Have yourself a biblical critical Christmas

Nativity-logosSorry, this post isn’t about the pessimism and critical irony that can sometimes mark how we engage in this time of year. When I use the phrase “biblical criticism”, I’m referring to (as Wikipedia says) the  “[scholarly] study and investigation of biblical writings that seeks to make discerning judgments about these writings”.

Last year, I wrote about how the story of the Wise Men can inform our doctrine of the Bible. This Advent, I want to do a brief series where we use the tools of scholarly observation to look at each of the two Nativity compositions (yeah, only two out of four gospels have them) and see each of them on their own terms.

For millennia, the birth narratives of Jesus Christ in the Gospels have captivated readers both within and without the Christian faith. Their reading and meditation form the beginning of the Christian Church calendar, and their theological implications of Incarnation form the foundation of nearly all of the distinctives of the Christian faith.
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A night so holy and silent | Carols in Prose

winter-snow-trees-bwFor my Advent series this year, I am going through Christmas Carols and unpacking them, re-writing them in prose, hoping to pull out more of their meaning, theology, significance, and beauty. Here’s today’s source material.

As holy as that night was–as anointed, blessed, prophesied, and sacred as it was–it was just as silent. You know in winter when find yourself in the midst of falling snow, and it almost has a loud silence? It was like that.

Who knew that this utter holiness and cosmic in-breaking would be so quiet? So…uneventful? Yes, there were angels and such, but they were far away with us. There at the manger? Silence.
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May God give rest to you weary, happy souls | Carols in Prose


For my Advent series this year, I am going through Christmas Carols and unpacking them, re-writing them in prose, hoping to pull out more of their meaning, theology, significance, and beauty.  Here’s today’s source material.

I pray that God may give rest to all of you. Those of you that are tired and in need of rest, and yet you doggedly hold on to a soul-merriment and joy that cannot be taken from you. I pray he grants you rest and lets nothing steal your soul’s joy.

Especially in this season, I pray he strengthens that joy as you remember that he has come among us in Christ, our Savior, whose birth we celebrate during this time. We remember that he came as a human–but not just that. We remember he came as the weakest and most frail of human forms: one who is born.

But we don’t jut remember that he came, or even just how he came–but also, why.

This Advent season precedes Christmas as Lent precedes Easter–it’s a time to meditate on the darkness, weight, and tension of this world. The darkness and power that drew us away from God as Home; the darkness from which we were saved. And in this, we are given that rest, comfort and joy.

Oh, that we might experience God’s good news of comfort and joy proclaimed from the rooftops of our lives! Just think of that: Comfort. And Joy.

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Advent & Hoping for Justice

Massacre-of-innocentsThis is the meditation I wrote that appears in today’s reading and reflection in Liberti Church’s Advent 2013 Prayerbook, which can be downloaded for free.

First, a question.

Think back on the Christmas story. After Jesus is born, when he’s about three-years old, King Herod puts out a decree calling for the death of all infants, trying to kill Jesus. An angel comes to Joseph in a dream and tells him to flee to Egypt to prevent Jesus from dying in this slaughter.

Here’s the question: why flee to Egypt?

If they stayed and Herod killed the child Jesus, wouldn’t that still be the Son of God dying unjustly at the hands of a Roman provincial governor? Why go to all that effort to wait 30 years later for the same thing to happen on a cross?
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Advent & Hoping for Peace

Rothko-untitled-2This is the meditation I wrote that appears in today’s reading and reflection in Liberti Church’s Advent 2013 Prayerbook, which can be downloaded for free.

This world is anything but peaceable. Humanity is constant in its injustice and wickedness inflicted upon one another across this world. It makes you wonder if “humane” is a misnomer. And we can’t just blame all of this on free will, either. The natural world rages against us with its own violence with staggering regularity. And all of this hits home the most when it’s those closest to us that suffer under this world with little peace on hand.

We look at all of this and ask that oldest of questions: “Why?” But when we open the pages of Scripture, we don’t find answers to this seemingly core thread running through our existence. The God of the Bible seems far more concerned with answering “what” questions than “why” questions–what is the nature of reality? what is the problem with the world? what is the solution?

But there is good news for all of us that struggle against the violence of this world: Advent.

