives that elevate all waters of creation as a sacrament. Again, the Syriac tradition does this most directly. Maronites call sacraments “2asrar,” which to my ears always meant “secrets”—scholars prefer “mysteries.” As Beggiani puts it, mystery in Syriac “comes from the root raz, meaning “to conspire,” & might possibly have had its origin in the mystery cults. But in ecclesiastical Syria it came to have a special meaning of an act of the chosen community…A mystery can thus show forth some event of eternal significance. Also, the “mystery” is a corporate act of a specific body and is closed to those outside it.”
It’s that sort of thing that makes those who believe in inward baptism very uncomfortable, & that’s not totally unfair, given the excesses of the non-Reformed world still happening to this day—did you hear about the priest whose holy orders & baptism were very recently invalidated because a home video showed that his priest said the wrong words? True story, look it up.
For people on this side of the debate, true baptism must come with deep conversion—i.e. repentance & faith. But before you brush that critique aside as right-wing televangelism, it’s important to remember that the pioneers of progressive Christianity, the so-called Social Gospel movement, felt the same way—in ‘Christianity & the Social Crisis,’ Rauschenbusch writes: “when Christianity turned its deepest interest from ethical conduct to sacramental ritual, it thereby paralyzed its power of moral transformation. Ritualism numbed the ethical passion of primitive Christianity.”
This is where I stan The Episcopal Church the hardest; I believe our tradition bridges the two. Every rite of baptism includes a spoken covenant (link in bio) that’s shared personally & corporately, so even if you weren’t baptized Episcopalian, you participate & are re-incorporated—through words & water, both inwardly & outwardly—every time.
So why should anyone who isn’t a Christian even care about any of this? Maybe you shouldn’t; but just know that true & valid baptism into Christ is a card-carrying conspiracy to join an ongoing revolution whose fruits are sacrificial love & solidarity with all people of goodwill. For me? That’s the real divide.
The other big thing that non-Christians might benefit from knowing about us pesky Christians shoving religion in their faces is that, despite all blustering appearances, there is no consensus or unified theory of the Bible.
Christians generally agree that the Bible contains the Word of God, but what that means and to what extent and in which books exactly—because one Christian’s apocrypha is another’s deutero-canon—and how that affects us now? That’s a whole other kettle of fish.
I can’t belabor this point enough; this isn’t just a matter of disunity or politics or humans being oh so human—this cuts to the very heart of what it means to be a people in communication with the divine. ‘What is truth,’ a governor once asked a rabble-rouser from Galilee, & deep down, I think the Holy Spirit must have answered: ‘that’s a very good question.’
And that’s not just philosophically interesting; it cuts through pop cultural confusion lumping all religions together as one monolith. The Christian’s relationship to scripture is NOT akin to that of, say, a Muslim; in fact, a side note you won’t find in Wikipedia is that one Lebanese cleric who now heads an international denominational federation once sat in my parents’ living room & made this exact comparison most poignantly: “the Quranification of the Bible is a fringe movement”—in other words, that way of reading the Bible, as verbally-revealed in some parallel way to the manner in which God dictated the Quran to the Prophet Mohammad sallah’Lahu aleyhi wa sallam through the Angel Gabriel is a historical development, not a claim that the Bible really makes for itself.
So what do I mean when I say the Word of God? Interestingly enough, I learned a huge lesson about that from a member-church of that aforementioned federation, when I was shuffling my way back into this faith; as part of an inquirers’ class, I read a statement of belief & found a particular sentence intriguing; it went something like “we believe in God’s Word in the Bible,” so I asked why they seemed to be twisting the typical phraseology.
The pastor replied in the best way a pastor can—with another question: “who is God’s Word in the Bible?” After blinking dumbly at her for a few moments, I gave every Sunday schoolboy’s answer to everything: “Jesus.”
Now, I believe that churches sidestep the difficult questions of what to do with scripture a bit too much when they say things like that, but the kernel of truth there is that Christianity really isn’t a religion of a Book; it’s a religion of a Person. And while that doesn’t magically resolve all the interpretive issues that arise from having billions of believers try to make sense of this Person & their words, that fundamental shift in thinking has consequences on what reading habits make more sense than others.
The field of hermeneutics is a minefield of very deep disagreements, but one thing we can agree on is that Jesus is “the Word made flesh”—and that must mean something particular & unique to how we do religion.
And on this last point, once again, I reach for and end with another pearl from my Syriac heritage: “Ephrem teaches an ‘incarnation in language’ parallel to the Word’s personal incarnation. God humbles himself in submitting to descriptions in human words & images.”
When I first looked through the list of Advent words this year, I thought that today’s was a bit of a random swerve to the right; I figured it was inspired by the locusts & honey that sustained John the Baptist, which wasn’t very inspiring.
But then @csideview reminded me of just how common the image of honey is across the Bible. And let me tell you—biblical honey can be very weird. Like the scroll that tastes sweet but turns the prophet’s stomach sour in Revelation 10 or the handful that Samson pulls out of the lion he fought & killed earlier in the Book of Judges. This bizarre & unexplained detail later inspires Samson to come up with a riddle that bamboozles his enemies: “out of the eater came something to eat, out of the strong came something sweet.” Get it?
Honestly, the whole story is—in the wise words of my boss—a little wackadoodle. Which wouldn’t be very helpful if it weren’t for the magic of montage; this all makes more sense when juxtaposed against my reflections from yesterday.
Because reading scripture is just like that handful of honey or that bittersweet scroll—as Christians, we are to dig among the Bible’s tendons & sinews to be nourished by Christ, whose message is both acid & balm. This way of reading is not forensic; the Bible isn’t a corpse on an autopsy table. Rather, it’s a lion that becomes a hive or a river that becomes a womb or an instrument of death that becomes the sign of God’s love that surpasses all understanding.
That’s how the ancient Church made sense of a kooky character like Samson himself; through strange leaps of creative analogy, they found parallels & clues that pointed to Jesus in what is, at first glance, inert history.
That way of reading is decidedly countercultural, but it is not necessarily counterintuitive. Modernity has taught us to jettison some very deeply human instincts; these are the human capacities that artists like Joseph Beuys wanted to put at the very center of art practice. His way of reading the world was meant to re-enchant & re-insist on our capacity to be in dialogue with it:
“For me the hare is a symbol of incarnation, which the hare really enacts—something a human can only do in imagination. It burrows, building itself a home in the earth. Thus it incarnates itself in the earth: that alone is important…Honey on my head of course has to do with thought. While humans do not have the ability to produce honey, they do have the ability to think, to produce ideas…Honey is an undoubtedly living substance—human thoughts can also become alive. On the other hand, intellectualizing can be deadly to thought: one can talk one’s mind to death in politics or in academia.”
Reading the Bible like Beuys reads earth’s elements means working with it like an artist, a hymnodist, or a poet. Not to impose new meanings on the text, but to expose the unexpected connections in & all around it. This form of reading is creative because it participates in writing God’s story—a story that only makes sense when we do the work of connecting the dots. Like when Francis died on church grounds last Sunday—I call every rabbit I see there “Francis” & every crow, “Benedict.” I saw Francis lay there so sweetly & I was sad; but after Sunday’s service, I realized that Francis & Benedict had joined in a perfect communion of their own, with Francis offering up his sacred heart for Benedict’s nourishment. And I remembered: out of the eater comes something to eat—out of the strong comes something sweet. Selah.