Christmas Pageant Pandemonium

Christmas Pageant Pandemonium: Untangling—and Untaming Christmas
David R. Weiss

(This is a reprise of an essay I’ve developed over the last 2-3 years; only slightly updated here. A good refresher during Advent!)

You can download a mini-booklet of this essay HERE. Note: it’s a PDF. If you print it double-sided in landscape (short-edge binding) on 6 pieces of paper, you can fold it in half to make a 24-page booklet. If you’d rather have an 8.5×11 full-page copy, you can find that HERE.

Some of my best childhood church memories are of Christmas Eve Sunday School pageants. “Best” because in the pageant as on few other occasions we kids became church. Sure, our parents and grandparents and pretty much everyone else in church knew the story, but we brought it to life for them each year with our earnest reenactment. We made it real all over again—only cuter. In essence, the Christmas pageant is a participatory catechism through which kids act out the cuteness that marks the Gospel.

Except.

Here is the sad truth. In a world that needs the transformative power of Jesus’ teachings more than ever, the standard Christmas pageant doesn’t deliver. Whether retelling the Bible story or telling a more contemporary tale, pageants are often the first and most effective step by which we inoculate our children against ever accessing the power inside Christmas. And, tragically, we do so with love.

Someday I’d like to write a Christmas Pageant that does the opposite: by introducing children to the real power of Jesus that is foreshadowed in the tales of his birth. And then harnessing the cuteness of these kids to introduce their parents and grandparents and pretty much everyone else in church to the Jesus they’ve likely never met, but whose wisdom and faith they—and the rest of the world—need more than ever today.

Let me explain what I mean.

The two birth tales we have for Jesus—found in Matthew and Luke—are just that: two and tales. “Two,” in that they’re quite distinct, having far less in common than most Christmas pageants (or Christmas carols) suggest. And “tales,” in that they’re not history. Each one is a unique imaginative account that serves as something like a musical overture, introducing themes to be developed in the chapters that follow in each specific gospel.

These tales didn’t appear until about fifty years after Jesus died … and about eighty years after his birth. Much as we might wish otherwise, they’re not newspaper accounts of actual events; they were never intended to tell history. But that doesn’t at all render them worthless. In fact, I’ll argue that recognizing them as primarily symbolic tales helps us access their worth. And their worth is a lot.

We know Jesus was born sometime around 4 BCE and died around 30 CE. Neither date is certain, in large part because both at the start and end of his life Jesus was simply too inconsequential for his birth or death to be noted in any detail by those who recorded the history of the day. And even though the resurrection (whatever reality that word names) was clearly a transformative event among Jesus’ followers, it also didn’t make it into any history recorded outside the Bible.

The first written mention of Jesus within the church is found in Paul’s letters to early Christian communities. Dating from roughly 48-62 CE, these letters never mention anything about Jesus’ birth (and very little about his ministry either for that matter). A bit later—sometime between 65-70 CE—Mark brings the first collected set of traditions about Jesus together in the written form we know as gospel. Many of these snippets of teachings, miracles, and crucifixion have already been circulating for decades by now, but Mark puts his own theological stamp on them as he arranges them. (None of the gospels identify their author by name—the names are provided by tradition decades later. I’ll use these names as a shorthand convenience.) As the first to be written, Mark’s Gospel is noteworthy in a couple of ways. It barely has a resurrection: it records a tale of an empty grave, but no description of a risen Jesus. And it includes nothing at all about Jesus’ birth.

Given the importance Mark places on Jesus—his opening verse (Mk 1:1) reads, “The beginning of the Gospel (“good news”/“glad tidings”) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”—it seems likely that had he known of resurrection appearances or birth stories featuring angels or stars, he would’ve included them to support his claim. That he doesn’t, is strong evidence that he wasn’t aware of them and suggests that neither Easter appearances nor Christmas tales developed until after 70 CE.

The fact that stories about both the very start and the very end of Jesus’ life “developed” decades after he lived is helpful to bear in mind. Both Christmas and Easter as we know them today began with the early church’s efforts to make sense of Jesus’ life and death.

Between his relatively brief public ministry (just a couple years at most), the manner of his death (crucified by Rome as a threat to public order) and the miraculous persistence of his followers after his death (the very antithesis of crucifixion’s intent), the church found itself compelled to be audaciously creative in fashioning stories that aimed to mediate good news to the people who encountered them. Indeed, that’s the defining purpose of “gospel” as a genre. The word itself literally means “good news” or “glad tidings” in Greek. But gospel as a literary genre doesn’t refer to literature that merely delivers good news. It delivers good news you experience as you encounter it. It does the thing it communicates—to you.

By the time Matthew and Luke write their gospels, ten to fifteen years after Mark, it’s possible that some birth traditions about Jesus have begun to circulate in certain regions, so perhaps Matthew and Luke are adapting traditions already out there. It’s also possible these two writers chose to fashion their own. Regardless of how much is original with them (i.e., how much of each tale they made up themselves), they clearly and carefully fashioned the final versions so that they aligned with their respective gospels.

That’s a long introduction, but you need at least that much to appreciate my central claim: the real power—the real truth … the JOY TO THE WORLD—in these two Christmas tales is not about miraculous things that occurred in conjunction with Jesus’ birth.

If there’d really been a star and Magi and a massacre of infants or angels and shepherds … why does no one remember any of this when Jesus begins his public ministry? The locals know he’s Mary’s son and that his father was a carpenter—a landless and therefore lower class worker—but not a single person says, “Oh, he’s the guy the Magi visited … the one who sparked that massacre … the kid the angels sang about.” In a culture carried by oral history, such events would not be quickly forgotten, but in all four gospel accounts of Jesus’ adult life, it’s like these things never happened when he was a kid … almost certainly because they never did.

But once we stop trying to make them into historical events, we can instead discover the real joy in these tales—and it is indeed joy about which heaven and nature ought to sing—because they prefigure Jesus’ ministry. And because they beckon us to extend the echo of Jesus in our own lives.

So I invite you to experience the wonder of Christmas not via “historical” accounts that strain credulity but via two audaciously imaginative tales that prime you to hear the whole gospel—and that hope to reverberate so thoroughly in your own heart as to render you a whole new (reborn) person committed to making a new world.

Both Christmas stories are shaped as much by the era in which they were written as by the era eighty years earlier in which they’re set—and also by everything that occurs in between. Matthew and Luke write with the benefit of hindsight. We need to read their stories that way, too. Let’s look at Matthew first.

Matthew writes for a community of Jewish believers who’ve chosen to follow Jesus’ teachings (unlike the majority of Jews who seem to ignore or dismiss him). Knowing this, and thinking about Matthew’s birth tale as an “overture” to the rest of his gospel, three themes appear that are developed throughout his gospel.

(1) Jesus is the “fulfillment” of Jewish Scripture. This doesn’t mean Matthew views Hebrew Scripture as “predicting the future”; rather, he regards Jesus’ life as offering a series of culminations of Scriptural “longings” that can be recognized as they happen. This is part of Matthew’s overall strategy to aid his audience in justifying their fidelity to Jesus over against the disapproval of their Jewish peers (no doubt including family and friends). Matthew includes well over one hundred allusions to the Hebrew Bible and often uses a formulaic expression (e.g., “This happened in order to fulfill …” about the fulfillment of Scripture.

(2) Jesus is portrayed as a successor to Moses, almost like a new Moses—a crucial link for these first Jewish Christian who did NOT see themselves as part of a new religion, but as part of a Jewish renewal movement. For instance, while Mark and Luke spread Jesus’ teachings out across a multitude of short exchanges, Matthew collects them into long discourses—five of them, mirroring Moses’ five books of Torah. In another echo of Moses, Matthew places Jesus’ most famous “discourse” as the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7; Luke sets it on a plain, Lk 6:17-49).

(3) Jesus fulfills/completes both the Abrahamic covenant (blessing to all nations) and the Mosaic covenant (to embody a godly way of life) in ways that reach out to the Gentiles. This is seen clearly in the “Great Commission” at the very conclusion of his gospel where the disciples are instructed to go to all nations (Mt 28:19).

Matthew draws on each of these themes in crafting his story of Jesus’ birth—some eighty years after Jesus was born in relative obscurity. His purpose was NOT to fashion a false narrative of Jesus’ birth but rather a fitting introduction to his gospel.

Besides these Matthean themes, there are two last bits of context we need. First is the religious-political-economic context, which in the ancient world were always overlapping realities. (These realms still overlap today, but by now our “formal” religion has been so domesticated that it rarely so directly challenges political-economic concerns, while our “informal” religion IS, in practice, the faith that places consumer capitalism and national pride at the center of our meaning-making, but that’s a whole other discussion …) In Matthew’s case, his birth story “happens” around 4 BCE—shortly before Herod the Great dies. Just as anyone hoping to understand our era must know something about the 2020 pandemic or the Trump presidency, WE need to know something about the decades before and after Herod’s death to understand the difference it makes that Jesus was born at the end of Herod’s reign.

Herod was himself a Jew, though he was hardly devoted to the Jewish people. Raised Jewish on account of his father’s conversion before he was born, his cultural-religious affiliation was driven more by political aspirations than any sense of piety. He ruled Judea, as Caesar’s appointed king, with ruthless paranoia and fearsome exploitation. He taxed his fellow Jews to the breaking point in order to expand the Temple and build other ostentatious monuments while people went hungry. And he was so paranoid about people plotting against him that he had scores of people executed to protect his throne—including his wife, mother-in-law, and three of his own sons. He was despised and feared—equally. After he died a whole series of movements, some armed and some nonviolent, sought unsuccessfully to reclaim independence from Roman rule. Matthew and his readers have lived that history, and his birth tale expects us to know this.

The other bit of “cultural trivia” we need to be aware of concerns Moses and the popular imagination of the era in which Matthew wrote. Most of us know in broad strokes the tale of Moses’ birth: Pharaoh had grown alarmed at the rising number of Hebrew slaves, issued an order for all baby boys to be killed at birth, and Moses was rescued from the reeds by a princess who raised him safely right there in Egypt until he was called to lead God’s people to in the Exodus.

We also know (and cheerfully accept) that movies like The Ten Commandments and Disney’s Prince of Egypt take artistic license in filling out the story for popular consumption. So did Jewish lore in Matthew’s day. In the decade just before he wrote his gospel there was popular expansion of the Moses’ story (dating from 70-80 CE) that embellished the biblical account. In this popularized tale, Egypt’s “sacred scribes” (the Greek here is Magi!) warn Pharaoh that a boy child will soon be born who will be Pharaoh’s downfall. In this version, it’s the prediction of these Magi that sparks Pharaoh’s edict to kill the boy children. Hmm …

NOW, keeping all of this in mind—and I realize it’s a lot, but we’re talking about Holy Scripture: who ever said this was supposed to be uncomplicated?—we’re finally set to hear Matthew’s tale on something close to Matthew’s terms.