In Advent, God does not merely see our why‘s and disregard them as silly and human; he does not simply leave us to our own to wrestle and struggle and doubt. He doesn’t answer our whys. He simply looks at us and the world with compassion, acknowledges to us the way things are, and rolls up his sleeves to address it.
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For Advent 2013: a Free Liberti Prayerbook & Devotional


As of this past Sunday, the Christian Church finds themselves in the season of Advent. I don’t know about you, but this season has snuck up on me (admittedly, I was a little occupied). I’ve been working on a new Advent Mixtape, but it’s not done (you can find last year’s here). I have an idea for an Advent series, but I haven’t fully thought through the concept (see past series here). I’ve had devotionals and reading plans set up on my phone to do, but I haven’t done even one day of them all this week.

But one of the beauties of the Church Calendar is that it doesn’t depend on us. The realities pointed to in these weeks are objective realities that happened (and are happening) in spite of us, and not because of us. Another beauty of the Calendar is that it happens every year, so even if we don’t engage one year like we’d like or hope, there’s always next year.
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Epiphany is here! So what? (And another free Mixtape!)

epiphany-mixtape-coverIf you’re just looking for the mixtape, click here for the official Epiphany Mixtape page.

From now until Lent, the Church Calendar is in the season of Epiphany. Up until this year, I had never really given much thought or focus to Epiphany. In fact, I hadn’t ever really understood Epiphany until this year. I knew it had something to do with light and with Magi, but beyond that, I didn’t get it.

Basically, this season seems like it’s sort of a Church Calendar “junk drawer” to meditate and celebrate on all the other parts of Jesus’ life that happened between his Advent/Birth and his Death.

And don’t misread that. With me saying that, I hope that doesn’t diminish this season for anyone. Perhaps the most precious doctrine of the Christian faith for me is that of the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness to me. And this Righteousness in which I am dressed was not created out of thin air, nor was it created by Christ at the Cross, or even his Resurrection. It was built throughout his life of obedience to His Father.

And this is amazing. As I’ve written before, if Herod had been successful in killing the child Jesus, there would be an aspect of our salvation that’s missing.

And so, to try and help me spend some time meditating on this season, the best way I knew to think deeply about all this was to make another Church season mixtape. If I’m being honest, these things are more for me than all of you out there. This one particularly, though, helped me think through Epiphany and try and create something from it. I hope you enjoy it.

To read more about the specifics of Epiphany, the mixtape, and to listen/download it yourself, you can either read below or just go to the official Epiphany Mixtape page. Let me know what you think!

Here’s some more info, from the page:
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Merry Christmas Season!!!


As of today, it is Christmas season!

Today, we turn our minds from the sin that required God to take human form in Jesus Christ, and we give ourselves the freedom to respond with unfettered joy to this fact. We give gifts in response to the gift that’s been given to us; we sing songs in response to the heavenly angelic song that inaugurated his birth; we eat good food with others in response to the body of Christ–the bread of life–having come among us.

Today begins the culmination of our thinking and meditating these past 4 and half weeks. This Advent, I’ve been trying to connect this time to parts of life that we may not usually associate with it. And so, if you have any time and interest, here are those posts from this year’s Advent series (and by the way, holy crap. I had no idea how much I had written this year until I made this list).

May they help you enter into this next Church season with depth and joy. (You can also check out last year’s series, if you want.) Continue reading

Advent Transition Music: Christmas Eve “Vespers” by Sergei Rachmaninov

vespers-1-art-sabawala-paintingPerhaps Sergei Rachmaninov’s greatest piece, All-Night Vigil (usually simply called Vespers) is a choral presentation of the texts used during Eastern Orthodox all-night vigils. These vigils are usually done on the Eve of major church festivals, such as…Christmas Eve!

As I said earlier today, Christmas isn’t simply a day; it’s an entire church season. It’s a season where we transition from repentance and meditation to celebration and joy. And to aid in that transition, many traditions have all-night Vespers to help us move from one season to the next.

And so, to encourage us in this transition time, I’d like to offer you my favorite recording of one of my favorite pieces ever, Sergei Rachmaninov’s Vespers, performed by the Swedish Radio Choir. You will need Spotify to play the playlist below (you can purchase the album as well). Have fun:

[image credit: “Vespers 1” by Jehangir Sabavala]

Advent & Christmas: they’re not the same thing (Ode to a Christian Calendar)

Munch-melancholyWell, it’s the Eve of Christmas season. Yes, that’s right, Christmas is not only an entire season in the Church calendar, but it’s a season that is distinct from Advent.

I know many in the global church know this fact, but I only learned it a couple of years ago, and each year it seems I have to be reminded. (Hopefully with this post, I can start internalizing it some.)

I find it interesting that we in the West have not only removed the “seasonal” aspects of the holiday, but have reduced this nearly two-month-long Advent/Christmas time into a single day on which we put most of our attention.

