Oh Gaudete Sunday, that Sunday of the pink candle and stirring reading from Zephaniah, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion!” Joy is the word of the day, joy and sweetness and delight in the midst of pre-Christmas chaos.
And then we get to that Gospel.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John the Baptizer? More like John the buzzkill!
We spent some time with John last week, when we talked about how he calls us to seek balance. Surely this week’s passage is just underlining that lesson. The instructions he gives here are not radical acts. Share, and if you have privilege, make use of it for the benefit of others. The end. Phew!
Hey let’s spend some time with Zephaniah, who often goes unheard except during this one week of Advent, maybe the Easter Vigil. He seems to be having a good time!
The Jewish Study Bible I consulted contained an outline of the structure of the book. Let’s take a look at it.
Part 1: Announcement of doom
Part 2: Description of doom
Part 3: The last chance to repent
Part 4: Against the nations and their gods
Part 5: Against the overbearing city
Part 6: Joy to Jerusalem
OH COME ON.
The lectionary, which gives us the schedule of readings, often slices out a huge chunk of a passage in the middle, or leaves out a piece that totally changes the message of the portion that does get read.
I guess in this case I don’t really blame them. We’re supposed to be talking about joy. And at least Zephaniah gets all the bad news out of the way first, unlike John! John is baptizing everyone who comes to him…but then calls them all vipers and says that the one who comes after him will baptize them with fire!
Is this good news or not?
Is joy really good news if it only comes before tribulation? It’s like sitting through one of those evangelical sales pitches. The only reward for listening to that hard sell is, “Hey, you might go to heaven!”
“If a remnant of Israel remains after the wrath to come, they’ll be doing real great!”
What kind of good news is that?
When someone says, “I got good news and bad news,” you want the bad news first, right? Why would we want joy first and then warnings of the wrath and fire to come? How is the arrival of that Messiah good news?
Where else does joy come first and then hardship? Well, it happens a lot in life, I’m sure you know that. But why would we welcome it? When is that a good experience?
Birth comes to mind.
Advent 3 is often a day where we celebrate Mary, the Mother of our Lord, rather than giving two whole Sundays to John. We recite her Magnificat, the song she sings to her cousin Elizabeth, John’s mother, who gave birth to him well past the age of bearing children – in some ways almost a greater miracle than Mary’s mystical dance with the Holy Spirit.
As I think about the uneasy dance between joy and hardship, I’m also reminded of Seemi Ghazi, one of my dosts, which is sort of like the Sufi word for soul-friend. Seemi is an interfaith scholar, professor of classical Arabic, and an incredible poet. I first got to know that when she presented a gorgeous reflection on the birth of her daughter Aliya to a group of us clergy several years ago, a reflection plump and juicy with Islamic mysticism and theology, which is shared in full on the Contemplative Society website.
Seemi, who had already suffered two pregnancy losses by the time she became pregnant with Aliya, detailed the trials of her pregnancy, including a weeks-long bout of insomnia. She writes,
“In the midst of this condition, I attended a celebration of the birth of the thirteenth-century poet and mystic Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi. There I asked Sherif Baba (a Turkish Rifa’i teacher whom we both follow) whether he could suggest a prayer or divine name to alleviate my condition. He laughed, ‘Don’t ask for sleep! The holy ones love the night. Perhaps the one within you is awakened. Bear with her. No frustration. Lie in bed peacefully and reflect upon whichever divine names and verses come into your heart.’”
This is standard Sufi wisdom. Rumi himself adjures, “If you want everlasting glory, don’t go back to sleep!” As painful and horrendous and unjust as hardship is, it is a side effect of being incarnate, being in the world, being present to love as well as pain. You can’t have one without the other! Don’t go back to sleep!
Seemi goes on to say that during one particularly mystical experience at a prayer service held by night before a beach bonfire, Mother Mary came to her side. In the Qur’an, Mary is mentored spiritually by Zechariah, John’s father, before John is born. Seemi writes,
“Zakariyya offered Maryam a sanctuary and trusted her cultivation of her inner world. The physical sanctuary…was Maryam’s prayer-niche (mihrab in Arabic) located within the Jerusalem Temple, but the literal signification of the Arabic term mihrab is ‘a place of struggle or battle.’ Though we revere Maryam for her serenity, she engaged in a profound inward struggle without which her mihrab, as a site of inward battle, could not have become her mihrab as a site of sanctity and retreat. Through struggle Maryam became her own mihrab, ‘Maryam Full of Grace.’”
Indeed, Muslims also believe that Mary’s beautiful presence of prayer is what inspires Zechariah to return to the Temple to pray for a child.
“Lying awake in my bedroom sanctuary, I began to meditate on silence and night. I knew that when Zakariyya had received word of the birth of Yahya (John) the angel Gabriel granted him a sign: that he should not speak to any human being for three layali, three nights, except in signs[.] …In quiet solitude, I began to imagine nights that I called Layali Maryam, nights that Maryam had devoted to prayer, meditation, and fasting. I entered each Layla, each single Night: Layla of Mystery, Layla of Union, Moon Layla, Layla of Seventy Unveilings, Layla of Shining Constellations, and strangest of all, the Layla/Night when the Ruh, the Divine spirit, breathed into Maryam the baby Isa (Jesus), a child conceived like the first human being, Adam, of sheer Divine desire.”
Here, on a day of joy flanked by hardship, all of us are being called to our own mihrab, our own sanctuary, both to give thanks and to ask for help in the birthing of something within. It doesn’t matter who you are or how your body has handled birthing – all of us are capable of bringing something amazing to birth. If not a child, then something else just as beautiful.Compassion. Kindness. Hope. Vulnerability. A new way of looking at the world.
All of these things are needed to bring what Luke called the Kingdom of God to fruition on earth.
Perhaps, then, Zephaniah and John, in their complicated dancing between joy and hardship, are teaching us pre-natal care. Those who birth multiple children often know that the first one sends the new parents on a roller-coaster of anxiety, while those that follow tend not to be as frightening. It’s not just that a person gets used to it – it’s that we realize that even the smallest humans are more resilient than we think.And so are you.
As we come ever closer to the solstice and the mystery of Christmas – truly the greatest night of joy and struggle until Holy Saturday – let’s lean into all of the feelings that rise up in us: anticipation, anxiety, annoyance, awe. They are gifts and messages and teachers.
This season is chaotic and full of worry, but your heart knows what to do, no matter who you are or what you have borne or failed to bear in the past.
May these very long winter nights, these Layali Maryam, provide additional succor in their length. We have time, beloved; time to pray, time to get to know whatever beautiful being has been breathed into you and is yearning to be born.