Matthew opens with a genealogy (Matt. 1:1-17) that traces Jesus back to Abraham—thus, he is a “true” Jew; and through David—thus, also legitimate contender to be a messianic king. Because he’s writing for a people who’ve seen their national fortunes wane far more than wax, he arranges Jewish history in three neat sets of fourteen generations (albeit collapsing generations here and there—sometimes telling the truth is more important than hewing to mere fact). From Abraham to David (Israel’s pinnacle); then from David to Exile (Israel’s collapse); and then from Exile to Jesus (a long stretch of stumbling toward a renewal never fully realized), but now in this fourteenth generation something great must surely transpire. Perhaps a renewal like under David: throwing off oppression and reclaiming inward identity. Matthew’s genealogy itself sows hope.

His genealogy also comes with an unexpected bit of gynecology thrown in. Alongside forty-two generations of men begetting men, four women’s names appear. Tamar, twice widowed, ultimately tricked her father-in-law into sleeping with her so that she could bear a child. Rahab, a prostitute-innkeeper, sheltered Hebrew spies at the edge of Canaan. Ruth, a Moabite widow seduced Boaz to marry her. And Bathsheba, raped by King David. Each woman is Gentile—a sort of holy footnote in Matthew’s genealogy that foreshadows how the Great Commission (Mt 28:16-20) brings full circle the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s plan, begun long ago through these women.

Besides that, each woman bears testament to God’s ability, by now long acclaimed by the Jews themselves (after all, they’ve claimed these women’s stories as part of their own prized heritage), to take scandal and use it for holy good. Thus, perhaps these women also appear in order to set Mary’s scandalous pre-marital pregnancy (if that was historically the case) in perspective. Or perhaps they stand as counterpoint to the notion of a virgin birth created by Matthew (or someone else) to heighten Jesus’ status. We cannot say for sure—but we can be sure they are not there merely by accident.

In Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth (Matt. 1:18-25) several things are noteworthy, but not the observation that in this tale Mary says nothing and does little. Here, Joseph is the one visited by an angel (in a dream) three times. Mary remains in the background, carrying Jesus, first in her womb then in her arms. In a patriarchal culture that’s exactly the way you’d expect things to be. (That makes it all the more striking when, in Luke’s story, Mary gains both her own agency and her own angelic visitor, leaving Joseph in the background.)

Three things in Matthew’s story merit special mention.

First, the link to Moses. Matthews tells us that Joseph initially plans to (a) divorce Mary quietly (to break their betrothal) until being (b) reassured through a dream that he should (c) not fear to take her for his wife because (d) the child to be born will save the people. We know that story. But what we don’t realize is that virtually this same scene plays out in the popularized tale of Moses’ birth that appeared just before Matthew’s gospel. In that tale all the Jewish men decide to (a) divorce their wives (to no longer have sex with them, lest they father children that would be killed by Pharaoh), until one of the men, Amram, is (b) reassured through a dream relayed to him by his daughter Miriam that he should (c) not fear to take his wife (have sex with her) because (d) the child to be born will save the people.

It turns out we don’t know really this scene at all. Each of the italicized phrases (a) through (d) is found in the popularized Moses tale of 70-80 CE and then repeated in Matthew’s birth story of Jesus. In these verses Matthew is already setting up the next scene (with the Magi), putting in place the pieces necessary for Matthew’s Jewish Christian audience to hear a tale of liberation as significant as the Exodus itself. And we never knew!

Second, more Exodus echoes. The child to be born is to be named “Jesus,” which in Hebrew is “Joshua”—the name of the person who took up and carried on the work of liberation begun by Moses. And we are told Jesus will be known as “Emmanuel”—meaning “God with us.” We’ve heard—and sung—Emmanuel for so long that it strikes us as a “but-of-course” moment. But during the Exodus God’s presence among the Hebrews leading them out of bondage, through the wilderness, and toward freedom was nothing less than a divine declaration that God, as Emmanuel, the God-with-us, is “all in” against oppression. For Matthew’s readers—first century Jews living (groaning!) under oppression by Caesar and Herod, the name Emmanuel would be no word of warm comfort sung soothingly in a carol, but more a resounding call to be ready for a new Exodus out of bondage and into beloved community.

Third, Matthew borrows an image (“Behold a young woman shall conceive …” Is. 7:14) uttered by Isaiah seven centuries earlier as a word of assurance to one of Israel’s kings and flips it into a daring challenge to contemporary political power. In referencing Isaiah, he takes a Hebrew word that meant “young woman” for Isaiah and translates it with a Greek word that can mean either “young woman” or “virgin.” And then clearly uses it to mean “virgin,” thereby doing his part to shape the tradition of the virgin birth. So, we tend to hear this as “proof” of Jesus’ one-of-a-kind divine origin, but the Jews of Jesus’ day were quite familiar with claims of virginal birth: they were regularly ascribed—usually retroactively after their deaths—to Roman emperors as signs that the gods had approved of their lives.

So far as we know, there were no tales of virgin birth about Jesus that prior to Matthew’s gospel around 80 CE. But by the time Matthew created (or amplified) this tradition—Jesus had been ruled a traitor to the Emperor and crucified under Rome’s authority. So, what better way to retroactively assert that Jesus’ liberating life had, in point of divine fact, been blessed by God, than to take this Roman method of ultimate endorsement and rest it over Jesus’ birth? For Matthew, the virgin birth is hardly interested in asserting a biological miracle; it asserts something much greater—a political-religious miracle: that one nailed to a tree in disgrace was, in truth, blessed by God to liberate God’s people. This is political theater of the highest order.

By the time we turn to the familiar tale of the Magi from the East (2:1-18)—sacred scribes, astrologers, or wise men (but never kings!) who advised political rulers—we might’ve started to suspect there’s more to this scene than we previously thought. And we’d be right.

Besides the now obvious echoes of the Moses birth tale, the scene has almost a farcical quality to it. These Magi (regarded as the savviest advisers around) are so naïve as to ask Herod if he’d heard of a child born to assume Herod’s throne. Really? Herod was so renowned for his brutal paranoia that Caesar once said of him “Better to be Herod’s pig (hus) than his son (huios)”—the wordplay in Greek implying that the Jewish prohibition against eating pork at least gave Herod’s pigs a measure of protection that even his own children lacked.  Next, when asked, the Jewish religious advisors (Herod’s own palace version of “magi”) know immediately where this messianic baby is to be born: Bethlehem. Yet they show no interest in going to find the newborn messiah themselves. Only the pagan Magi do that. Really?! Herod then convinces the Magi to find the child and send word back to him so can go and honor it as well. Really?! And the Magi seem taken in by Herod’s fawning sincerity; it takes an angelic dream to prevent them from notifying Herod. Really?! Finally, after all these echoes of Moses’ birth, where must Joseph take Jesus to keep him safe? Egypt! Really?!

The story drips with irony, as though for Matthew’s first readers it’s not even trying to be taken literally because it carries truth so much deeper than fact. (In this sense, it’s reminiscent of the Book of Jonah, a story that also “broadcasts” fictional irony to amplify its daring truth.)

Christians often interpret the three gifts brought by the Magi as signifying that Jesus is king (gold); priest (frankincense); and prophet-martyr (myrrh). But, given how much Matthew’s narrative is built on images from Moses and the Exodus story, it’s at least as likely that the gifts are chosen to recall key things associated with the Tabernacle that “held” the presence of God (Emmanuel!) as the people of Israel journeyed through the wilderness (Ex 30:1-10; 22-25; 34-38). In that case, serving like a bookend to the four Gentile women named in his genealogy, these Gentile Magi provide the three gifts that will allow this babe—more specifically the man he grew into—to be a Tabernacle of God’s presence that will once again lead the children of Abraham out of bondage.

Each year the retelling of the Passover story heightened Jewish hunger for liberation and freedom so much so that Rome always sent its “national guard” troops out in force around Jerusalem during the Passover festival. In the same way, Matthew’s birth tale, offered to his Jewish Christian audience, is no tame story of a baby’s birth. It is the opening salvo in a gospel that says God’s promise of liberation remains true even under Herod’s paranoia, even under Rome’s watchfulness, even after the crucifixion … even still today.

Now, Luke.

Here are three themes. (1) Luke uses a larger canvas than Matthew. His story of Jesus, still very much grounded in Jewish origins, is pitched to a Gentile Christian audience. While Matthew ends his gospel with the Great Commission, Luke adds an entire sequel—the Book of Acts—in which he chronicles the great commission being carried out. (2) Luke also has a noteworthy emphasis on women as persons with agency throughout his gospel. (3) He also lifts up prayer as the lifeblood of faith, both for Jesus and for the early church. Each theme makes its initial appearance in his birth story.

Luke’s genealogy (Lk 3:23-38) doesn’t match the biblical chronology exactly. (Neither does Matthew’s.) He follows Matthew in including both David and Abraham, but because he’s additionally committed to pitch the story of Jesus as a story for everyone, he traces Jesus’ ancestry all the way back to Adam. Luke’s Jesus is still Jewish, but most of all, human. For the same reason, while Matthew set his Jesus over against Herod, the king of the Jews, Luke sets his Jesus over against Caesar himself, the emperor of the entire Roman Empire. We’ll come back to that theme.

While Matthew sets Jesus alongside Moses, Luke uses the birth of John the Baptist (Lk 1:5-25; 57-80) to sum up all the Hebrew prophets and then make clear that with Jesus something far greater than John (and all the Hebrew prophets) has come to pass. Both stories—John’s birth and Jesus’ birth—involve angelic announcements of special births; telling others about the birth; naming the child; a prophecy about the child; and a reference to the child growing up. It’s a pattern done with intent to show that with John one chapter of God’s salvation history is brought to completion and with Jesus a new chapter is beginning.

But there are a couple pieces of Luke’s tale of Jesus’ birth that require special attention: the annunciation by Gabriel; Mary’s visit to Elizabeth; and the birth itself, including the announcement to the shepherds. Each vignette is brimful of imagery that symbolically challenges the world into which Jesus was born—foreshadowing that Jesus himself would challenge that world as an adult … and suggesting that any pageant hoping to do justice to his birth would make clear that he challenges our world today just as much.

