Natalie Wigg-Stevenson, curator of the online resource "Transgressive Devotional" and author of Transgressive Devotion: Theology as Performance Art, teaches at Emmanuel College in Toronto.
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‘I Want to Believe’
IN 1633, THE Bavarian village of Oberammergau experienced a miracle. The villagers had promised God they would stage a reenactment of the passion of Christ if they were spared from the plague. They were spared. Nearly 400 years later, people continue to come from around the world to see these performances. But there’s a problem. Oberammergau’s passion play is one of the most antisemitic artworks in European history. Adolph Hitler viewed the play in 1930 and 1934 and recognized its propaganda value for his own plan of Jewish genocide.
Christians today may still perpetuate anti-Jewish racism throughout our passion narratives — particularly when the gospel of John forms the core of the lectionary. Unlike the others, John’s gospel frequently labels anyone opposing Christ as “the Jews.” Most of us realize that the writer is naming a subset of religious leaders. But when we repeat the phrase throughout Easter, we can subconsciously reproduce and amplify antisemitism found in the Christian theological imagination.
Recently, rather than ignoring the passion play’s antisemitism, the director worked with the American Jewish Committee to rid the play of anti-Jewish tropes. The 2022 Oberammergau passion play told a more complete Easter story. “The Jews” now include Jesus and his followers too. Jesus lifts a copy of the Torah to pray the Sh’ma Yisrael. Hebrew prayers were recited over the Last Supper. Mary is greeted as the “rabbi’s mother.” Significantly, the updated version calls Christians to repent for how we’ve failed our foundational sibling relationship.
The Risky Business of Incarnation
MY SEMINARY PREACHING professor used to say that we should only tackle one of each week’s lectionary texts in our sermons, maybe — just maybe — tying in a second. Over the course of a career, a great preacher might have a couple of three-text sermons in her. But only a foolish preacher tries to preach all four. The problem with this month’s readings is that they contain a lot of four-text temptations. Their cumulative effect, though, tends toward incarnation: not just God enfleshed in Jesus, but God enfleshed in us all and, even, in all creation.
By the end of the month, Lazarus will be raised from the dead (John 11:1-45). He and his sisters, Mary and Martha, were among Jesus’ closest friends. So, it seems odd to me that when Jesus first hears the message that Lazarus is ill, he seems to shake it off (verses 3-4). I wonder if Jesus was surprised, then, when he learned that Lazarus had died (verse 32). I wonder if he was shaken, suddenly uncertain about his certainty. Later, Lazarus’ resurrection prefigures Christ’s own rising again in glory. But at this point in the story, we don’t yet know that life is coming. All we can see is death.
That’s the risk of incarnation; it’s the risk of not knowing. And that risk is why I find this story (and the arc that leads to it) so comforting. My comfort comes not just in knowing that Lazarus came back to life. More so, my comfort comes in knowing that, like us, Jesus — God in flesh — risks not quite knowing the way to and through the ending.
The Light of Our Flesh and Souls
WITH THIS MONTH'S liturgical arc, we move from Epiphany to Lent: from a season of illumination to one of penitence. You’d think they would be reversed, though. You’d think it would be necessary to do the soul-searching first, to clean house before we get to invite God over for tea.
But the natural order of things always becomes topsy-turvy when God gets involved. God’s time “doubles back and loops around and ends up looking something like ... the name ‘Jeremy Bearimy’ in cursive English,” as Michael (Ted Danson) explains to Eleanor (Kristen Bell) in television’s The Good Place. The dot over Bearimy’s “i” represents Tuesdays, July, and “when nothing never occurs.”
Joking aside, this is the gift of the liturgical calendar: It lets us glimpse what it’s like to live in God’s time rather than our own. We don’t need to be worthy of an encounter with God before that encounter can happen because we constantly live in the kingdom space of already-not-yet. Revelation and repentance are like the proverbial chicken and egg: No one really knows which comes first, and it probably doesn’t matter in the end.
Divine time’s topsy-turvy nature is also why Christians are called to discern the difference between the “wisdom of this age” and God’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:6-7). What this month’s readings might call us to ponder, then, is not where human and Divine wisdoms diverge but, rather, where on Jeremy Bearimy’s curves they converge. Perhaps even on the dot of the “i.”
Blessing Our Comings and Goings
JANUARY OPENS THE season of Epiphany: In the North, the light begins to last longer, and we reawaken to the world outside our doors. Each Jan. 6, my family performs the old European Epiphany ritual of “chalking the door” to our home. While I pray, my spouse hoists our kids up to write the blessing on our front lintel. This year the markings will look like this: 20+C+M+B+23. Twenty marks the beginning of the year. The letters recall the Magi (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar) whose visit we celebrate and also the Latin prayer: Christus mansionem benedicat (“May Christ bless the house”). The final number closes out the year. The markings are strange. We’re asked about them often. We recall the great light that led the people out of Egypt, the great star that guided the Magi, and the Holy Family’s hospitality. These signs keep evil spirits out and invite God’s Spirit in. And that’s a lot to explain to the FedEx guy.
But Epiphany is a lot! It invites us to explore the complex roles we play in God’s redemption: our complicity in evil as we reach for the good, our relationship to violence, and how we’ll practice hospitality post-COVID.