So why is the calendar structured like this? And what do we lose when we boil this down to one day?
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Art & Advent’s Intellect: Barnett Newman’s “Black Fire”

barnett-newman-black-fireIf you look at the top of every page on this site, you’ll notice there is a prominent header image. If you’ve paid any sort of repeated attention to the posts on this site, you’ll notice I have different headers for different themes and series. Lent, Easter, Women in Ministry, The Bible, Theology, Art, Personal, Political, Writing, and my upcoming Guatemala posts each have their own distinct headers.

Throughout this year’s Advent series, I’ve used a cropped version of the above piece as the header image. It’s called Black Fire by Barnett Newman. Until recently, it hung for many years in the abstract expressionism room in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I’ve spent much time sitting in the presence of this piece, contemplating it’s meaning.
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Advent & the Goodness of Worldliness, c/o Dietrich Bonhoeffer [QUOTE]

‎”I remember a conversation that I had in America thirteen years ago with a young French pastor. We were asking ourselves quite simply what we wanted to do with our lives. He said that he would like to become a saint (and I think it’s quite likely that he did become one). At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. For a long time I didn’t realize the depth of the contrast. I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it. I suppose I wrote The Cost of Discipleship as the end of that path. Today I can see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by what I wrote.

I discovered later, and I am still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world–watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith: that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a [human] and a Christian (cf. Jer. 45!). How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God’s sufferings through a life of that kind?”

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (via Kait Dugan)

The Surprise of Advent: WordPress Weekend Photo Challenge


This week’s WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge theme is “Surprise“. With Advent having been on my mind (and blog), I thought of this picture. Or rather, to be more specific, the juxtaposition of these two pictures:


On one of my trips to the Philadelphia Art Museum to fight my inner Atheist, after spending some time with that beautiful Jesus statue above (a favorite of mine), I actually walked through the other side of the Medieval Art section to enter the Asian Art section.

I’m sorry, and forgive me if you can’t relate, but Asian Art has never done it for me. I don’t know why. I can see the craftsmanship aspect to it (I guess), but the beauty part feels lost on me. And so, when I go into Asian Art sections, my “art critic” side sort of quiets down and lets other parts of me take hold.

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Advent & Sex-lessness: here’s to singleness & celibacy!


Yesterday, I wrote a post about some implications of Advent on sex. And, of course, I stressed the goodness and beauty and transcendance of that act as God intended it.

And it was one of my least read posts in a long time (as an update, interestingly, this is to date one of my most-read posts of all time!). I’m wondering if people are tired of hearing Christians talk about sex ad nauseam.

It is my humble opinion that the American Church right now is currently obsessed with sex. Well, to be fair, it’s always been obsessed with it; but now, it seems, the obsession is with “taking it back” and yelling and screaming about how Christians are just as sex-crazed, sex-eager, and sexually exciting as the most ardent secular hedonist.

Of course, they all qualify it by saying (as I even said yesterday) that this (oh my god really amazing Christian sex that we value so much) has to be “within the confines of marriage”. And so, this sex-obsession often expresses itself in an equal obsession with marriage. Preparing people for it, encouraging people towards it, beating up guys that aren’t “pursuing” women (or at least “preparing to”), and giving women tips on how to attract a “good, godly husband.”

And yet, yesterday, when I was thinking about the Advent of God into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, and the idea of the Incarnation, I realized something:

What is the story of Advent but the story of a virgin girl who has a virgin birth of a man who will remain a virgin his whole life?

The story of the Incarnation is, relatively speaking, one of the most “sex-less” stories in the Bible.

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Advent & Sex: we are holy ground


Update: I’ve also written some Advent thoughts on singleness and celibacy.

In Advent, we celebrate that God came as a human, in a mysterious act called the Incarnation. But in this act, God didn’t merely clothe himself in humanity. Flesh and blood were not the trappings of God. Instead, he became human. It was no mere illusion, nor was it a facade God took on.

God became flesh and blood.

God found it suitable (desirable, even!) to take on a body–a created, formed, physical, material body. The implications of this are huge. Take sex for example.

Advent show us that the created world can contain God, and it still does not violate God’s Holiness–his “Otherness” or “Separated-ness”. He can know his Creation in such union and intimacy and yet still remain transcendent above it. Our bodies do not challenge his Holiness. He can take it on and still remain Other. He became “one” with us in a similar way to how we become “one” with others in sex. With this in mind, let’s unpack some implications:

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