With Gabriel’s angelic announcement to Mary (Lk 1:26-38) we encounter Luke’s choice to make women active agents in the salvation-liberation of God’s people. We hear Gabriel’s announcement: “Son of the Most High … throne of David … a kingdom with no end,” and we nod in polite recognition. But for Luke’s audience Caesar was “Son of the Most High” and his rule seemed to have no end. Hold that thought, we’ll come back to it.

Moreover, when Mary responds, “I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” Luke isn’t recording those words as if he were an on-the-scene reporter. He’s choosing words he hopes his readers will echo in response to his tale.

Soon after, Mary, newly pregnant, goes to visit her older cousin Elizabeth, six months pregnant with John the Baptist (Lk 1:39-56). Elizabeth greets Mary with the exclamation, “Blessed are you among women! And blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The words are explosive for anyone with a knowledge of Jewish stories, and for those who don’t, they lie in waiting to be revealed. Most of us are waiting still.

The phrase “Blessed are you among women”—these words exactly—appear just twice in Hebrew Scriptures (Jg 5:24/Jud 13:18). Both times they’re offered in acclamation to a woman whose heroic fidelity to God has been decisive to saving God’s people. In the Book of Judges, Jael drives a tent peg through the head of an enemy general. Judith decapitates a general and carries his head back to her village in a basket. In both cases women take up a weapon and wield it successfully on behalf of liberation and freedom. Mary’s “weapon,” as the second part of Elizabeth’s greeting clarifies, is the fruit of her womb. As noted above, the decades before Jesus’ ministry and after his death were crowded with movements seeking to renew and liberate the Jewish people. Some by violence, others by nonviolence. Luke uses Elizabeth’s greeting to set his story of Jesus smack in the middle of these efforts.

Mary responds to Elizabeth’s greeting with the prayer-song we’ve come to know as the Magnificat. Here she confirms explicitly what Elizabeth has hinted at with her words of greeting/blessing. Remember, this isn’t a transcript of an actual exchange, this is Luke’s carefully crafted tale. He places these words (drawn in part from Hannah’s prayer of thanksgiving in I Sam 2:1-10) on Mary’s lips. And he does so, not for Mary’s benefit, but for that of his audience—and us.

“My soul magnifies the Lord,” sings Mary. Her praise is grounded in jubilation and joy … on account of being loved by God and beholding God’s activity to bring about justice. The first ground for this joy is that God reaches out to uplift Mary, a lowly peasant—the word translated as “handmaiden” (Lk 1:48) can also mean slave. And if God is lifting up slaves now, then the world is about to shift on its axis. The rest of Mary’s song sings that shift, rippling from her person across the world. The very structures of the world that secure the rich and mighty on top and maintain the poor and the hungry on the bottom are tilted sideways—and then altogether flipped. Mary’s song has been set to music more than any other Scriptural passage, but only because we reduce it to pious wistful imagery. For Mary, and for the first Christians, her song anticipated a truly transformed world. It was—IT IS—a song seeking to seed a revolution.

Finally, Luke sets the birth itself (Lk 2:1-20)—against the backdrop of Roman tribute. There is no historical record of this particular census and while some scholars try to find it “between the lines” of history, many regard it as merely a literary device—a census invented and—used by Luke to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth. (Bethlehem is mentioned in a couple prophetic texts about the messiah, so it’s a helpful detail in the story, regardless of whether Jesus was actually born there.) But the census carries much more literary weight than getting Mary and Joseph from point A to point B. The collection of tribute, alongside Rome’s endless military conquests, fueled the Roman Empire materially. Meanwhile religious language honoring the emperor held the empire together culturally and religiously. And Luke wants his audience to have both in mind.

The manger scene—the height of most Christmas pageants—has its own importance, but probably not the importance we typically attach to it. We hear “no room in the inn,” and we picture Joseph trudging from one little inn to the next with no luck (Lk 2:7). Until finally some kind-hearted innkeeper offers up a stable, with a manger.

But the word translated as “inn” here is NOT the Greek word reserved for a place that rented out rooms. In fact, it’s the same word translated as the “upper room” in which Jesus kept the Passover with his disciples. Elsewhere it’s rendered as “guest room.” And most Palestinian homes of Jesus’ day (and many peasant homes in present day Palestine) feature a manger—often a hole dug into the dirt floor and filled with straw—inside the house and right off the main living area. (The family’s most important animals would be brought inside at night, both to safeguard the animals and to add warmth to the family’s living area.)

Thus, Luke’s description most likely meant to suggest Mary and Joseph lodging with family in Bethlehem (it was, after all, Joseph’s ancestral home—he surely would have had family there), joined by other relatives who’d also traveled to there to be taxed—to be economically exploited and politically humiliated—by Caesar. Because the “upper room/guest room” was already occupied by some of those other relatives, Mary and Joseph stayed down on the main floor, crowded and cozy, alongside the family. In this scenario, Mary was no doubt attended to throughout her birth by female relatives—and then she laid her baby in a manger, a straw-filled hole right there in the main room, with animals on one side—and a whole bunch of relatives on the other.

Thus, in Luke’s telling, Jesus was born against the backdrop of oppression (the census) but squarely in the midst of his people: sheltered by family, fellow peasants. He was “just one of us” from the very start.

Presuming that “us” means primarily “the wretched of the Earth,” the lowly ones that Mary sang about. On the other hand, if “peasant” doesn’t describe us, well, no wonder we find it easier to make the manger scene the object of personal piety rather than the birthplace of revolutionary solidarity.

The shepherds, though, they were—as much as anyone in first century Palestine—the wretched of the Earth. To be a shepherd almost certainly meant that at some point in the past you or your family had “lost the farm” … and had almost certainly done so because of Herod’s or Caesar’s taxes. To be a shepherd meant you weren’t even a hired hand tilling someone else’s land; it meant you followed flocks while they grazed on land not even worth tilling. As marginal as the terrain under your feet—exactly that marginal was your standing in society. To be a shepherd was to be the edge of society.

And yet, as Luke continues, BAM! the angel appears right there at the edge to announce Jesus’ birth. Just as Gabriel had announced to Mary, and as she had sung in response to Elizabeth, right here the world is tilting sideways and then some. The angel tells the shepherds, “I bring you good news / glad tidings (in Greek: “gospel”) of great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The angel choir adds, “who will bring peace on earth.” (Lk 2: 10-11; 14)

Luke isn’t plagiarizing, he’s intentionally echoing the words used to announce the birth of a new emperor. That announcement would be carried by messengers (in Greek: “angels”) across the empire, declaring in each town, “I bring you good news / glad tidings (“gospel”) of great joy to all the people; for to you is born this day a Savior, who will bring peace.”

Of course, for the wealthy, “peace” looks like Law and Order. For shepherds, however, peace looks a little more like Mary’s song. A lot more, actually. And as Luke’s gospel overture reaches its climax, we have a “multitude of the heavenly host” filling the sky and singing praise to God. But the word for host … means army. Those aren’t angels with harps or trumpets; those are battle-hardened winged-warriors singing … with their swords drawn!

If we want a Christmas pageant that carries the truth of this scene, then let’s maybe give those haloed little angels battle axes to carry as they sing “Glory to God.” No, this isn’t ultimately a tale of violent revolution. And later on, Luke clearly presents Jesus as choosing nonviolent resistance. But in this opening scene, he’s being overtly clear in proclaiming that this child will challenge the very foundation of Caesar’s realm. And, nonviolent though the challenge will be, the armies of Heaven will have his back—and ours. And a handful of cute but well-armed cherubs might help us remember that.

Luke concludes his tale with the shepherds—those most marginal of men—becoming the first evangelists, bearing to everyone they meet the glad tidings of a tiny peasant-born challenge to Caesar himself. Mary, meanwhile, ponders everything—holds it prayerfully—in her heart. I like to imagine Luke thinking about the reaction to his Christmas pageant. Some folks will no doubt be eager to animatedly share what they’ve heard. Others will want to let it percolate a bit.

Either response is fine. So long as Elizabeth’s acclamation has been shouted, Mary’s Magnificat has been sung, and the glad tidings of a God-child born to remake the world have been delivered to the edge—well, that’s a start. Time to sing Joy to the World. And mean it.

***

NOTE: After the list of sources, see my brief follow-up reflections, “Beyond Christmas Pageant Pandemonium: What Now? A Little Q & A.

SOURCES – I’ve chosen not to footnote this essay to keep it easier to read. However, for most of you (as for me initially!) this is new stuff. Here’s a brief annotated bibliography that tells you where my information came from.

Bailey, Kenneth, “The Manger and the Inn: The Cultural Background of Luke 2:7,” Theological Review of the Near East School of Theology, 2:2 (11/1979), 33-44, accessed November 24, 2020, Associates for Biblical Research, https://biblearchaeology.org/new-testament-era-list/2803-the-manger-and-the-inn.

ABR describes itself as “A Christian Apologetics Ministry Dedicated to Demonstrating the Historical Reliability of the Bible through Archaeological and Biblical Research.” My focus is a little different. Nonetheless, this article, even while presuming the historicity of Luke’s account, was very helpful in my work to understand the manger and the inn.

Borg, Marcus: The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, HarperSanFrancisco, 1999, “The Meaning of the Birth Stories,” 179-186.

The subtitle says “two visions” because this book is co-authored by Borg and N.T. Wright, an Anglican scholar with a much more conservative perspective than Borg. (I don’t cite Wright’s chapter on the birth stories because, although I read it, I didn’t find it helpful. At all. Borg’s chapter was insightful. The image of these stories as “overtures” comes from Borg. As is his custom, he seeks to let his scholarship inform our personal faith.

Borg, Marcus: Meeting Jesus Again: The Historical Jesus & the Heart of Contemporary Faith, HarperSanFrancisco, 1994, 23-24.

This book is focused on “the Historical Jesus”—the human being, as best we can find him across the reach of history. Hence, Borg treats only very briefly the birth stories, since (in his view—and mine) they are not part of Jesus’ history, but part of the early church’s story about him. Borg asserts that the meaning of the birth stories is revealed when we free them from the constraints of history.

Brown, Robert McAfee: Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1984, “Mary’s Song: Whom Do We Hear,” 74-88.

Brown is my main guide into Mary’s Magnificat; several other authors treat this passage as well.

Byers, Gary A., “Away in a Manger, but Not in a Barn,” Bible and Spade 29:1 (2016), 5-9,  accessed November 24, 2020, Associates for Biblical Research, https://biblearchaeology.org/new-testament-era-list/4111-Away-In-a-Manger-But-Not-In-a-Barn; https://biblearchaeology.org/images/articles/Away-in-A-Manger.pdf.