In this season we also travel with the community of Jesus-followers at Corinth. Much like them, Christians today have become increasingly divided — even among those who agree on the values of compassion, community, and caring for those most vulnerable. The pandemic has made it difficult to find a vision for how to live out our shared values. What striking illumination will this season bring?
When a Trusted Spiritual Leader Turns out to Be a Sexual Predator
MEN OF POWER have always abused that power. Every woman knows it, which is why none of us were surprised when #MeToo came for the church. But we weren’t prepared for Jean Vanier.
The details of Vanier’s story are well known by now, but they bear repeating. Vanier, who died in May 2019 at the age of 90, was the internationally celebrated co-founder of L’Arche, a global network of homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities live together in community. A Roman Catholic layperson who never married, Vanier was regarded by many as a living saint; his New York Times obituary hailed him as “Savior of People on the Margins.” His writings on spirituality and community were best sellers and universally revered as modern classics.
Vanier was also a sexual predator. A report following a posthumous investigation by L’Arche International, the organization that Vanier founded, revealed that he sexually abused at least six women in his spiritual care between 1970 and 2005. These six cases are the ones we know about. The women, none of whom knew each other, offered remarkably similar accounts of Vanier’s strategy of sexual predation within the context of spiritual direction.
L’Arche’s summary report is excruciating to read, because it reveals a pattern of manipulation and exploitation shot through Vanier’s role as a spiritual director. “He told me that this was part of the [spiritual] accompaniment,” one survivor reported. Even as she told him she was struggling to “distinguish what was right and what was wrong,” he pushed on, offering bizarre scriptural warrant from the Song of Solomon and—perhaps most chillingly—his contention that in their sexual interaction, “This is not us, this is Mary and Jesus.”
White, Privileged, Fragile
A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, while doing research on social privilege for an introductory ministry course, I came across an article titled “White Fragility.” Even a skim of the first few pages was enough to pique my excitement. In it, author Robin DiAngelo—an expert in multicultural education—describes in sociological detail a common set of defensive and destructive responses that people have when facing the reality of their own privilege.
I recognized each response she described from those my students had whenever I asked them simply to face—let alone begin to dismantle—the various forms of social privilege they each embody. Where, I began to wonder, could I squeeze this article into an already over-packed course syllabus? How could it best help us navigate the difficult issues we were trying to engage?
Social privilege is a daunting topic to engage. When teaching it, I draw heavily on Peggy McIntosh’s now famous definition of its racial manifestation:
I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.
What McIntosh helps us see is that social patterns of privilege are maintained because people carry them about and use them while, at the same time, people are able to carry about and use their privilege because those social patterns are maintained. The effect is cyclical, and it happens without any of us being particularly aware of our own complicity in the system.
Society confers unearned gifts on people who embody particular privileged traits—straight, white, able-bodied, middle-class men, for example—while neglecting to confer them on others. This isn’t to say that people who embody more privilege are explicitly homophobic, racist, ableist, classist, or sexist. It doesn’t mean they don’t work hard for the goods they accumulate in life—of course, many do. It’s just that it feels perfectly natural to walk through an open door without ever noticing how it swings shut in the face of the equally hardworking genderqueer Latinx whose wheelchair wouldn’t even fit.
The Agony and Ecstasy of Baptism
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the reign of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the reign of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”
IN THE WEEKS LEADING UP to my child’s baptism, I wrestled with this passage from the gospel of John. While it doesn’t explicitly mention baptism, most of the churches where I had worshipped over my years as a Christian nevertheless drew significantly on it when they articulated their understanding of what it is we’re doing in the waters. And so, experiencing a deeply conflicted desire to raise my child—my daughter—in the church, I prayed for God’s Spirit to release fresh insight from old wisdom. I was yearning to understand what it was we were about to do.
Nicodemus is almost always presented as a fool in this story. What a silly question! What a silly man, thinking that there might be any kind of a special relationship between a person’s first birth and their second! I’ve never heard a sermon or attended a Bible study where we acknowledge that for someone hearing this brand new and seemingly nonsensical concept of being born again, Nicodemus’ question is perhaps the most logical one to pose.
Even more to the point, I’d never noticed before that Jesus’ answer to the question doesn’t dismiss the validity of a mother’s labor as the very context out of which we should understand what it is that happens in baptism.
It’s patriarchal theology that did that.
Now, the phrase “patriarchal theology” might be an offensive one simply to toss around. So let me just tip my hand: I’m a card-carrying feminist theologian, Baptist minister mama. From some angles I look like a jumble of contradictions, contradictions that I try to live with grace and glee.
But it’s not the fact that I’m a Baptist that gave me pause on the decision of baptizing my infant daughter in the Anglican church in Toronto where our ecumenical family happens to worship. Of course, as a Baptist minister I affirm the theology of baptism as an outward expression of an inward conversion, an expression that requires one be of a certain age to be able to proclaim it. But at the same time, my ecumenical sensibilities and general disposition of theological expansiveness mean that I simultaneously affirm a more Anglican theology of baptism—which sees God’s invitation to the community of faith as occurring through a grace that precedes our awareness of it. So, being a Baptist married to an Anglican, I didn’t really struggle with the idea of baptizing our daughter on account of her infancy.