Advent Week 3: Waiting

Saint Joseph, 1475, Tuscany. Personal photo.

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion…
And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. (Luke 1:24, 56, NRS V)

I have often heard preachers romanticize the tedium of waiting. They say, “Advent is about waiting.” We talk about waiting with hope, about active waiting versus passive waiting. We recall the way kids count down the days until they can open Christmas presents. We talk about the waiting of pregnancy, and about the appropriateness of the metaphor “she’s expecting.”

But it’s all just waiting. Between Mary’s Magnificat, Elizabeth’s prophecy, and the events of Christmas, there’s a lot of waiting. It is notable that the author says nothing about those mundane days. Eight months elapse in two sentences.

We know that the time was not necessarily boring, but it was full of everyday tasks: working, cooking, doing laundry, fixing broken things, weariness, sleeping, travel. The gospel authors, like any good storyteller, skips over these nondescript days in order to advance the story.

That’s one of the reasons I love the carving of Joseph in the photo above. You can see the weariness on his face. This is presumably after the long journey, after Jesus’s birth, perhaps after several sleepless nights of feeding and diaper changing.

It’s also a face full of love, because that’s what makes the waiting and the everyday experiences important. That’s what makes the waiting and the uncertainty and our mortality bearable.

Prayer: Maker of Time and Giver of Life, help us to bear the waiting and the uncertainty with love.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 3: Mary’s Town

Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth, 2019. Personal photo.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:26-38)

In 2019, I had the opportunity to visit the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. This was my second trip there, but one of the things that I took away was the picture of Mary’s family growing up in a cave. The setting is a contrast from most of the European art featuring Mary inside of a medieval-looking castle.

In Nazareth, most “starter homes” were caves. The family would have lived in the cave with any animals they owned. As they gained wealth, they would build on to the cave. At this site, you can see the remains of an addition built of stone adjoining the cave (not in the photo). This additional room was called a “kataluma.” A family who had upgraded their house in this way would continue to use the cave as a stable. Their beds were not permanent furniture, but rather mats they would roll out on the floor at night, and roll up out of the way during the day.

When Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem, they can find no room in the “kataluma.” Floor space at night was at a premium even when people were not hosting travelers.

At this archeological site you can see the kind of village environment Mary would have grown up in. You would constantly have heard the neighbors’ business, as the next cave was only a few yards away. There are several caves stretched along the ridge here. The church is built beside and above these caves. The traditional site where the angel visited her is, like many places in Israel and Palestine, now a worshiping space for pilgrims from around the world.

You can read more about the Church of the Annunciation here.

Prayer: God of the sacred and mundane, you sanctify human life by taking our daily experiences of home and work on yourself. Help us find holiness in everyday places.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 3: What is the “Immaculate Conception?”

Martino Altamonte, The Immaculate Conception, 1719, From Wikimedia Commons

Around this time of year, I will often hear a Protestant Christian (or a non-Christian) refer to Jesus’s conception as the “immaculate conception.” This is incorrect. Many folks think that the phrase “immaculate” refers to the miraculous conception of Jesus, but it’s actually a Roman Catholic doctrine about the conception of his mother, Mary. And it didn’t become official doctrine for the Roman Catholic church until 1854.

The idea of immaculate conception was a way to answer a medieval theological problem: in order for Jesus to be sinless, he would need to be free of original sin. And since original sin was passed down through the generations by sexual reproduction (“fleshly union”), from Adam and Eve until the present day, the only way Jesus could be free of original sin was if his mother was also free from sin. It wasn’t enough that he didn’t have an earthly Father; his mother had to be made sinless, too. So, Mary’s original sin was taken away miraculously at the point of her conception, so that she could become the pure vessel for the incarnate God.

Of course, if God could take away original sin simply by willing it, it raises a bigger question about the atonement: why did Jesus have to die to take away sin?

As a Protestant, neither the doctrines of Mary’s immaculate conception nor her “perpetual virginity” form any part of my theology. I think they have led to some very unhelpful Christian ideas about both sin and sex. I also reject the theology that says Christianity is primarily about “sin management.”