ABR describes itself as “A Christian Apologetics Ministry Dedicated to Demonstrating the Historical Reliability of the Bible through Archaeological and Biblical Research.” My focus is a little different. Nonetheless, this article, even while presuming the historicity of Luke’s account, was very helpful in my work to understand the manger and the inn.

Crossan, John Dominic: Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, HarperSanFrancisco, 1994, “A Tale of Two Gods,” 1-28.

Although Crossan focuses primarily on the Historical Jesus, his initial chapter looks closely at the birth stories—not because he regards them as historical, but because he sees them as vibrant fictions that reflect the impact of Jesus’ adult ministry. He finds in both Matthew and Luke evidence for an adult Jesus that deeply challenged the power structures and dominant values of the day. He was helpful to me especially in the parallels between John’s birth and Jesus’ birth in Luke and in detailing the “crosstalk” between the first century Jewish elaboration of Moses’ birth and Matthew’s account, from Joseph through the Magi.

Ehrman, Bart D.: A Brief Introduction to the New Testament, New York: Oxford University Press,  2004, 82-87; 103-105.

Ehrman wasn’t a primary source for my thinking. But he contributed a handful of ideas such as the “order” Matthew offers by way of three neat sets of fourteen generations and one point of irony in the Magi account (which I develop much further, into the fivefold farcical set of “Really?!” and the comparison to Jonah, so I’ll take credit for all of that!).

Goldstein, Daniel, “Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh – Ki Tisa,” Jewels of Judaism, accessed November 29, 2020, https://www.jewelsofjudaism.com/gold-frankincense-myrrh-ki-tisa.

While writing the essay itself, largely due to my recognition of how much Matthew is using Moses and the Exodus tale as an inspiration for his birth story, I began to suspect that the gifts of the Magi were also drawn from this source. By googling “gold, frankincense, myrrh, exodus,” I found this article, which at least makes my suspicion quite plausible. But the way I frame the link between the gifts, the Tabernacle, and Jesus-as-Tabernacle in this essay is my own.

Horsley, Richard: “The Gospel of the Savior’s Birth” and “Messiah, Magi, and Model Imperial King,” in Christmas Unwrapped: Consumerism, Christ, and Culture, ed. by Richard Horsley and James Tracy, Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2001) 113-138; 139-161.

Horsley’s work was the primary source for me. His pieces are meticulously researched and he brings both a social/power analysis and a strong liberationist perspective to the text that resonates with my own inclinations. There is more Horsley reflected in this essay than anyone else.

© 2020 – David R. Weiss | drw59mn@gmail.com

Beyond Christmas Pageant Pandemonium: What Now? A Little Q & A

David R. Weiss

A presentation like this one sits differently with different folks. For itinerant skeptics, it confirms years of suspicions about the Christmas tales: they’re almost certainly not real history but early examples of “fan fiction.” For those who regard these tales with deep wonder and devotion—often cultivated lifelong—that same recognition comes as unsettling or worse. For persons just beginning to integrate their critical adult thinking with simpler lifelong faith convictions, it can be an exhilarating yet disorienting rush. And for those who’ve embraced the justice/compassion-centered message of the adult Jesus, the message in my presentation can ring deeply and ecstatically true.

Of course, these aren’t hard and fast categories. I’m sure there are folks who see themselves in more than one of them. So here are some brief thoughtful responses to some likely questions.

My goal, whether teaching in a college classroom or a church setting, is always to present knowledge in a way that can foster faith. Even when what I say challenges commonly held understandings, I offer it with the conviction that the healthiest faith we can hold is one grounded in the best understanding available to us. So, especially if you found your faith rattled by anything I’ve shared, I hope you’ll venture here to see if I address it further. One “spoiler” up front: I don’t think we should “cancel” Christmas or pack away our manger scenes; in fact, they’re more important than ever.

Here are the five questions I’ll respond to here:

  1. Are you really saying, No Magi bearing gifts, no Christmas Star, no Slaughter of the Innocents as described in Matthew’s Gospel?
  2. Are you really saying, No census, no trip to Bethlehem, no inn or manger, and no shepherds?
  3. But—if God IS God, couldn’t these stories have really happened the way they’re told?
  4. But why would the church have not taught us this sooner? Centuries—millennia!—of Christians have grown up taking them literally.
  5. So, what are we supposed to do with Christmas now?

Let’s get started.

Are you really saying, No Magi bearing gifts, No Christmas Star, No Slaughter of the Innocents as described in Matthew’s Gospel?

Short answer: Yes.

There were Magi in the ancient world. But, as I say, Matthew’s Magi tale borders on fantastical-farcical satire-tragedy. Had any Magi truly visited Herod and then Jesus, there were surely be more than one solitary record of it. In communities where oral memory flourished, this would have been remembered.

There were heavenly wonders in the ancient skies: meteor showers, shooting stars, super novae, and “wandering” stars (planets) that occasionally “met up” in the skies in striking conjunctions. Such wonders—anything other than the pinpoint stars that drifted lazily across the sky in fixed patterns each night—were naturally sources of curiosity and speculation. Throughout history people have sought to connect them to historical events. Almost every emperor’s birth tale mentioned some “heavenly portent” that “predicted” his birth. But the movements of the stars or the planets do not directly cause or predict earthly events. Not for emperors. And not for messiahs. It makes perfect sense for Matthew to feature a star in his story, even if there (almost certainly) was no super nova or planetary conjunction in the sky at the time of Jesus’ birth. Matthew isn’t writing history; he’s retroactively projecting the meaning of Jesus’ adult life back to his birth. And he does a masterful job of that.

And Herod was absolutely capable of slaughtering innocent children. His reputation for brutality helps make the symbolic connection with Pharaoh work, but it doesn’t make it fact. Enough tales of Herod’s terror-laden behavior have survived that it’s extremely unlikely that such a slaughter as this would’ve been covered up—certainly not in the memories of the Jewish people. But only Matthew knows this story—because it’s his creation.

So … no Magi, no Star, no Slaughter. But their historicity was never the point! Not for Matthew.

Are you really saying, No census, No trip to Bethlehem, No inn or manger, and no shepherds?

Short answer: Yes.

There were enrollments (censuses) in the Roman Empire; they were used to collect taxes and were often well documented. But there’s no record of this enrollment. Which suggests that Luke is using it for symbolic effect (its connection to oppressive taxes).

Bethlehem was known as the City of David, and there were a few Scripture passages that suggested a future messiah would come from Bethlehem. Because both Matthew and Luke share this notion of a Bethlehem birth it’s “possible” that Jesus was indeed born here, but it seems more likely that both of them (writing in the years 80-85 CE) chose  set Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem because it linked him to David and the messianic hopes associated with David.

That means the inn (the upper/guest room) and the manger (Luke never mentions a stable) are almost incidental to the story. Far from making Jesus’ birth extraordinary, for Luke, they actually serve to say that Jesus was born in the most ordinary way: in a crowded home, packed with extended family because of that oppressive taxation strategy. To a first century Jewish (or almost any Middle Eastern) peasant, the story exudes normal.

Of course, shepherds were commonplace in the world into which Jesus was born. So they’re also very much “at home” in a tale like this. But their role in Luke’s story (written 80 years after the birth—and with the knowledge that Jesushad grown up to challenge Caesar) was to show that when this child was born, it was the most lowly who received first notice. That’s something much more than history. It’s theology. And it echoes Elizabeth’s greeting and Mary’s Magnificat in declaring that the God so active in Jesus’ adult life is the same God who has always championed the least of these.

But—if God IS God, couldn’t these stories have really happened the way they’re told?

Well, Yes … but—

This gets into some really thorny questions about how we understand God, and how God acts in the cosmos, but I’m going to leave those for another day and just address the “Yes … but—”

First, the “yes.” Well, there are conservative, and even some mainstream scholars who will reply “yes, absolutely!”

Now the “but.” But I’m writing for, speaking to, and thinking with progressive Christians. I’m trying to help all of us (myself included!) wrestle faithfully—using both heart and head—with the story of God who is still speaking. So I’m drawing on solid scholarship that I believe can help progressive Christians do this. I don’t find those conservative traditional arguments persuasive. More importantly, I think they end up missing the mark, distracting us from paying attention to what mattered most for Matthew, for Luke, and, indeed, for God.

To say that God could’ve done these things seems to miss the point. These stories were written to prepare us to learn about Jesus’ adult life of faithfulness to God and solidarity with God’s people, his miraculous compassion, and his determination to sow the seeds of a community that reflected his—God’s—vision for our life together. If THAT’S their purpose, then we may well miss the point of Christmas altogether if we’re more interested in believing these tales as historical fact rather than receiving them as rich symbolic introductions to the Gospels themselves.

The irony is that once we recognize that, from the vantage point of history, nobody noticed when Jesus was born (and that’s why there are no historical accounts of his birth), THEN we can also recognize that Matthew and Luke have filled these birth tales, these Christmas overtures, with themes that help us meet the adult Jesus. And THAT’S the real miracle God is working at Christmas.

But why would the church have not taught us this sooner? Centuries—millennia!—of Christian have grown up taking them literally.

This is complicated. And I’m determined to be brief, so some of this answer will get filled out in future presentations. One part of it is that the early church, already by the end of the first century, was trying to reign in and “manage” the impact of Jesus’ ministry. His announcement of God’s kin-dom—God’s gracious embrace of the all of us—was shaping a new form of community. Yet we see efforts in some of the last Epistles written, to “roll back” Paul’s more radical notion of gospel equality and freedom for the early church.

A second part of the answer is that when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity (312 CE) the church became a political tool used to unite the Roman Empire. Before long, from its now favored place within the corridors of power, the church became a sort of chaplain to the empire’s desire to secure order and maintain social relations blatantly at odds with Jesus’ message. This dynamic continued throughout Europe’s era of colonialism and the U.S. expansion westward. The American church played a central role in the cultural genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans. Really, ever since Constantine—for the past 1700 years—the church has largely maintained its own access to power and privilege by “burying” Jesus’ solidarity with the poor, so that Christian charity is prized, but Christian pursuit of social justice is suppressed.

So this is about MUCH more than just Christmas. Why did (large portions) of the church cooperate with slavery right through the civil war? Why did the church effectively silence women for 1900 years? Why did it promote the condemnation and terrorization of LGBTQ persons for 2000 years? Why has the church consistently found it easier to endorse whatever war its home country is fighting than to stand alongside its “Prince of Peace”? Why did white evangelical Christians overwhelmingly support Donald Trump? I could go on, but this is plenty to make my point. First, if we’re honest, the church has been sorely mistaken about—no, it has betrayed the love of God on a whole bunch of issues over the past 2000 years. Second, in the big scheme of things, missing the mark on Christmas is a pretty small oversight compared to the other examples just mentioned.

