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Jesus Our Mother

What a crowded day on the calendar! Tomorrow is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, which is always “Good Shepherd” Sunday. It just happens to be Mother’s Day and also the commemoration of Julian of Norwich. Let the religious synthesizing begin!

“Julian of Norwich,”
Amy Zaleta Martinez

Let’s start with this: referring to Jesus as our “mother” certainly sounds like I’ve never really left my radical Berkeley roots behind, but those roots actually stretch down and back to fourteenth-century England and to Julian of Norwich, a much-beloved saint and mystic. She was far ahead of her own day concerning many things, not least in retrieving what we might call “feminine” aspects of God, including with her phrase “Jesus our Mother,” as she was fond of saying and praying.

After nearly dying from bubonic plague, she received a series of visions, what she called “showings,” or revelations of divine love. She is best known, I suppose, for insisting that “all shall be well,” but she was equally insistent that God is nothing at all except love, and that absolutely everything that exists is because of that love. In ways that are startling and beautiful, she weaves that insistence into her reflections on Jesus:

The mother can give her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does, most courteously and most tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life … The mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast through his sweet open side, and show us there a part of the godhead and of the joys of heaven, with inner certainty of endless bliss … This fair lovely word ‘mother’ is so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone or to anyone except of him and to him who is the true Mother of life and of all things. To the property of motherhood belong nature, love, wisdom, and knowledge, and this is God.

“Lost Sheep,” Sawai Chinnawong

All this past week I’ve been trying to figure out how to connect Mother’s Day with the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in the Easter season. Julian helped me notice in those efforts that most of the visual images of Jesus as a shepherd don’t actually show him “herding” any sheep. Those images instead show him looking for a lost sheep, or cradling a lamb in his arms, or hoisting one up over his shoulders to carry her home.

There’s something tender, something intimate and affectionate about these images, something we often associate with mothers. But there’s no reason not to associate such characteristics with men, and with our fathers. And there’s no reason at all not to suppose that God, the Source of All Life, is father, mother, brother, sister, friend, and lover, and still so much more.

On this Mother’s Day weekend I am of course remembering with much fondness my own dear mother, and I’m grateful for so many others who have been “mothers” to me, and that includes Jesus—thanks to Julian’s gentle nudges.

“The Good Shepherd,” Sadao Watanabe
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Death is Easier

“Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

We can make that joyous declaration because women were the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Women were the very first apostles of an Easter faith, and we must not take this for granted.

“Empty Tomb,” He Qi

The first-century Mediterranean world was a thoroughly patriarchal society: poor women had no legal rights whatsoever; they were never taught to read or write; and they were considered the property of their husbands.

Even wealthy women—who had only just a tad more freedom—even they could not vote, could not stand for political office, had no formal role in public life, and their testimony could not be admitted into a court of law.

Let us, therefore, note this very carefully: in that thoroughly patriarchal society, all four Gospel writers—most assuredly all of them men—make perfectly clear that women were the very first witnesses of Easter!

Luke takes this storyline still further (24:1-12) by noting rather painfully that the men to whom those women delivered the glorious news did not believe the women, and these men were some of the closest friends of Jesus.

This centering of women in what I would certainly consider the core story of Christian faith is not merely remarkable; it’s a miracle.

I think these Gospel writers are making a theological point by putting women on center-stage in the Easter story. And the point is this: the death-dealing world of patriarchal domination is over. There are lingering effects of that long history of domination, to be sure, some of them quite painful and long-lived, even traumatic. But that world of patriarchal violence will never have the final word; and indeed, concerning new life, women have the very first word.  

Still, I have to wonder: why did those male disciples refuse to believe the women? This should have been the happiest news they had ever heard. Why, in Luke’s words, did it seem to them merely an “idle tale”?

Luke suggests a reason with the question posed to those apostolic women by angels at the empty tomb: Why are you looking for the living among the dead? That’s an important question all of us should be asking ourselves quite regularly: why do we keep returning to worn-out patterns and toxic relationships and lifeless institutions?

Here’s an answer I’ve been sitting with for a while: because death is easier than new life.

Winter’s reluctance to yield to spring here in western Michigan this year reminded me of those cold wintry mornings over the last few months when the alarm goes off and the wind is howling and the snow is blowing and it’s dark outside.

On mornings like that, my Australian shepherd dog Judah and I both agree that it is far easier to pull up the covers and stay cozy and warm in bed.

Death is easier like that because life requires something of us. Life requires that we actually throw back the covers, get up, get dressed, and go out to engage with the world.

We seek the living among the dead because that’s what we’ve been taught and it feels natural; we already know how to nurse grudges and cultivate resentments and sow hatred and start wars…it’s actually quite easy.

We seek the living among the dead because it’s just easier to live conveniently and for our own comfort and among our own kind…even when we’re fomenting violence and killing the planet in the process.

We seek the living among the dead because death, in all its many forms, is so close at hand and so easy to find—in our communities, in our politics, and in our institutions.

And still, and yet, God is with us even there.