But I do think these ideas about Mary filled a need for Christians to recognize the feminine side of the divine. In Roman Catholic theology, Jesus is not alone either in his sinlessness or his close relationship with the Father. He is less of a rugged individualist, because his mother paved the way for him, and was the model for his humble obedience. It even makes his grandma (Anne) relevant to the story. It reminds us that Jesus did not fall out of the sky, but had a family who nurtured him in both his physical life and his vocation, and that God was active in their lives, too, before he ever arrived on the scene.

You can read about the history of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception here.

Prayer: Creator God, though you are the same yesterday, today, and forever, your mercies are new every day. Help us to see both the wisdom and folly of our theologies, which can only point to you, but never define.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 3: Clowns, John, and the Native Covenant

Hopi Katcinas drawn by native artists (1904) From Wikimedia Commons

Steven Charleston, an Episcopal bishop, writes:

…the funny thing is, even by his own admission, John is the one prophet in the Bible whom we should ignore. Without his message of doom and destruction, we see him in a different light. John becomes a character of pathos. He stands flailing his arms by the banks of the Jordon, wearing his outrageous outfit, making much ado about nothing. In short, John comes off looking a little odd, a little strange, even a little funny. And that is exactly the point. We should remember John, not because he was a very good prophet, which he was not, but because he was a very good clown.

[Charleston, Steven. (2015). The Four Vision Quests of Jesus (p. 56). Church Publishing Inc.. Kindle Edition.]

After this past Sunday’s story of John the Baptist railing about Jesus burning the unrepentant with “unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17), I’ve been sitting with Steven Charleston’s interpretation of John as a clown in Native American tradition. John was wrong. Spectacularly so. Yet at the same time, he was preparing people for Jesus’ arrival — if only by setting them up for a contrasting idea of divine fire.

Charleston goes on to talk about how Pueblo koshares and Plains heyokas served to draw attention to the absurdities and contradictions of life. Hebrew prophets were also performance artists—just think of Ezekiel cooking food over a dung fire, or Jeremiah wearing a soiled loincloth.

Advent and Christmas continue to embody these contradictions: we are in a season of frenzied consumption, yet the message is one about simplicity and poverty. The holiday blues and loneliness sit side-by-side with messages of hope and togetherness. At the darkest time of year, we celebrate the light coming into the world. It’s a time when the holy, mundane, and the profane get mixed together. Advent and Christmas are full of contradictions. No wonder our symbol for Christmas waiting is a pregnant virgin.

I think Bishop Charleston is onto something. John prepares the way by embodying these contradictions. He’s the herald for an already-but-not-yet kingdom.

Prayer: Paradoxical God, you defy our descriptions and confound our reasoning. Help us pay attention to the clowns who reveal our world’s absurdities and contradictions.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 2: Restoration

James Tissot. The Flight of the Prisoners, c. 1896-1902, Jewish Museum, New York, NY. From Wikimedia Commons

I will deal with all your oppressors at that time.
And I will save the lame and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.

(Zephaniah 3:19-20)

Both John the Baptist and Jesus announced that the “Kingdom of God” was “at hand.” In the minds of their listeners, that meant God would soon kick the Romans out and create a new government, and a reign of justice and peace would begin. For people of Jesus’s day, the Kingdom was not an airy-fairy afterlife. It was about a revolution. The material conditions of people’s lives would change.

Their belief in this promise was based on history. They had seen it happen! Their ancestors had been exiles in Babylon for fifty years, but by a miracle of international politics, they were freed and allowed to return home and rebuild their city and their temple.

But the miracle wasn’t complete. They were still waiting for God to finish. After all, the prophet Zephaniah had said, “I will deal with your oppressors at that time, and I will save the lame and gather the outcast.” They remembered the scripture above (which is one of the Revised Common Lectionary readings for this Sunday).

So when John showed up talking about the coming kingdom, people were ready for a change. They weren’t looking to go to heaven; they were looking for heaven to come to earth.