BUT—going a step further, in some very real ways the church’s preference to treat Christmas as a tale of holy wonder rather than an audacious overture to God’s gracious-risky-daring-unexpected embrace of the least of these, THAT MISSTEP helped—and still helps—prepare Christians to MISS the very power of Jesus’ life.

Alongside many lonely voices in every age (sometimes acknowledged as saints, sometimes condemned as heretics)—it’s taken feminist and womanist voices, slave and black voices, queer and immigrant voices, poor and global voices, in recent years for us to begin to hear more clearly the power of Jesus’ life. This is why the UCC has chosen to affirm that “God is still speaking.” It’s the honest recognition that we STILL have much to learn as we seek to be the church. And with the stakes so high in the multiple crises facing us today, being the church as faithfully as we can is more important than ever. How we celebrate Christmas is one part of that … and a pretty big part, if you ask me.

So what are we supposed to do with Christmas now?

Of course, that’s not entirely up to me, but I do have some thoughts on this. Foremost, we should NOT put away our manger scenes or hide the shepherds and magi. Matthew and Luke gave us these stories and filled them with faith-nurturing images. Our task is to make sure we access them.

We can—and ought—to be more honest about the powerful social justice imagery in these stories. That ought to be reflected in adult forums like this, but also throughout our Advent worship season and right into our Christmas liturgy. We can—and ought—to “re-true” these tales to the powerful message of Jesus’ life. That’s absolutely possible, and our discomfort in changing the way it’s always been celebrated is a real—but insufficient reason not to. This would take some thoughtful work, but there are persons already doing it, so we’d have company on this journey.

I don’t think we’d need to “forsake” all our favorite Advent hymns and Christmas carols. In fact, by framing them in worship with prayers, readings, and sermons that help “untame” Christmas, these old familiar songs would find a new voice of their own. And we could balance them with other ones already in our hymnal, and some new ones as well, that help us sing the truth of Christmas yet more clearly.

And, I will say that I fully believe we could imagine a children’s Christmas pageant in which we catechize our children in the deepest truth of our faith by inviting them to re-enact the story in ways that help surface the meanings that Matthew and Luke put there. It could be done with sensitivity and creativity alongside audacity. Audacity is what Matthew and Luke display in their telling. It’s time we let it speak in our re-telling. Children are more than up to that. (Which might be why Jesus suggested they could show us the way to the kingdom of God.) I’m betting they could become the church and offer us a Christmas pageant more poignant and powerful than any we have ever experienced in all of our lives.

Now I’m getting ahead of myself. Bottom line: we have an opportunity to meet Christmas … in the spirit of Jesus. Doing so will almost certainly put us at odds with the Herods and Caesars of the word today. And we may find ourselves uncomfortably close to those at the edge—today’s hungry, lowly, outcast, oppressed, shepherds. But we might also … in the voices of children and also in the unexpected gracious yearning within our hearts  … discover angels singing about glad tidings that promise to overturn the ways things are. And that song might sound like gospel as never before.

© 2020 – David R. Weiss | drw59mn@gmail.com

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

Percy is the World to Me

Percy is the World to Me
David R. Weiss – October 29, 2022

These days Percy is the world to me.

But wait. I’m not sure you grasp the complicated depth of that statement. Let me unpack it.

Percy is my cat. Our cat. He’s shared himself with Margaret and me for the past eight-plus years. But he was already ten when we took him in, so he’s well into his nineteenth circle around the sun. A ripe old age for a cat: around 90 years on a human scale.

“Shared” is a term he lived into at his own pace. Spent the first week or more “living” under Margaret’s dresser. Slinking out only to eat, drink, pee, poop. Eventually he warily explored our home … and, even more warily, us.

Indeed, Percy has been zealously guarded with his affection the entire time he’s been with us. It’s fair to say he warmed only to me, Margaret, and Susanna (who, despite her rather rare appearances in these parts had a cat-whisperer connection to Percy). Everyone else … he tolerated. At best. Our grandchildren desperately wanted Percy to warm to them. Standoffish would be generous. The unpredictable energy of kids terrified him.

But among the three us—Margaret, me, and our feline housemate—a felicitous rhythm emerged. Nightly he joined us for the 10 o’clock news. “Joined” is the operative word because he insisted on being in between us on the sofa, his body the bridge that joined us to one another. After the news he often led the way upstairs to bed, waiting on the near corner of the bed for his treats, which he chased down as they bounced across the bedspread.

Then as we crawled into bed Percy would often position himself on Margaret’s chest, his chin brushing her chin, their breath rising and falling in silent call-and-response until one of them (usually Margaret) fell sound asleep. Or he would crawl along my left side and pester me for pets and chin rubs until, satisfied, he’d curl up with his butt alongside my hip so that I could fall asleep with my hand resting on his back.

Beyond this, Percy was frugal—even to us—with his affection. He loved to supervise in the kitchen—by settling down in front of the cupboard or the sink so that we had to step around him to fix the meal. And he occasionally sought out pets and chin rubs while we were reading. But mostly he was content with—and deeply attached to—the rhythm of “family” that played out daily between 10pm and midnight.

Percy both begrudgingly and tenderly entwined himself into our lives.

Eight years of that, and now each day hints at an apocalypse. While he slowed considerably over the past half-year, in the past month he’s been making ready to die. In mid-September he lost his ability to find his treats. By early October he was ignoring his dry food, so we upped his wet food servings. A week ago, he stopped eating even the wet food, content to only licking the liquid off the top. So, for seven days now, he’s subsisted—no, he’s slowly withered—on a diet of food juice and water. He still makes his way to the litter box, often bumping gently into objects along the way. Except for these trips to pee or to sip a bit of water or juice, he sits. Sits and sleeps. All day long. Waiting for death. He is weary of life but in no apparent pain.

And so, as best we can, we keep watch with him. We carry him to the sofa for the 10 o’clock news. We carry him up to bed where he is still happy to settle in on Margaret’s chest. And we stiffen our muscles and joints sitting next to him where he lies on the kitchen floor.

All of this suggests HOW Percy became the world to me. And now his impending death sets the orbit of my days. His waning life directs the ebb and flow of my emotions.

But the WHY, that is a deeper darker heavier mystery.

It is my joyful sorrow to accompany him, to offer kindness as he wends his way toward his end. An end that I cannot stop. And while there is sorrow—of all creatures, we humans were designed to run on connection—I am adamant: if sorrow is the price of feeling connected, it is a modest price indeed. I am glad to be present in these waning moments of connection to a life that has never been less than mischievous mystery to me.

So, the WHY.

If you read the news, you know that my world—not Percy, but the socio-ecological fabric of the planet—is stumbling toward death as surely as my cat is. That world. Our world.

Maybe you don’t read the news. Well, just days ago the UN Environment Programme reported there is now “no credible pathway to 1.5 C [temperature rise] in place.” Our best hope for averting widespread catastrophic climate breakdown is now effectively foreclosed. The same report noted that under current policies we are on target for a 2.8 C rise by 2100. The Guardian editorial board opines (2022/10/28) that this “would—and probably will—mean destruction on a scale that is hard to imagine, even after what we have already witnessed.” Meanwhile some oil and gas companies have doubled their profits in the past quarter: taking a burning world to the bank.

I do not say this glibly, but all too seriously: our odds of avoiding all-out catastrophic climate change and socio-ecological collapse are about as good as Percy’s odds of making it through next week. And those odds are ZERO. Those odds are zero.

This is a very heavy WHY.

What do we do when the odds of happy (or even barely satisfactory) resolution are mere fancy? Do we despair? Or rage? Do we cower in fear? Arm ourselves against others? Do we double-down on denial so we can dance the night away until the lights go out?

Well, Percy is the world to me. Which is to say, I know from these very days that it is possible to choose to harbor an abundance of presence and kindness even when “hope” for anything like happy resolution is out of question.

That doesn’t mean nothing else matters. It does mean that cultivating kindness and presence to self and others matters more than anything else.

Yes, action matters, too! Eat a plant-based diet. Drive less. Go solar. And more. But the best ground of worthy action is to root oneself in kindness and presence—and the nearness of death. Thus, joyful sorrow is the paradox in which our lives find meaning. And outside that paradox whatever life offers us is merely masquerading as meaning. When death is so irrevocably near, then joyful sorrow—or sorrowful joy—is the loom on which we weave. We would like a bit (actually, a lot) of unmitigated joy. For ourselves. And our children. Especially our little ones.

But, as with Percy right now, unmitigated joy is not on the table. Not for him. Not for us.

Ultimately, then, it’s less that Percy is the world to me, than that the world is Percy to me.

I look out on the world, and I am glad to be present in these waning moments of connection to an entire world that has never been less than mischievous mystery to me.

There is so much to do. And time is short. But—I will write this in a million ways—what matters most is presence and kindness.

Just ask Percy.

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

Remembrances for Mom at her Funeral

Remembrances for Mom at her Funeral
David Weiss (with Deon, Deb, and Dad) – August 29, 2022

The memories I’ll share come from Deon, Deb, Dad and myself. I’m sure I’ll miss many others. So, I hope during lunch today that you add a few more memories to the handful I share here.

Mom. Eighty-eight years and eight days. It’s a long stretch of life.

I think about Mom & Words

When we were kids, Mom read bedtime stories to us nightly. She’d sit in the hallway, at the corner where our two bedroom doors met and read books that stretched from one night to the next. The Mouse and the Motorcycle. Key to the Treasure. How Many Hills to Hillsboro. And countless others. Simple tales. They were children’s books, after all. But she instilled in each of us a lifelong love of reading. The gift of vibrant imagination. The ability to find truth in tales well-told.

Later, she loved reading to nieces and nephews and grandchildren. As her grandchildren multiplied, so did her collection of picture books to read with them. And she read to herself. Our hallway was lined with a bookcase for her books, but they spilled over onto shelves and nightstands and corner tables around the house as well.

She read … until she confided a few years ago that by the time she turned to the next page, she couldn’t remember the last one.

Mom also wove words. She could make up simple tales of adventure, customized for a particular child, widening their world with wonder. She not only led, she wrote bible studies for her church women’s group. And, as many of you know, for fifty years she wrote an annual Christmas letter that stitched together the news of our family, both sorrows and joys. We knew the grace of finding our lives held by Mom’s words.