“Mary Magdalene on Easter Morning,” Sieger Koder

We can choose the familiarity of death and God will still be with us. God will never abandon us; not ever.

That’s good news, and there is even better news: The God who made us wants still more life for us, in abundance, the kind of vibrant life that we can scarcely imagine.

God has a dream; and especially in these Great Fifty Days of Easter, God dreams of a richer life for us, for all of us, for the whole of God’s creation. And God has turned this dream into a promise by raising Jesus from the dead, and God seals this promise with the testimony of women in a patriarchal society.

Yesterday morning in my little parish here in (snowy) Saugatuck, Michigan, we baptized a baby as part of our Easter Day jubilations. His name is George Alexander River Burt, and how wonderful that one of his names is “River”! Into that glorious river of new life that flows from an empty tomb, we baptized that dear baby in endless Alleluias and with a gladness that shall never die.

We also made some promises to George. We promised to do all that we can to ensure he never, ever hears anything about God that isn’t loving, graceful, and full of life. We promised to help him know that he is a cherished child of God, that he himself gives God endless delight.

I led the gathered faithful in those promises with tears in my eyes because many of us didn’t grow up that way, with all those reassurances and with such fortifying confidence in God’s love for us. That’s exactly why we renew those promises for ourselves whenever we make them for someone else. And on Easter Day in particular, we also ask God to lead all of us out of our various tombs, whatever they may be, and into the shocking brightness of a new day.

Shocking, because God will be with us regardless of the choices we make.

And this is also true: God still longs for us to choose life, abundant life.

So let’s do it.

“Art of the Redemption 3: Resurrection,” Josef Zacek
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Harrow My Heart

Every human community has threads of resentment running through it and chunky grudges clogging up its communal arteries. This is certainly true—sometimes it seems especially true—in religious communities and in our churches. This is especially discouraging as well since many of us harbor rather high standards for faith communities, or at least some high hopes.

Since returning to full-time congregational ministry two years ago, I’ve been reminded of the sacred ground we all tread in parish life. Traces of heartbreak and the wounds of grief punctuate so many conversations, just as glimpses of joy and spiritual insight hover over our committees and circulate through our worship. I wake up every single Sunday morning astonished at the privilege of doing this work.

I have also learned in fresh ways some perennial truths about life in community: resentment is far more contagious than joy, and the infection can linger for far longer than our memory of when we were first exposed. Still more: bitterness takes no work at all (though it is exhausting) and gladness requires effort (even though it is thoroughly refreshing).

These are the peculiar landscapes of human relationships, manifesting the often complex contours of the human heart. All of this is on my mind today, on this Holy Saturday. It’s one of my favorite days on the church calendar because it marks one of my favorite religious notions—Jesus harrowing Hell.

“Harrowing of Hell”

A few scant biblical references and a single phrase in the Apostles’ Creed—Jesus “descended to the dead”—eventually blossomed in Christian traditions into a full-blown harrowing of Hell itself, smashing its gates, and releasing its captives. All of this on the day in between crucifixion and resurrection—a busy day for Jesus and not only for altar guild members readying sanctuaries for Easter morning.

I truly love the image of Jesus fetching our ancestors from whatever limbo they’ve been trapped in for however long, but right now I need Jesus to harrow the rocky soil of my heart. “Soil” is the perfect image for this day, and for more than one reason. “Harrowing,” of course, most commonly appears among farmers and gardeners; we “harrow” the soil by plowing it and breaking up the hardened clods. And according to the Johannine account of the Gospel, the dead Jesus was buried in a garden tomb.

Those images occurred to me in the shower this morning as I reflected on how easily my petty grievances can harden my heart, parch my soul, and threaten to desiccate all that fertile soil, that interior field where I would much prefer to plant the seeds of faith, hope, and especially love.

I don’t know that I want the “three-person’d God” to “batter my heart,” as John Donne imagined, but I do think its earthy fields could use some plowing, some gentle rains of grace, and the warm sunlight of compassion.

“Easter Morning,” Jen Norton

On that first Easter morning, according to John, Mary Magdalene supposed that the risen Jesus was a gardener. We sometimes say that she “mistook” him for a gardener. But I don’t think that was a mistake at all. New life sometimes—likely often, perhaps always—needs some harrowing.

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Follow the Jackass

I never thought much about donkeys growing up. I mean, why would I? It’s not like I saw many—or any—in the western suburbs of Chicago. But I did think a lot about horses; they were in all my storybooks about heroes and adventures. Horses seemed quite obviously more noble than donkeys.

There are some cultural reasons for these biases: Donkeys are usually the butt of jokes, they provide a convenient stand-in for the outsider, or the underachiever, or simply the useful nuisance we keep around to do the stuff we don’t want to do ourselves.

Let’s not forget the MTV Television series called “Jackass” and the ridiculous movie spinoffs it generated (I may have seen one). Those movies were about stupid humans, but the film’s title betrays the deeper human disdain toward the lowly donkey—the jackass.

Today there are roughly 40 million donkeys in the world and the vast majority of them—more than 90%—are found in rural societies and serve as pack animals, for transportation, and in roles of agricultural labor. Working donkeys are most often associated with those living in poverty, rarely ever with the wealthy or the powerful.

Every year on Palm Sunday we celebrate a “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem as if a hero had mounted a white horse to ride into our lives and save the day. But that is not the story that launches us into the Christian Holy Week.

“Entry into the City,” John August Swanson

The donkey, all on his own, makes perfectly clear that Jesus is not a military commander, nor a rival of the Roman Emperor or even the provincial Governor. So why were the crowds cheering his arrival? Let’s be clear: they were not mocking him but cheering him.

It has taken a very long time for me to let go of the “triumph” of Palm Sunday and appreciate what the donkey teaches (I wish so desperately to know that dear creature’s name). Here’s the lesson I need to learn: Jesus on a donkey is an image of God’s deep solidarity—with the laboring classes, with the downtrodden and forgotten, with those oppressed by Empire.

More specifically for our own day, that image signals God’s solidarity with migrant farmworkers; with women of color who are single mothers working two full-time jobs; with the indigenous people of this land who are still unable to find justice with our own government.

Those are the ones lining the streets of Jerusalem and cheering the arrival of Jesus on a donkey. Perhaps, they think, just maybe, God has not forgotten them, maybe (hope beyond hope) God is standing with them.

But there’s still more to say about this story: God is also in solidarity with the donkey. After all, this beast of burden plays a starring role in this opening chapter of what we Christians call the holiest of weeks.

A donkey leads us into Holy Week!

So after we shout our “Hosannas!” it’s time to follow the Jackass into new life.

What might that look like?

Let’s start modestly. Let’s remember that this so-called “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem features a city whose holiness is shared by at least three of the world’s great religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The calendar this year all but begs reflection on those religious intersections. Even as Christians enter Holy Week, Muslims have already begun observing the holy month of Ramadan, and Passover begins this Friday—Good Friday.

While religious folks pray for peace in the world—and rightly so, and especially right now for Ukraine—religious folks have our own peace to make with each other. We need to work for peace with other Christians, with our Jewish neighbors, and with Muslims all around the world.

It matters that Jesus entered Jerusalem, that Holy City, not on a warhorse or as a general leading armies or in the garments of victory, but on the back of a donkey.

It’s long past time for us Christians to stop referring to this moment as “The Triumphal Entry”; this story should be called the “Parade of Solidarity.”

Poet Sylvia Sands writes so beautifully about this, about Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. All over the world, she writes, donkeys are beaten, starved, tortured, and worked until they drop.

And Jesus chooses that creature to accompany him on his entry into Jerusalem, to lead the “Parade of Solidarity.”

This is how our Christian holy week begins, not in triumph, not even with a whispered hint of domination or any kind of “victory” but rather with the lowly, humble, usually disdained little donkey plodding his path into an ancient city.

The Church has mostly forgotten this but queerly retains it in our lectionary texts and calendar images: the holiest of weeks marks a path of new life for us, if only we would follow the jackass.

Another poet, Steve Garnaas-Holmes, prays in precisely that direction: “O God, give me courage to follow the Foolish way, / to go the way the world discourages, / the way of love.

“May Jesus,” he writes, “riding into a set-up / on his little donkey, lead me.”

The donkey is leading Jesus where we must follow if we wish to live. It’s where God desires to be in communion with us, where God is always already in solidarity with us and with the whole of God’s creation.

Those are lofty ideas and rather far removed from how most of us live day-to-day—but not so for the donkey.

Sylvia Sands poetically imagines that one, first-century donkey being so grateful for that one man’s gentle touch on his reins; and for that one man’s sweet voice on the road; and for that one man’s improbable invitation to join him in the work of redeeming love.

We are invited to that same work of love, to travel along that same road, and to take our lead from a donkey.

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A Lenten Discipline: Don’t Waste Your Time

Imposing ashes on the foreheads of a community slowly emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic didn’t seem redundant, exactly, but it certainly felt poignant. Preparing for that moment, I recalled two classic touchstones in Christian faith that seemed suddenly more vibrant and fresh than they had for years.

First, we are sinners. I know that sounds terribly old-fashioned, but it’s also true. We fail regularly to live the kind of abundant life Creator God intends; we too often prevent others from flourishing because of the way we live.

We do not always act justly, we have trouble loving mercy, we forget to walk humbly with God, to quote the prophet Micah’s summary of what God asks of us (Micah 6:8).

A second great theme on Ash Wednesday is of course our mortality. We are finite creatures and we will one day die—each of us, no exceptions, all of us returning to the earth from which we came.

Connecting these two themes seems especially urgent given the state of, well, everything. We could begin with this: as mortal creatures, time is of the essence. We simply don’t have time for small visions, or petty resentments, or the refusals of shared flourishing born from bitterness. In the shortness of time, sin is whatever keeps us from thriving; or more simply, we just don’t have time for bullshit anymore, and likely never did.

The time is now—not next year, not next month, not even tomorrow, but right now is the time to remember or perhaps realize for the very first time that God takes great delight in every single thing God has made.

There is absolutely nothing about God’s creation, not one creature of any kind, not one human being, that God does not love madly and wildly. The opening collect for the Ash Wednesday liturgy makes this clear and it’s one of my favorites in The Book of Common Prayer: “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made…”

For some people, that claim is life-changing; for far too many, it’s life-saving; and for all of us, it’s mission-critical because time is short.  

Lent is a time to clear out the toxic clutter, to remove whatever prevents me from seeing myself as a cherished creature of God.

Lent is a time to stop whatever I might be doing that prevents others from seeing themselves as cherished creatures of God.

Lent is a time to understand more deeply that our way of life as modern Western people is damaging and destroying this cherished creation of God called Earth—and time is short.

In my little parish yesterday we heard Matthew’s Jesus (6:1-6, 16-21) being just as plain about this as he could be: don’t waste your time on empty religious gestures; don’t bother being pious for piety’s sake—it’s worthless and pointless.

Pray instead for a change of heart.

Pray instead for a change of life.

Pray instead—as we heard the prophet Isaiah urge (58:1-12)—pray instead in ways that loosen the bonds of injustice and that let the oppressed go free and that provide bread for the hungry and housing for the poor—that’s true religion.

Pray instead, Isaiah says, so that you yourself become light in another’s darkness, water for another’s desert, a builder of dwellings laid waste and repairers of the breach for many generations—that’s the only religion that really matters.

Yes, we are sinners and time is short. But we can make good from the time we have if we repent of our sins and embrace the Gospel, which is nothing less than the abundant life God intends for all.

Don’t waste your time on anything else.

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A Transfigured (Black) Jesus and a Eucharistic Solidarity

As Black History Month draws to a close, Women’s History Month begins this week on March 1. This moment on the calendar invites deeper reflection on the potent intersection of race and gender, and how that kind of reflection might shape the season of Lent, which also begins in this coming week.

To do that work—especially as a white man—I’m particularly grateful for the insights of M. Shawn Copeland, an American womanist and Black Catholic theologian who taught for many years at Boston College. She helped me think differently about a foundational question in Christian theology: what does it mean to be human in relation to God? How one answers that question shapes so much else of Christian faith and practice.

M. Shawn Copeland

For many centuries, the European (white) male was considered the “standard issue” human and thus the primary reference point for answering that key theological question. The whiteness of Jesus himself became a question in new ways during the 1960s, which Copeland writes about in relation to the (Black) Jesus of Detroit.

Among the many moments of Black American history that white people (among others!) should not forget, Copeland draws our attention to the “rebellion” of 1967 not far from where I currently live. The following is her synopsis of that moment and the blackness of Jesus that it surfaced (taken from her essay on the Black Jesus in the collection edited by George Yancy, Christology and Whiteness: What Would Jesus Do?):

“In the early morning hours of July 23, 1967, a routine police vice-squad raid on an after-hours drinking club in a predominantly black neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan, escalated into one of the most furious racial rebellions in modern times. Five days later 43 persons were dead, more than 450 injured, more than 7,200 arrested, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.

“A little-known, yet highly symbolic, incident during those days involved a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the grounds of the major seminary of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. At the intersection of West Chicago Boulevard and Linwood Avenue, two blocks west of the site of the rebellion, stands a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which looked out on a then increasingly black neighborhood, even as the seminary faculty and students remained predominantly white.

“On the second day of the disturbance, an African American housepainter reportedly applied black paint to the hands, feet, and face of the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. At least twice, the color was removed, but black paint prevailed and, over the past four decades, the seminary has kept it fresh. In an interview during a 40th anniversary commemoration of the rebellion, the Assistant Dean of Sacred Heart Seminary’s Institute for Ministry, John Lajiness, said, ‘the City really has no other positive visible symbol like it. The painted statue speaks less of violence and more of the internal struggle for identity and the human tension which, intentionally or not, bled into making this statue an icon.’”

“Black Jesus” at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit

If a white man cannot represent the sacred heart of Jesus (much less in marble), then the European male certainly cannot stand as the only, or even the primary answer to the question of what it means to be human. The (brown and Middle Eastern) body of Jesus resides at the center of the Gospel, Copeland reminds us, a body that was tortured and killed by the Roman Empire and raised to new life by God. To understand and embrace such a Gospel, especially given the social, economic, and political history of Western society, Copeland argues that women of color belong at the center of our theological work.

I’m not entirely sure what the consequences of that claim are for how I live, but I am convinced of how crucial it is that I keep reflecting on it and shaping my life because of it. Her book—Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being—helped convince me of this, and as Lent begins, I’m especially mindful of her work on the Eucharist.