Prayer: Sovereign God, we are still waiting for your coming kingdom. Hurry to heal us. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 2: “You Brood of Vipers!”

John the Baptist icon, Syria (18th Century) From Wikimedia Commons

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
(Matthew 7-10, NRSV)

I imagine the look on the religious leaders’ faces as they heard John ‘s words: “Vipers? Who… us?”

Many religious leaders are used to handing out verbal abuse, preaching hellfire and damnation, and telling us in sermons who is in and who is out. They are not used to having the tables turned, to hear a prophetic word leveled at their own behavior or institutions. Religious leaders like to imagine themselves as John, and not as John’s audience. They prefer Luke’s version of this story, where John chastises the crowds… not the one where he chastises religious leaders.

I think we see this same story being played out in our world right now. White evangelical leaders are hearing criticism from followers and popular authors (like Kristin Kobes du Mez and Jemar Tisby) who are giving voice to those who are “deconstructing” the version of Christianity they’ve been taught. These preachers resent being called “a brood of vipers.” Who doesn’t? Many have become defensive, arguing that Christian progressives and those who are deconstructing racist, sexist, individualistic, and nationalist versions of Christianity are actually rejecting Jesus.

I believe they are hearing the words of John, which are a necessary correction to toxic religion that privileges its leaders’ identity. In our world, white, male, straight, cisgender religious leaders consider themselves the proper “heirs of Abraham,” and their theology reflects that privilege. When John said, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham,” he was saying what we heard in Isaiah 54: Membership in God’s family doesn’t depend on human gatekeepers.

That’s the kind of language that makes religious leaders nervous. It should.

Prayer: Mothering, Fathering God, you keep throwing open gates when we try to shut them. Thank you for your generous, inclusive grace. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 2: Dark Places and Angelic Visitors

The Angel Appearing to Zacharias, William Blake, 1799. From The Met Museum

The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
(Luke 1:20, NRSV)

One of the things that strikes me about the story of Zechariah’s encounter with Gabriel is how closely it mirrors the resurrection story. At one end of the gospel you have Zechariah going into the darkness of the Holy of Holies, carrying the incense offering. He becomes aware that someone is in the darkness with him, and the angel tells him his wife, Elizabeth, will conceive and give birth to John, who will prepare the way for the messiah. But Zechariah leaves mute, unable to talk about this good news.

At the other end of the gospel you have a group of women going into the darkness of the tomb, carrying incense and burial spices. They become aware someone is in the darkness with them, and angels tell them the good news of Jesus’s resurrection. They leave with instructions to spread the good news and they talk freely. But even though they can talk, they are not believed (Luke 24).

These stories bookend Luke’s gospel. They say something about women and men, gender roles and role reversal, authority and the coming kingdom. They both involve visitation from angels, belief and unbelief, speaking and remaining silent. But among many lessons we can draw from these parallel stories, I think they both indicate that we have to be willing to enter into the cloud of thick darkness (Psalm 97:2), where God’s creative power dwells in the Holy of Holies or in the tomb, to encounter life-changing good news.

As a preacher, in this season of Advent, in this bleak time of ecological and political anxiety, I look for the message of angels. I step into the darkness with my incense, and I wonder: will I believe the Christmas message? Will I be able to speak of it with others?

Prayer: You Who Dwell in Cloud and Thick Darkness, when light is scarce, let us walk by faith and not by sight. We know you do your most wonderful works in the darkness. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 2: (In)fertility & God’s Kin-dom

The Babe in the Womb, by Leonardo da Vinci. From Wikimedia Commons

Sing childless woman,
Never-given-birth woman;
Woman, break out a song and rejoice, woman, Never-in-labor woman.
For more are the children of the devastated woman
Than the children of the espoused woman,
Says the Giver of Life.

(Isaiah 54; translation from Wilda C. Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A)

In worship yesterday, we told the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John the Baptist. It’s one of several stories of infertility in the Bible, all of which can be a bit problematic. The grief of infertility for those who want children is very real, as is the stigma laid upon those who choose not to have children.