I think about Mom and Music

We grew up surrounded by music. Mom occasionally played the organ at church … though none of us kids really remember that. But we do remember piano-playing at home. Children’s sing-along records. Collections of hymns. Musicals, during which we joined Mom on the Broadway stage to belt out songs from Mary Poppins, the Sound of Music, Camelot, Oklahoma, The King and I, and more. Mom had the best singing voice in our family—by far—but she invited all of us to make a joyful noise, even when we missed the notes.

Christmas records got playtime from Thanksgiving through Epiphany. A wide range of other music filled our home the rest of the year. Until 4 or 5 years ago when Mom’s dementia played havoc with her auditory sensitivity. Besides making the church PA system unbearable for her, it rendered our home … silent. Music left her life.

In a final reprieve, just over the past year, that sensitivity diminished, and she and Dad relished watching Lawrence Welk reruns every Saturday and Sunday night. They listened side by side, Dad hearing again the music they enjoyed together 60 years earlier, Mom hearing now as though for the first time music only vaguely familiar, both lodged and lost somewhere in her memory.

I think about Mom and Food

Mom was a good cook. We each have favorite Mom-meals and dishes. There were fancy, custom-shaped and decorated birthday cakes; jello cakes in the summer, oreo dessert almost always waiting in the freezer, puff pastries with grandkids.

We baked cookies together, each of us with Mom in turn. Nieces, nephews, and grandkids, too. She gave us an ease in the kitchen, a love for baking, an eagerness to share food. Don became an amateur gourmet chef. Deb saves a whole week of vacation each year just to do Christmas cookie baking. Deon and I both cook and bake as well—and have passed that love on to our own children … and grandchildren.

But food was never just about food. It was the joy of creating such deliciousness from scratch. And sharing it afterwards. Food was about being together. The Bible study Mom wrote was on bread and the Bread of Life—the interwoven holiness of physical and spiritual food. It was as though her life prepared her to write that study, and once written, it replayed itself again and again in our home.

I think about Mom and Hospitality

Mom was on the quiet side, but her gift was to make YOU feel welcome. Every year as we grew up, Mom welcomed the new teachers to St. Paul school, often with homemade bread, followed by an invitation to a home-cooked meal. We learned—we experienced—the sacred power of hospitality. And it left an imprint on each of our lives.

Our home was filled with quiet puzzle-working and raucous game-playing. It’s true, Mom occasionally shushed the games’ noisiness, but you could tell she was still happy to see family and friends having fun. Just this past Friday night, the loud laughter around the table as we played cards would’ve had Mom covering her ears … even while her eyes would’ve twinkled with joy.

In college and seminary, I frequently brought friends home with me. One time I brought a seminary classmate—Daniel, a pastor from Tanzania doing extra study at Wartburg Seminary. When he learned Mom sewed, he asked her to teach him, so he could buy a sewing machine to take back to his wife in Africa. Dad found a good second-hand machine (easier to learn, smaller to pack, and fewer things to go wrong) and Mom taught Daniel to sew—a gift of hospitality that traveled half-way round the world when he went home to his wife.

Mom made connections. As people from her past have learned of her death, many have used that word—“Your mom made a connection with me.” Mom was quiet hospitality in action.

Finally, I think about Mom and Fabric

Mom sewed. She made quilts for each child; then for each grandchild. And for many of her great-nieces and nephews. She made clothes. Deon recalls that her first store-bought dress was for eighth grade confirmation. Prior to that, Mom made all her dresses.

I don’t recall Mom so much making my clothes as mending them. Again. And again. And again. As a boy I went through the knees of my pants decades before torn-open knees became fashionable. Mom patched those knees, one after another after another. I had a particular pair of beloved shorts. Each time I wore—or tore—a new hole, I begged Mom to patch it “just one more time.” And she did—twenty-three times. Thankfully, I outgrew the shorts before I outlasted Mom’s patience. But not before Mom one time opened the crotch and used a patch to give me another year with them.

These shorts are the only piece of childhood clothing I still have: evidence of Mom’s love that held me, patched me, and sent me back into the world again and again. Mended. Made whole even amid tears (and tears).

But fabric isn’t only cloth. Mom also worked with the fabric of life—most often by listening, which was perhaps her finest superpower.

Whether out in the gazebo in our backyard, while washing and drying dishes, or while sitting quietly in the living room, Mom’s compassion radiated outward from her heart through her ears. At critical times in each of our lives, her listening presence steadied us, wrapped us in unconditional love, and urged us to find and honor our truest selves. This was true for Dad and for each of us children.

In the obituary I wrote: “Carol saw herself in Luke’s description of Mary (2:19)—as someone who pondered things in her heart. She felt deeply the pain around her, whether family, friend, or wider world. She held many things prayerfully in her heart, and in a multitude of unseen ways she sought to mend the world.”

Ultimately dementia tore her world asunder. And there was no patch for that. And yet, her fierce habit, her tenacious holy ritual over these past years, was that she would go to bed, almost always before Dad, and wait for him to join her so she could hold his hand for a while before falling asleep. She did this straight through her dementia—right up until a week before she died when her awareness drifted away altogether. Reaching over to hold his hand, it was as though she knew in these final years that it was her turn to be mended.

And so it is, Mom. Be mended and made whole.

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

Channeling Stardust

Channeling Stardust
David R. Weiss – August 21, 2022

Sometimes in our less than stellar moments we discover that we are somehow channeling stardust.

Before leaving Michigan City this morning I decided, with some small measure of trepidation, to sing one of Mom’s favorite hymns to her while she lay in bed.

I should clarify that. I sing in a group, ideally a whole cloud of witnesses singing together, so that my notes are “chaperoned” by the stronger singers around me. On my own, doing my honest best to match word to melody, I … bleat.

Besides which, “Beautiful Savior” is on Mom’s short list of favorite hymns, not mine. And although it is well-known to me from years of singing it, beginning in Cherub Choir in my elementary years, these notes were not made for my voice. Still, I sang. Well, bleated.

The tune was suddenly far more familiar in my distant memory than the immediacy of my mouth, with notes dangling like participles wondering where their words are. By the end of verse one, my voice teetering between sincerity and shame, I questioned if I should spare her the rest. But when I glanced up Mom, eyes closed, she seemed … almost blissful.

Whether that was wishful thinking or not, I made the decision to plunge forward, doubling down on my confidence with cacophonous fury. I finished verse four, trading “Beautiful Savior” for the prayerful relief of a “Sweet Jesus!” whispered beneath my breath.

I walked around to Mom’s side of the bed to say good-bye. As I gently kissed her forehead, her eyes sprung open and she said, “Thank you, thank you!” with all the lucid zeal of a woman I hadn’t encountered in over a year.

I know, it’s just four words (okay, just two words, repeated). But these words used to be her standard expression of joy in thanking me at the end of a visit. And they were spoken with crisp clarity and something close to a twinkle in her eye.

I told her I was going home to Minnesota for a few days, but that I’d be back. I told her (again) that I loved her. It was the longest sustained eye contact of the four days I’d been with her. Then she said, “Will you give me a kiss?” And puckered her lips in hopeful anticipation. This, too, was my mom of a much earlier dementia, a mom I hadn’t encountered at all in 2022. I planted a holy healing kiss on her lips and said goodbye.

Four days earlier, while driving from Minnesota to Indiana, I penned an acrostic, reflecting on my “mission”: going home … to kiss mom goodbye. But during my entire visit she was pretty much lost in her thoughts—or in whatever tangled neural thicket has almost entirely stopped her thinking. Every encounter a reaching toward someone receding away.

And yet, for a single, short, sustained moment today we met in a middle space.

I don’t imagine for a minute that enough singing would turn back time on the disease that has ravaged her brain. It’s been ten days since she last ate. I see the gaunt lines framing her face. The exhaustion of both her spirit and her body is palpable. I can feel her growing restlessness for a peace not available to her in these parts anymore.

My singing won’t undo any of that. But for two minutes this morning I sang the fog away and we beheld each other. And we kissed each other goodbye.

Sometimes in our less than stellar moments we discover that we are somehow channeling stardust. Thank you, sweet Jesus.

But don’t look for me to join the church choir anytime soon.

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on August 21, 2022. 3 Comments

There are No Words

There are No Words
David R. Weiss – August 21, 2022

As I drove to Michigan City on Wednesday, I tried to think of all the “final words” I would say to Mom. The memories I’d touch on. The gratitude I’d voice. The love I’d speak again and again.

It turns out there are no words to speak.

Mom manages confused sentences here and there. I’m not sure she’s put more than two of them together before veering off into a lost direction. Mostly she says nothing at all, lingering between sound sleep and someplace between dozing and delirium.

If I speak, it’s clear my words mostly just deepen the disorientation that engulfs her. I have named a few precious memories. I have said “thank you.” And I have told her I love her a couple dozen times. But I am keenly aware that I’m just throwing spaghetti at a wall—and none of it is going to stick. Truly, there are no words.

Today I just held her hand for a good long time. Making peace with the “no words” that are left to say.

I remembered Professor Ed Schick from Wartburg Seminary. My very first semester there, in a course on Matthew’s gospel, he was explaining the phrase common in Jesus’ preaching, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Sometimes translated as “drawn nigh,” sometimes as “at hand.” Ed reached out his hand, stretching it far in front of him and looked out at us. “How near?” he asked. “Close enough … to touch. At hand.”

A simple wordplay to make a point. But it became the shape of my life. That somehow the kingdom of God is what transpires at the end of our fingertips. My life-contorting passion for doing justice, chasing after mercy, and walking humbly with God was rooted in that phrase, “at hand.” My conviction, presented in a kaleidoscope of images over the years, that compassion is the very heart of God—was born right there in Ed’s class.

The kingdom of God—the life-changing, world-transforming dynamism at the heart of All That Is—it appears in the space that closes between two human lives in the moment of touch.

In the warm washcloth used to wipe Mom’s face. In the awkward intimacy as Deb and I work to change her wet pajama bottoms. In gently bringing the sippy cup to her lips. In lifting her—with a wordless grunt—into bed when she has collapsed in my arms. And in simply holding her hand.

There are no words. But the kingdom of God has surely drawn nigh.

At hand.

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on August 21, 2022. 1 Comment

The Long Edge of Death

The Long Edge of Death
David R. Weiss – August 19, 2022

Liminal means “on the edge of” as a threshold: an edge between. That’s where Mom is right now.

When I learned on Tuesday that she would be entering hospice, I was a bit caught off guard. Dementia has been slowly but surely erasing her Self over the past decade or so—especially over the past three or four years. But she was still regularly “with us.” If only for a handful of hours each day, she would nibble a meal, relish her sweet treats, work away at her booklet of simple word games, play solitaire, wander the house, and ask repeatedly for car rides.

No longer her full Self, but still engaged with life albeit in a diminished capacity. Still mostly well aware of Dad. And still showing glimmers of recognition of each of us kids.

That began to shift, barely perceptible at the time, in early August. Her health has ebbed and flowed over the years, and I think we initially assumed this was just another ebb … to be followed by a flow, or at least a plateau. Two weeks later we can see that this ebb was the beginning of her final ebb.

For the past year or so Mom has lived for rides. Sometimes four or five per day. She rarely paid much attention to the sights, and recognized little that was familiar anymore, but something about being in the car soothed her. So Dad kept driving her, even when it drove him to distraction. On August 10, Mom got up late in the afternoon. She had a bite to eat and was ready for her ride. They drove and drove that day. When Dad pulled into the driveway, Mom asked longingly, “Can’t we go just a little bit further?”

There was a pleading insistence in her voice, so Dad pulled back out and they drove on—pretty much into the sunset. Dad figures it was a 50-mile ride altogether. Maybe that pleading insistence was Mom sensing something was different.

The next day, Thursday, was Deb’s 54th birthday. But when she came over with a little birthday cake to share, Dad couldn’t entice Mom to come join them in the kitchen for cake. Mom was not one to pass up a chance for something sweet. But this night she stayed in the living room. Deb said afterwards Mom was “very quiet”—as though her stillness filled the whole room, an aura declaring “This is my silence now.”

Over the weekend Mom stopped eating altogether. As though her appetite for food—and her appetite for life—had vanished in sync. She barely got out of bed—and if she did, it was only to flop on the sofa or slump into her rocker and resume dozing. Dad noticed she needed some real help navigating the house—a first. She was increasingly lost, not just in her mind, but in her home and on her feet.

Sunday night she expressed interest in a car ride but needed significant assistance from Dad to get out to and into the car. After a lifetime of car rides, this was probably her last. Who knew?

Monday Dad was ready to call the doctor to have Mom checked, but when he heard Deon was coming up on Tuesday, he decided to wait until she was here, too. He thought he might need both Deon and Deb to help him. He did.

Dad and Deb managed to get Mom up and dressed, and then they led her down to the living room. Disheveled is compassionate. “Pretty rough” was Deb’s text to me. Somewhere between child and crone, between stumble and stupor. Deon and Deb guided her outside and into the car, which Dad had waiting with the door open. At the clinic Deb went in and brought out a wheelchair, which she and Deon moved Mom into and took her inside while Dad parked the car.

Mom has been sedentary for years, but she’s never struggled with mobility. My guess is that getting ready to die has been more exhausting than we could imagine.

After a brief examination, the doctor’s recommendation was clear: it’s time for hospice. When I heard she was going to the doctor on Tuesday I was still counting on more flow to follow this latest ebb. But as I spoke on the phone afterwards, first with one sister, then the other—and with hospice now waiting in the wings—the finality of this ebb began to settle in. They each encouraged me to make plans to come “now”; not to wait until after hospice did the initial in-person at-home evaluation the next day.

The urgency was twofold. First, if I wished to be with Mom before her wits entirely left her, to be able to say “goodbye” and “I love you” and have it mean something to both of us—well, my sisters were clear: that window was closing. And fast. Second, it seemed important—infinitely so—that we step across this threshold together. That Mom’s husband and three children (our older brother died in 2004) be here together lest the absence of any one of us prove too much for the rest of us.

I packed that night and left the following morning. Hospice arrived hours before I did, so I missed the first consultations with the social worker and the nurse. But when I did arrive Wednesday evening, I went straight to the bedroom to let Mom know I was here. She was not nearly as impressed by my arrival as I was. She was impressed (or distressed?) enough to comment on my long hair. When I asked how she was, she replied, “Oh, I don’t know anymore.” It was less frustration than honesty speaking. Now 7:30 in the evening, she had not gotten out of bed at all yet. She looked like she was practicing her casket pose, though her eyes fluttered now in a way I doubt they will then. She was clearly no longer invested in this life. On the edge of dying, but not agitated or restless. Just weary. Bone weary. All day long.

Wednesday night around nine she made her way to the living room sofa, crawled onto it and lay down as if to go back to sleep right there. I went and sat by her for a while, joining her silence. She thanked me for “just coming to hold my hand,” and two minutes later she released my hand and said, “You may depart.” And so I did. Perhaps it gets crowded at that edge.

Thursday when the nurse came for a follow-up consultation, I asked how quickly this would progress. Mom was more at the edge of death than I’d ever seen anyone. She’s literally spending 23-plus hours either asleep or not-asleep-but-not-awake-either. Her wakefulness comes in 5-minutes gasps across the latter part of the day, and it seem to take all her remaining energy to muster for that brief time. At the edge of death.

The nurse demurred. No signs of “active dying” yet. Mom is still in a long slow coast toward death, but it could easily be seven, ten, twelve days before that final end even begins. That final stage of active dying—the body slowly shutting down one system after another—will likely last 24-48 hours.

Who knew there was such a long edge to death? (Maybe you did. I did not.) I pretty much expected to come home, settle in, and keep Mom company for 3-4 days while she died. Turns out she has other business to attend to. I can’t say what that is. And she’s not telling. It looks like she sleeps pretty much all day. But the nurse says she’s not dying just yet. She’s just mostly stopped living.

You could say she’s liminal. An embodied edge between. Apparently, it’s a wider threshold than I realized.

I’ll have a couple days of deep presence to her (and to Dad and my sisters). Then I head back to Saint Paul to await the finals summons. Mom’s life is liminal. Mine is still busy. So, I’ll head back and be busy for another week or so. But before I leave, I’ll say my final farewells and my last “I love you”s. These will be the last words I speak that (if I’m lucky) Mom will acknowledge.

When I return, during those final hours, she may well still be hearing all that’s said. But she’ll be listening from a place deep inside. Then truly on an edge beyond our reach. LIMINAL in all caps. In the meantime, she’ll be outwardly disengaged while she inwardly ties up loose ends, her psyche slowly releasing itself from a lifetime of joy and sorrow, love and loss, family and faith. Most of that is all jostled up by dementia now. She may need this long slow coast to chase down all the farewells she has to make. What can I do except wish her godspeed as she travels this last long edge of death?

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

Barely

Barely
David R. Weiss – August 17, 2022

Mom has barely eaten for a week now—nothing for the past four days. Barely had anything to drink either—maybe two 7 oz. cans of Coke and just a couple sips of water. Over four days. Barely left her bed—only a couple hours in a day. And some days not at all.

After a decade long slide into dementia, she seems barely herself anymore. But these last days she’s barely alive.

And yet I wonder. Is it maybe … somehow … the opposite?

Is it that we can barely sense the hunger that growls in a stomach with a growing appetite for other food? That we can barely sense the thirst that rises in her throat for drink we cannot offer? That we can barely gauge the fitful energy just waiting to set foot somewhere beyond here? Her full self now deeply cocooned inside pathology, but about to be split wide open?

Barely alive? Or is it that we can barely guess at the Life about to embrace her whole and release her shimmering soul to what comes next? The poverty of our perception says, “dust to dust” and “ashes to ashes.” But I think stardust and fire will carry the day.

And no “barely” about it.

NGC 3324, star-forming region in the Carina Nebula – James Webb Telescope

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at ww w.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on August 17, 2022. 2 Comments

To Hell with Heaven

To Hell with Heaven
David R. Weiss – August 16, 2022

NOTE: I do not write these words lightly. I write them because I believe them to be true. And because I believe them to carry hard grace that we can ill afford to be without.

Near the start of Griefwalker, a documentary about Stephen Jenkinson’s work accompanying those who are facing death, he says: “There’s kind of a hole inside most of us—approximately in the shape of a soul. You can’t know what the soul looks like until you feel for yourself around that hole, that wound. We don’t really know what we’re missing until we put our finger in it. Until then it’s just a rumor.”

The image is overfull. Putting a finger in a wound? It recalls Jesus’ disciple Thomas, who (in John’s gospel) insisted on placing his finger into Jesus’ wounds to confirm the resurrection. But, as Jenkinson soon makes clear, the wound he’s talking about is coming to terms with the certainty of our own death. Not resurrection, but its absence. The unconditional finality of death.

Specifically, mine. Specifically, yours.

Moreover, Jenkinson says this “mortal” wound is our soul: it haunts us at the very core of our being. He regards our dying—more precisely the moment our death becomes more than mere “rumor”—as the crucible in which our living is made real. Only when we dare to touch the wound of our own mortality—”to feel around that hole”—do we begin to live. Prior to that, our living is mostly a running from death, which is the furthest thing from living life.

Unfortunately, that running from death, that refusal to reconcile with the wound that is ours, has given us a badly wounded planet instead.

When I began writing and speaking about faith and the climate crisis in earnest (in 2015), I chose as my overarching theme, “At Home on Earth.” I wanted to suggest that finding ourselves at home here on Earth, embracing the grace of finitude, is crucial in meeting the challenge of climate change. I still believe that. Only more so. Except not.

Only more so. Finitude is the path that leads us “home.” Jenkinson’s wound—which is not “the prospect” of our death entertained as mere likelihood or “rumored” eventuality, but the damming certainty and absolute finality of it: our own personal encounter with finitude—is the only trustworthy door to whatever might yet be for us as a human society. This is not simply learning, begrudgingly, to live within the limits of a finite planet, but to affirm the goodness of those limits alongside the inevitable grief tied to our own death and the deaths of those we love. Finitude is a hard grace, but a grace nonetheless. For death, as Jenkinson reminds us, is the womb of life.

Except not. I no longer believe that “meeting the challenge of climate change” falls into the category of “whatever might yet be.” It probably didn’t fall into that category even back in 2015; I simply didn’t realize that at the time. Another hard truth, this one less gracious: we won’t “meet” the challenge of climate change.

Today “whatever might yet be,” particularly if we pick the pathway of embracing finitude, navigating our way forward by moving into Jenkinson’s mortal wound and feeling our way around inside it, is, at best, surviving with our humanity more or less intact, even as our world, both ecologically and societally is left in tatters. Tattered because of decades of governmental negligence, political obstruction, and highly cultivated personal indifference (though far from individually innocent, we’ve also been carefully conditioned to consume much, care little, and dismiss science). But tattered also as the result of corporate determination to make one last dollar before things go south. (Actually, as things are going south—fast.)

Tattered. That’s our best-case scenario. There are worse scenarios out there. At this point, tattered is a real grace. We dare not dismiss the gift of tattered.

So, I say it’s time to plumb Jenkinson’s wisdom. And to be even more clear about my own conviction regarding what it means to be “at home on Earth”: it’s time to say to hell with heaven.

I don’t definitively deny the possibility of something next … after we die. An afterlife? A rebirth? Sustained self-awareness? A persisting glow within the life of God? Personally, I’m skeptical of any ongoing individual awareness. I don’t expect a glorious reunion on the far side. And I don’t really lament that. I don’t regard an afterlife as central to vibrant, meaningful, profound Christian faith. But I admit the final truth of the matter is above my pay grade. Color me “willing-to-be-surprised” when I die.

But I will say—definitively—that, for NOW, living with integrity on a finite planet requires that we embrace our own finitude. Absolutely. Unconditionally. NO HEDGED BETS. In a world misshapen by More—an addiction to accumulative consumption—and bereft of any widespread notion of Enough, the gospel truth that scandalizes us most of all is this: we die. Each one of us. Specifically, me. And specifically, you. This is the good news, and we need to embrace it as precious wisdom if we hope to live.

So, what would it mean … to touch the wound that is our soul? Jenkinson suggests we only uncover and truly enliven our souls—our Selves—beneath the weight of our absolute finitude. But—crucially—not as curse or punishment; rather, as the simple fact of ecology: life bequeaths death bequeaths more life, and so on. Living deeply in the visceral awareness of our death—our place in the circle of life—is what it means to be “at home on Earth.” To acknowledge we are not “destined” for some other, better place. We are bound graciously to this “best of all places”: from bones to blood to breath … to death … we … are … home.

But heaven tries to tell us otherwise. Heaven lets us “face” death without ever really facing it at all. And because we imagine we carry some sort of “get-out-of-death-free” card, we never take full account of our actions and inactions here and now. Heaven sets us (and typically us alone) outside the circle of life. And that move comes at a dreadfully dear cost to everything left inside the circle. It betrays the whole of creation.

It isn’t heaven alone that will leave our world in tatters. But heaven is an accomplice. It dulls our anguish, moderates our resistance to the wanton destruction of life, and lessens our respect for the Sacred Circle of All That Is. I don’t suggest we give up heaven because it’s easy or comfortable; surely not because it’s a popular suggestion to make. But because doing so may be the difference between tatters … and extinction … in the generations ahead.

No doubt there are plenty of folks who’ve dismissed heaven and are all too eagerly despoiling the planet. They’ve found other ways to deny the full truth of finitude and its gracious claim on them. But finitude is an inescapable law of life. They’ll have their own “Come to Jesus” moment in due time. My argument is not that giving up heaven with necessarily save us or the planet. It’s that holding onto heaven necessarily undermines our best efforts to tend this world well, both for ourselves and for those who will receive it from us. Embracing the full, hard, gracious truth of finitude (which in my mind necessarily means setting aside an afterlife) is now our only chance of navigating the tatters up ahead.

“Except a grain of wheat fall to the earth and die it cannot bear fruit” (John 12:24). With these words Jesus (or John, the evangelist who scripts these lines) is foreshadowing the resurrection. But is it possible these words carry a wisdom less ethereal? That John’s gospel intimates that this is how we claim life-after-death before we die? That only by owning the inescapability of death—in very personal terms—do our lives bear fruit.

Indeed, in the Fourth Gospel the notion of “eternal life” actually suggests infinitely deep-rich-meaningful-compassionate life right now. Scholars call it “realized eschatology”: that the “last things” (in Greek eschatos means “last”), the end, the fulfilment of all that is meant to be, begins NOW in the moment we come to faith. For John’s community, it seems, one of the central gifts of faith was the fulness of “life-after-death” while still alive. That abundance was not reserved for another life but intended for this finite life.

Thus, the first and final Enough by which our lives are plumbed—the Alpha and Omega of all that is—is to embrace enough with loving regard for our own lives. To confess, Life until death is enough. Those five words are the womb for an ethic framed by awe and gratitude, grief and mourning, outrage and struggle, vulnerability and empathy, solidarity and compassion, justice and joy. I suspect that’s what John’s community knew as “eternal life.”

There is an undeniable grief in the awareness that we were made to die … and yet also an immeasurable awe in realizing that death feeds all that lives. Jenkinson says, unapologetically, that it is grief—not hope—that may yet gift us a future. Not the one we imagined. But one we might yet make ours.

Gandhi titled the autobiographical sketches of his Experiments in Truth. I suggest the rest of our lives be conducted as experiments in truth. Facing death, touching that wound, finding our soul between grief and awe—that’s an experiment in truth. Our lives are the lab. And the planet and the future hang in the balance.

If communities of faith desire to be centers of humanity and compassion in years to come, we will do so by finding ways to bear a gospel that is as finite as we are. As this glorious planet is. A gospel that does not “overcome” death, but offers the wisdom and compassion to honor it, embrace it, and nonetheless call us to love … extravagantly.

NOTE: This post carries me to the outer edges of orthodoxy. No apologies. I blog under the heading “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” I expect to pen two follow-up blogs expanding on the ideas introduced here. If you have a question you’d like me to address, please post it in a comment! ~David

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at ww w.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on August 16, 2022. 3 Comments

Two Things True

Two Things True
David R. Weiss – July 15, 2022

Two things—opposite as it were—can be true at once.

There are things I wish I did not know … that I am yet glad to know. Not happy, per se, but grateful amid regret. Things needful to know and so the knowing, though unwanted, is, at the same time, welcome.

Two things true at once.

Or again: I am learning that it is possible to write—and to act!—with love … on the far side of hope. And it is possible, from that place, to sustain what might be called “counter hope.”

Not pessimism. Not at all. But a hope that is no longer hopeful. No longer the reflection of upbeat attitude or warm emotion. A hope so thin and gritty that it is “merely” existential—and nothing more. That is, it exists only as chosen action, however tiny, in the present moment. Such “counter-hope” is not something we hold onto, not something we “have”; it is something we do. Again and again and again.

Just back from a week of hiking up on the North Shore (of Lake Superior), my experience was one of persistent bittersweet awe. Many of the parks and trails and beaches bear witness to the irrepressible artistry of creation, the seeming longing of the world simply to be with unrestrained exuberance. Thus, an entire week of “oh my” followed by “and yet.”

Gooseberry Falls

Despite its pristine pretensions where I walked, this Earth is wounded. And deeply. We saw glimpses of that in the occasional mountains of logged trees or rail cars of mined ore. Fellow members of the Earth community, their citizenship revoked so they might be rendered resources for (globalized Western) human appetites that are fluent in one language only: More.

That’s not to say that no people or culture has shown a capacity for restraint or, better yet, a culture of humble harmony with the planet. Many have. But the lingua franc of the globalized industrial world is accumulative consumption. Our measure of worth, our sense of meaning, our very reason for being (from the individual to the whole economic system!) is oriented to a singular end: More.

Hence our wounded planet. And because no corner on Earth is separate from the whole, even the North Shore’s beauty is wholly entangled—in distant but undeniable kinship—with raging wildfires, receding lakes, ocean plastic, retreating glaciers, rising temperatures and more. The instinctive awe cannot be divorced from withering anguish.

Two things true at once.

Delighted to spend a week in daily relationship with three of my grandchildren. Yet every moment of joy is matched and more by the inescapable awareness that they have no idea. And they are wholly unprepared for the future that is coming for them.

How could anyone be prepared for a tomorrow that is not simply the day after today but the sum of decades of yesterdays that will now broker a complete break with every yesterday … and rewrite every tomorrow we ever imagined?

At Split Rock State Park

And isn’t childhood—they are, after all, just 9, 11, and 13—supposed to be a long season of innocence; rambunctious, sometimes cantankerous growing, in which kids can be kids, delaying their ripening maturity until young adulthood finally claims them? But with the entire world readying to shift—perhaps before they even have the chance to grow up—there is an impatient anxiety in me. They may not have the luxury of childhood.

Of course, many—countless—children across the globe—have already had their childhood forfeited to the More that fuels war and famine, political ambitions and environmental destruction. My grandchildren are simply going to find their lot abruptly joined to that of their peers around the world. A generation—a whole series of generations—consigned to live within the wounds of a planet that would’ve preferred to offer us its abundance.

Except that there was no abundance that could satisfy us. Enough? Was that even a word?

The same was true, by the way, of my brother’s relationship with bourbon. What struck me as abundance beyond measure left him perpetually unsatiated … until it left him permanently dead. A longer more complicated tale than that, but the cause-effect holds true. As it may for us as well.

I have every desire to be hopeful. I could name them if you like. Six children: each the apple of my eye. Nine grandchildren: together joys uncounted. A wife who still pitters the patters of my heart. And two or three decades of my own still unfolding. And those are only the desires that leap to mind. I have multitudes of wishes for a future that I know is no more.

Two things, painfully true at once.

“And yet …” you will stammer. “If only …” you will offer. “For surely …” you will insist. I hear the sincerity in your voice. But sincerity cannot purchase what is no longer for sale.

It isn’t just the math—although that’s damning enough. Between rising CO2, trespassed planetary boundaries, collapsing ecosystems—and social systems and political systems—there simply isn’t any honest math that provides any solid basis for hope.

And whatever miniscule odds you might conjure up are exorcised (an ironic use of the word if there ever was one) by those determined to turn a profit right up to their last breath, those determined to wield assault weapons while uncertainty and anxiety peak (an incendiary combination), and those determined to undo democracy so that authoritarian homophobic misogynist white nationalism can be the flag flying over the future as it implodes. I could go on: pandemics, migrations, drought, famine, hunger, massive civil unrest, war, and nuclear disasters. But that would just be piling on.

Yes, there is an abundance of good to strive for—simpler living, greener energy, and the resolute protection or reclaiming of all manner of civil rights and human rights. But that good is not cause to be hopeful. The forces arrayed against us, some systemic, some personal, and some ecological are not going to negotiate. And some of them have inertia that simply no amount of good will or regret will moderate. Our future is bleak—at best. And I mean “at best”; there are possible futures worse than bleak.

Temperance River State Park

Which is why I say the good is not cause to be hopeful. The good is cause to do right. Irrespective of the odds. Doing right on the far side of hope, that’s “counter-hope.” It’s the best we can do now. It won’t make a dent in “bleak.” But it may open a passage to a tomorrow we never wished for, but which we will be damn grateful for if we make it there alive.

Two things true at once. The world is overfull with beauty. And overwrought with wounds. So much to savor. So much to salve. Keep busy savoring and salving and you won’t miss the hope at all.

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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on July 19, 2022. 2 Comments