Copeland recalls the gruesome history of lynching in the United States and how it prompted the same kind of terror as crucifixion did in the first century. Rather than avoiding that painful history, or feeling a vague sense of guilt about it (especially as white people), Copeland urges a practice of “divine solidarity.” To stand with and for those who are poor, outcast, and oppressed is to bear witness to the Gospel hope for a new world, a hope that shapes Eucharistic worship in Christian communities. Copeland expresses this in a powerful way:

“A Christian practice of solidarity denotes the humble and complete orientation of ourselves before the lynched Jesus, whose shadow falls across the table of our sacramental meal. In his raised body, a compassionate God interrupts the structures of death and sin, of violation and oppression. A divine practice of solidarity sets the dynamics of love against the dynamics of domination—recreating and regenerating the world, offering us a new way of being in relation to God, to others, to self” (Enfleshing Freedom, p. 126).

Perhaps one of the ways I can take Copeland’s urgent call for solidarity to heart is to resist how I usually imagine the transfigured Jesus—with a shiny white face. As I prepare to preach tomorrow on the Transfiguration, a story often told on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, I’ll keep that Black Jesus of Detroit in mind instead, and even more as we move into the season of Lent.

Following Jesus on the road toward the Cross can itself be an act of solidarity if, as Copeland would urge, we see in him all the countless women of color strewn through so many forgotten stories of American history. Remembering them, even though we cannot now know their names, could contribute to how a “compassionate God interrupts the structures of death and sin.”

May that be the hope that breaks open an Easter dawn.

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Pixelating Christ: A Hopeful Communion in Hybrid Spaces

The Covid-19 pandemic may or may not be winding down, but what’s heating up are the assessments of “online worship” and what we think we have been learning as we enter the third year of this pandemic.

Among the many recent essays in that vein, two have seized a sizable share of social media buzz. Just yesterday, New York Times opinion writer and Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren declared that it’s time to stop online worship services entirely. On the flip side of that coin, Church of England priest and theologian Richard Burridge argues in a new book that Holy Communion via online platforms (like Zoom) is “valid and effective.”

I’ll toss my hat into that ring by referencing an essay of my own that was published last year in Concilium about what I called “Eucharistic cyborgs” and the conundrums Christian congregations face when nearly all of the activities we call “worship” become vectors for a deadly infection. (That issue of Concilium, by the way, is well worth exploring for its theological and spiritual framing of the “post-human” in a digital world.)

We will likely be living for quite some time with a patchwork quilt of ecclesial policies and liturgical postures around these issues, and it’s far too early for definitive conclusions. We are, after all, evaluating innovations we had not planned on making, and using theological principles we are not sure directly apply, while quite a few of us are finding ourselves (surprisingly) grateful for a new set of tools and skills to use in this challenging era of religion’s putative decline.

As a parish priest in the Episcopal Church, I facilitate and lead worship in a hybrid space, with masked, in-person worshippers receiving the Eucharistic bread while offering a prayer for “spiritual communion” for those joining us online. The tension between these two forms of “communion” can, I hope, provoke fresh engagements with what communion itself means and why it matters in a world of pain and for the sake of healing.

Like most hybrid spaces, this one is not always comfortable and includes awkward moments. Naming that discomfort, pondering why such worship can feel awkward, is important for our ongoing discernment about why Church still matters for exactly such a time as this.

Do note the distinction between the broader category of “online worship” and the more sacramentally peculiar question of the Eucharist in that broad category. Personally, I endorse what the Episcopal Church seems to have adopted: embrace online worship but refrain from what has become known as “remote consecration” of bread and wine.

That distinction blurs when reading the two essays I noted above, and I find compelling arguments in both—on the one hand, I heartily endorse Warren’s reliance on physical proximity as paramount in a religion of incarnation and, on the other hand, I tend to agree with Burridge’s insistence that the cyber-distance between a presiding priest at the Eucharistic Table and an online worshipper should make no difference in the ability of the Holy Spirit to bless and, yes, consecrate bread and wine remotely.

Compelling arguments from both, but I am not fully persuaded by either author. I find Warren’s categorical dismissal of online worship not only hasty (watching someone die from Covid-related causes should quickly disabuse anyone of the notion that we can safely manage Covid infections); but she also seems insufficiently attuned to the pastoral benefits of reaching people unable to attend worship in person (just because the Church has found ways to do so in the past without computer technology does not mean we should eschew such technology today). In my own congregation, we have also appreciated the evangelistic reach of our streamed worship—we have been welcoming new members to our physical sanctuary on Sunday mornings who worshipped with us first online.

Concerning Burridge, I would (ironically) cite Warren’s arguments about embodiment as a rebuttal to his apparent disregard for the significance of being physically distant while only visually and audibly present online. I think Warren rightly worries that online worship makes embodied presence optional for too many people, or akin to a “consumer preference,” rather than essential and vital to sacramental efficacy. She likewise proposes that bodily risk itself is inherent to the story of God’s Word becoming flesh and that our avoidance of all risk (which is never actually possible) amounts to a form of resistance to divine embodiment.

Reading those two writers side-by-side, I realize and I freely admit that my embrace of worship online but not consecration online is probably incoherent. But I still think it matters, theologically, that the Church has always insisted that the priest must touch the bread and wine to consecrate it, and I cannot do that for the bread and wine that people have at home while they watch me on a screen.

I suppose one could argue (and some have, like Burridge) that the Holy Spirit can just as easily bless the bread I touch as the bread people themselves hold at home. Perhaps, but I certainly wonder whether inviting people to treat “cyber touch” the same as we would “physical touch” underestimates just how physically touch-deprived so many have become during these last two years of social distancing in a pandemic; I am so grateful to see my friends on a screen, and yet for months I have longed finally to hug them once again. That longing is the very foundation of the liturgical insistence on touching the bread.

These conundrums seemed utterly novel and to appear quite suddenly in the spring of 2020, but the Church has actually wrestled with the liturgical theology at the root of such questions for centuries, including during times when Eucharist was interrupted or not permitted. Christians have always found ways of “being Church” nonetheless, and we are in one of those moments once again—a “moment,” by the way, that certainly deserves a healthy dose of patience and generosity toward each other as we sort this out.

Like many others, I had to grapple with all these issues in “real time” wrestling simultaneously with how to stream anything online and what it means liturgically to do so. I offered no conclusions about such matters in my essay for Concilium but I did land on some questions that I continue to find theologically stimulating and pastorally compelling; in various ways, I keep inviting the congregation here in Saugatuck to land there with me.

For example, are we human online? That question is not quite as ridiculous as it seems. Having now clocked hundreds of “Zoom hours” in committee meetings and worship gatherings alike, I wonder what physicality and proximity actually mean in relation to bodies. Just how close exactly do we have to be to one another to be “in proximity”? And what does it mean to be “physically present”? Do we suddenly become immaterial when we enter a Zoom room? As a theologian who appreciates the concept of “deep incarnation”—supposing that God’s Word incarnates all the way down to the microscopic, cellular level—I cannot help but wonder why I resist the notion of God’s Word showing up in a pixel.

On the brink of Black History Month, I’m also reminded of womanist theologian M. Shawn Copeland’s concise declaration that the “body provokes theology.” She offers that declaration with the Eucharist clearly in view, insisting that the Table has material significance for how we treat racialized and gendered bodies. This is especially so because of the bodily communion the Eucharistic Table performs and what Copeland insists must be our Eucharistic solidarity with the oppressed, forgotten, tortured, maimed, and lost.

Do virtual bodies provoke theology in the same way that Copeland so persuasively argues that physical bodies do? Or does that question assume that our electronic digitization makes us substantially (note that word!) less human?

Another womanist theologian, Kelly Brown Douglas, has argued why we should even care about such questions. The carnal or fleshy character of Christian faith matters, she argues, for how we address a misogynistic society of white supremacy. Sexism and racism flourish, in other words, in contexts where our bodily lives are not honored with profound respect. So it’s at least worth wondering whether online gatherings can sustain bodily engagements sufficiently to promote social justice.

All of these questions strike at the very heart of our shared distress in a world of runaway climate chaos, unrelenting racialized violence, and gendered oppressions. These are material, bodily concerns for which Eucharistic worship provides vital framing and shaping. For that reason (among others) the parish that I’m privileged to serve as rector will continue to stream our worship services online and we will continue to refrain from “remote consecration” of the Eucharistic bread and wine.

I believe and I hope that such an approach to worship is a coherent balance to strike for the sake of refreshing our shared engagement with what communion itself actually means at a time when we are more desperate for its depths than we likely realize. I mean “communion” in the widest sense—communion with each other as humans; communion with other species; communion with the ecosystems of Earth; and therefore communion with God-in-Christ.

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Divine Vulnerability

The Gospel according to John has a nativity story, just like Matthew and Luke have one, but I can’t quite imagine making a children’s Christmas pageant from those opening verses of John.

John’s “nativity story” is cosmic in scope, rich in metaphysics, and conceptually dense in its prose. Countless philosophers have spent a great deal of time pondering the very first verse: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

That lofty language, stretching back to the dawn of time, sets the stage for an equally mind-bending claim in the fourteenth verse: the Word that was with God from the beginning, that Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Not everything about this “prologue” to John’s account of the Gospel, however, is quite so abstract. John writes of a divine advent, a coming into the world that is marked by very human, down-to-earth realities—feeling out of place, like a stranger in one’s own land, even outright rejection.

This Word-made-flesh that John extols with such lofty language actually seems quite precarious. So whatever John means by “nativity,” that sense of vulnerability—the notion that God shares vulnerability with us—that is what makes John’s version of the story not just astonishing but also life-changing.

Notice where John begins, with three simple words: in the beginning. These are of course the first three words of the Hebrew Bible, the very first chapter of Genesis: in the beginning.

This is, in part, why some scholars treat John’s gospel as early Christian commentary on Genesis. The refrain in that first chapter of the Bible about the goodness of God’s creation runs throughout John’s gospel as well.

Goodness stumbles, of course, with the so-called “fall” of humanity in the third chapter of Genesis. And “stumbles” would be too mildly phrased for some. That “fall” has led far too many Christians to suppose that just being human is a problem that we must overcome; for others, God’s creation more generally is therefore suspect, or tainted, or even irredeemably spoiled, and Earth itself is disposable.

But that’s not John’s gospel at all.

To the contrary, John frames his account of the Good News by reminding us that the very Word of God is intimately involved in the creation of the whole world, in every aspect of it, from the very beginning. The universe, all that exists, has always been and remains God’s own handiwork; the imprint of God’s own hand is on everything.

This declaration, by the way, has direct bearing on our current climate catastrophe. Among the many reasons why ecological collapse is so distressing, theologian Elizabeth Johnson pointedly reminds us that our wanton destruction of ecosystems and habitats and countless species of plant and animal amounts to an act of blasphemy.

She can say this, without reservation or hesitation, precisely because of John’s close intertwining of God’s own creative Word with God’s creation.

This cosmic framing of John’s Gospel sheds further light on that pivotal fourteenth verse, what we might call the “Christmas verse” in John—the divine Word, with God from the beginning, and through whom all things were made, that Word becomes flesh.

Let’s pause here for a short lesson in ancient Greek. John had some choices in how to express this pivotal claim about God dwelling among us. He could have said that the Word became a person—prosopon. Or, he could have chosen to say that the Word more generally became human—anthropos.

Either of those two words is how most people likely hear that key claim from John, that the Word became a person or a human. But John didn’t choose either one of those options. John chose this instead: the Word, he wrote, became sarx—and that’s the Greek word for “flesh.”

And with that word—flesh—John signals how God chooses to be among us, not in garments of splendor or cloaked in military power or with superhero strength but in simple, frail, vulnerable flesh.

This prologue to John’s Gospel is not about the birth of Superman or Captain America or Wonder Woman; Christmas is not the story of a divine superhero coming down from the sky to save us. The story of this season is far more astonishing than anything Marvel Comics has dreamed up: Christmas celebrates the Creator God choosing to accompany the creation—as part of it.

Consider what this means: Our vulnerability as fleshy creations of God is not a problem to overcome or a condition from which we need rescue or in any way cause for shame. No, our shared vulnerability as God’s creation is precisely where the Word of God meets us as one of us, in the flesh.

Surely in this time of ongoing pandemic and ecological fragility, we don’t need any further reminders of our own vulnerability or the weakness of our fleshy bodies and of the body of Earth itself; we know all this only too well.

Perhaps what we do need—what the whole wide world needs and what God is calling Christians to manifest with boldness in the world—is the reminder we hear from John: Christmas celebrates the God who meets us in our vulnerability by becoming as vulnerable as we are.

That’s what it means, John says elsewhere, to speak of God as love.

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First to Shepherds and Migrant Farmworkers

I live with a shepherd. His name is Judah, but he’s not a human being; he’s a canine, an Australian shepherd dog.

Just in case I’m in any danger of forgetting his genetic predispositions as a shepherd, he will sometimes circle around behind me on our walks when we’re crossing a street, to herd me safely across to the other side.

It was during one of those herding moments in downtown Saugatuck recently that my Christmas gaze landed on what we hear from Luke every year—the prominent role played by shepherds in the Nativity.

To break my sentimentality around that story, I need to recall some of the socially complex features of shepherds in the first-century Mediterranean world. They performed essential work to ensure the thriving of their communities but it was mostly thankless and invisible work. Shepherding was an occupation on the margins of that society, literally marginal as shepherds were required to do their work at a fixed distance from the city gates.

The work itself was challenging. Shepherds had to wrangle obstinate sheep and fend off predators, not only wolves but also larger animals, like bears and lions. They sometimes had to fend off humans, too, the sheep-stealers who would approach the herd under the cover of darkness. That’s why the shepherds in Luke’s story were awake that night, guarding the sheep.

Everyone knew how much they relied on shepherds for their economic flourishing but they were nonetheless treated as outsiders—“dirty, unsophisticated, brutish and vulgar,” as one commentator put it.

It takes little effort to imagine similar occupations in our own society today. I can’t help but think of the migrant farmworkers in the central valley of California, near where I used to live, and now closer to my new home in the fields and orchards of southwest Michigan during peak harvest.

In this affluent resort town, we live very near to a whole class of people most of us who live here seldom see or even think about, yet without whose work the shelves in our grocery stores and markets would have far fewer fruits and vegetables on them; some of these workers actually go hungry themselves.

To people like that, Luke says—from ancient shepherds to today’s migrant farmworkers—an angel of the Lord appeared and the glory of the Lord shone around them.

Luke reports what this angel was sent to proclaim and he reports it this way: “I am bringing you good news,” the angel says, “good news of great joy for all the people.”

For all the people. So here’s at least one reason why Luke has this angel show up first to shepherds—to make clear that the good news meant for “all the people” really does mean all, no exceptions.

“For unto you,” the angel says, “is born this day, in the City of David, a savior”—not only for the wealthy, or the powerful, or the influencers, or the movers and shakers, but for all the people, starting with the ones whom we rarely see and who don’t seem to count.

Now, that would have been enough, more than enough, for that tiny band of shepherds to absorb. It’s not every day, after all, that an angel pays you a visit in the middle of the night and makes your hillside bright with the glory of God.

But there was more.

After this solitary angel delivered the message, the whole sky above them was suddenly filled with a host of angelic beings singing God’s praise.

“Seeing Shepherds,” Daniel Bonnell

That’s a little excessive, isn’t it? Surely the splendor of a single angel would have sufficed to deliver the message.

What might Luke’s purpose be in giving us this Technicolor spectacle of heavenly radiance and divine praise? Why all the fuss?

Luke gives us some hints about this by starting his account of the gospel with an elderly, childless woman who becomes pregnant, and then a young, unmarried virgin who becomes pregnant, and throughout his gospel account with story after story of the powerless, the lonely, the fearful, the marginalized and outcast all taking center stage as the story unfolds about the baby born this night.

A single, solitary angel, no matter how splendid, would not suffice for Luke’s purpose. To those shepherds and everyone else who lives as they do—on the margins and invisible—for them Luke wants to ensure that they hear the good news:

you are not forgotten;
you have not been overlooked;
your lives matter and you count.

So…here’s a heavenly host singing just for you!

Yes, it is excessive.

Indeed, it’s just as excessive as the grace that embraced the prodigal son and that was offered by the good Samaritan to the injured traveler; just as excessive as the compassion given to the widow of Nain whose son had died, to the woman who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears; just as excessive as the generosity shown to Zaccheus the tax collector and the Samaritan leper who was healed—these are just some of the stories that appear only in Luke’s account of the gospel.

Of course a whole heavenly host of angels would sing for just a few ragtag shepherds in a field. Because this is Luke telling the story, and Luke opens his account of the Gospel with a young girl praising God for bringing down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly.

That song of Mary is found only in Luke as well.

May we hear her song throughout these Twelve Days of Christmas, echoed in that angelic chorus of praise. May we hear that song reminding us that the God we worship leaves no one behind; and showers grace first of all on those who are easily forgotten and dismissed; and for all of us becomes touchable, tangible love, a love we can cradle in our arms, like a baby.

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One and Only Noble Tree

Today is Holy Cross Day. This has always seemed to me like a strange time of year to remember and venerate the central symbol of Christian faith. We’re nowhere near Holy Week or Easter, and even Lent is a long way off. On the other hand, every single Sunday in our liturgical lives as Christians, even during Lent, is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead; likewise every Friday is an invitation to remember the passion and suffering of Jesus on the cross. Liturgical time is not particularly linear or even logical.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

Today’s commemoration stems from fourth-century accounts about the Emperor Constantine and the buildings he constructed in Jerusalem to mark the sites of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus; those sites were purportedly dedicated on September 14, 335, and eventually became the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Since then, this mid-September day has been a time for reflection, though not so much on the death of Jesus per se but on the cross itself.

Yes, a bit odd perhaps but I’m reminded rather vividly these days, in an era of heightened ecological awareness, that the wood of that cross was once a living tree. The wood itself, as some strands in Christian traditions would have us ponder, “remembered” its own life as the Lord of Life was hung upon its “branches.”

What I appreciate about this view of the cross is how an otherwise “inanimate” object can still “remember” life, how life is still buried within it, perhaps like the faintest of heartbeats. Indeed, even some early depictions of the cross picture it as a slowly budding tree, as if still rooted, as if still living, as if by being touched by the flesh of the Incarnate Word of God, the life within the wood itself surfaced and blossomed.

Thinking about the cross in this way stretches my imagination and invites me to see life in every nook and cranny of everything God has made. Strictly speaking, there are no “inanimate objects” anywhere in the universe; everything pulsates with life from the Creator. This stands in shocking contrast—perhaps, as theologian Elizabeth Johnson has labeled it, “blasphemous contrast”—to the pervasive treatment of Earth’s ecosystems as a vast storehouse of lifeless stuff for us to mine, harvest, and burn at will.

And so I pause on this Holy Cross Day, not worried in the slightest about how oddly timed such a commemoration might be. The Cross will stand for some time to come for ongoing pain and suffering experienced by God’s creation. Perhaps as well the hope, deeply buried within that suffering, of God’s own life still to come. As with most artifacts and rites of a Christian life, this one is a complex brew of memory and hope—of recalling the death of Jesus and still proclaiming the (startling) promise of new life.

I am helped in all of this, as always, by music and by hymn texts. And every year on Holy Cross Day I recall one of my favorite hymns from Holy Week. It always brings me to tears. It’s an ancient text—some have placed it as early as the sixth century. It invites an astonishing level of adoration for the cross, not as an instrument of death but as the means to see anew the resilient presence of God’s own life. I offer two of the verses from that hymn for our shared pausing and reflecting. The text is by Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus and you can find it in the Hymnal 1982, #165 and #166:

Faithful cross, above all other:
one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be:
sweetest wood and sweetest iron,
sweetest weight is hung on thee.

Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory!
Thy relaxing sinews bend;
for awhile the ancient rigor
that thy birth bestowed, suspend;
and the King of heavenly beauty 
gently on thine arms extend.

“The Beauty of the Cross,” Daniel Bonnell