In Bible stories, miraculous pregnancies and births are the usual sign that God is still with those who feel abandoned, shamed, and shunned. But Isaiah 54 names a different kind of hope. It’s a collective hope for the people of Israel who are in exile, that their descendants will prosper and honor them. People who are not parents are often aunts and uncles, neighbors, teachers, and coaches, who help raise the next generation. Even if others have nothing to do with raising the next generation, they are valuable members of God’s people. This promise is that nothing and no-one is wasted.

Two chapters later, Isaiah makes sure not to leave anyone out: “Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree” (56:3). The promise is not just for biological fertility, but for generativity, purpose, and a future with hope. The bond of the kin-dom is so much deeper than blood relations.

Prayer: God our Spouse, our Giver of Life, create a new family from our fractured world. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 1: Always Arriving

Lorenz attractor by Wikimol. From Wikimedia Commons (click for source)

So also, when you see all these things, you know that the Son of Woman is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Most High God.
(Matthew 24:32-33; translation from Wilda C. Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A)

It’s not often that preachers will tell you that Jesus was wrong, but here’s one of his biggest mistakes: “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” Sorry, Jesus— you were way off with this one.

The early church expected Jesus to return and establish his new kingdom at any moment, “before this generation passes away.” But over the years, one by one, his disciples died. The last eyewitness to Jesus’s ministry may have been the storyteller responsible for the Gospel of John. This apostle lived to a ripe old age, and his community began to theorize that he wouldn’t die before Jesus returned.

When he finally kicked off, it must have been devastating. You can hear the author of the postscript to John trying to account for their disappointment: “So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” (John 21:23)

Jesus himself created that expectation. “This generation will not pass away.” Even today, 2000 years later, we’re still trying to account for his delay.

But perhaps they did see the kin-dom at hand. Time seems to get suspended in Jesus’s words here: heaven and earth will pass away, but not this generation, nor his words. Yet he still doesn’t know exactly when this will happen.

This is one reason we celebrate Advent—”The Arrival”—because God’s act of creating, bringing about the Kin-dom, and birthing something new is always at hand. It is always arriving. Like tender fig leaves, the signs of a new season are already here for those who pay attention.

Prayer: Creating, birthing, and re-ordering God—we wait for you even as you announce your presence with us. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 1: Fig Trees

First and second figs, 1946. From wikimedia commons

From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates.. (Matthew 24:32-33)

I didn’t really understand a lot of New Testament fig tree references until we owned a fig tree. It was young, and stood about twelve feet tall, with five main trunks about as thick as my arm. We ate the fruit straight from the tree when it was dark brown on the bottom, yellowish-brown on the top with just a tinge of green. At this stage, they are just firm enough to give a little pop when bitten.

The squirrels were less discriminating. They would take figs when they were mostly still hard and green, and leave the discarded skins on the porch railing as if they were taunting me. Mockingbirds got in on the action as well. They would take a triangular plug out of a fig while it was still on the tree with one peck of their beak, so I’d get a rude surprise when I reached up to pluck a beautiful fig only to find the other side filled with ants crowding a hole, slurping up the syrup. Each summer was a race between the humans and the backyard critters to get the best figs.

One year, I thought I’d killed our fig tree. We had a hard frost, and I pruned it too late in the winter. While the trees and garden were greening, there were no leaves on the fig by late spring. The disappointment stung; I didn’t realize how much I would miss it. Some of the thinner branches were dead and brittle. I consulted with my wife about what we might plant in its place.

But one day I saw tiny leaf buds just a few inches above the ground on one of its five trunks. Over the next two weeks as milky white sap rose through the interior of the tree, more buds popped out along the trunks, then the branches. Fig leaves are large and distinctive, so they grow and uncurl dramatically. It’s almost as if they were saying, “Ta-da!” To me, it was a resurrection.

This is the image I recall when I hear Jesus talk about the coming kin-dom. Even when it appears dead, the life-essence of the kin-dom is rising from the ground. There will be plenty of fruit for all of God’s critters.

Prayer: Source of Life, may we all enjoy the fruit of your new world. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr.