Waking to the Darkness
"To go into the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
And find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings."
-Wendell Berry, To Know the Dark
Weaving the Threads
This past Wednesday, I sat with a directee who began by saying she is struggling with the change of seasons and the loss of time outside. She said, “So I went and took a walk alone in the dark under the moon. I think I’m going to have to learn to love the dark.”
On Tuesday I spoke with a colleague who is reading a book entitled, If Women Rose Rooted, which articulates the heroine’s journey that begins by waking to the darkness.
This past Monday, I sat at the breakfast table drinking coffee. On NPR was a bit about former President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski. The conversation was addressing limited ideas of what consent entails. The point was to acknowledge that consent cannot be possible without considering power.
These communal pieces were like threads securing the weaving of this sermon.
I know in many ways, to talk openly about a systemic injustices here at Shalom is preaching to the choir. I am aware and appreciate that you have been revisiting difficult conversations around racism and sexual abuse as a congregation. I also know that transformation is a journey, and these conversations are ones we must return to time and again – not as exceptions, but as norms. The church cannot afford to gloss over issues of power, gender, sexuality and trauma– especially as it is being uncovered more and more in the world around us.
I want to acknowledge that it is not just me standing here this morning, though I may be the only one you see. I want to acknowledge who I bring with me. I bring with me:
The woman who is experiencing secondary trauma because of the violence her partner experienced.
The woman who felt the need to text later that evening concerned that sharing her experience of him did not ruin his reputation.
The woman who documented institutional horrors around women and girls and realized her own body was suffering.
The woman who sits in church next to her teenage daughter, wondering why we stop short of name the atrocities of the biblical stories, and wondering how that will fail her daughter in the moment she most needs to be empowered.
The young woman who claimed her sexuality is and now is having to redefine what “family” means.
The older woman who recently went into recovery for overeating as a result of childhood sexual abuse.
The single woman who adopted a baby girl and is already finding herself worried about having what it takes to raise an empowered female.
These are some of the women I have connected with in the past month after sharing my own story of trauma healing and reclaiming my body. This is the reason I raise my voice, because it has the power to create connections, to build support, and to give others permission to do the same. I also want to center the intersectionality of justice issues. Bodies matter, and dealing with them speaks not only to sexism, but to racism, heterosexism, classism and poverty, ageism, ableism, and environmental degradation. Let’s not forget the brown, feminine body of the earth.
On this first Sunday of Advent, it may seem odd to focus on a difficult topic. But as I sat with what was stirring in me, I remembered one of the highlights of my seminary experience – learning about Matthew’s genealogy.
-Included Women - Gender
-Women who were not Israelites (Matthew was concerned about including Gentiles in the growing community of believers) – Ethnicity, Culture, Social Norms
- Women whose sexuality has forever put them on trial
- Women who were survivors of unjust systemic power
We can often deal with the idea gender and cultural inclusivity rather easily, but often fall short of really recognizing how these stories play out around body, sexuality, power and violence…..and how the subtle status quos surrounding all of those actually continue to promote the exclusion we speak against.
The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations that we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.
–Queer, black artist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde
Our silence around stories of women like the ones named in Matthew’s genealogy OR our commentaries too often perpetuate a harmful status quo around women’s bodies, power, and violence. For example, I googled “Women in Matthew’s genealogy” to exemplify how these women are often portrayed. Here’s one example:
How to Read Jesus’ Genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew
By Dr. Andreas Kostenbeger and Dr. Alexander Stewart
“Most ancient genealogies excluded women, particularly women who may have tarnished the family line. Matthew does the opposite. Tamar was a Canaanite who disguised herself as a prostitute in order to seduce Judah. Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute who lied to protect the Israelite spies and helped overthrow Jericho. Ruth was a Moabite woman who moved to Israel upon the death of her husband. Finally, Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah the Hittite; King David married Bathsheba after fathering a child by her and killing her husband. The inclusion of these non-Israelite women foreshadows the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles and bears witness to the grace of God that actively seeks to forgive and restore sinners and to reach out to those who are marginalized and viewed as outsiders.”
Taking a Second Look
Unfortunately, many commentaries put the “questionable” reputation on the women in the genealogy. What’s new? But what if we were to take a second look (a feminine approach) and dig a little deeper, reading against the grain of the text, not being content to simply see these women as questionable, but to speak frankly about power?
Every single one of these women was incredibly vulnerable and subject to the decisions of the men around them. Tamar was sent away to live as a widow as a protection for the men who were otherwise obligated to her. The men are described as wicked, but she is not. She disguised herself as a prostitute and was purchased by her father-in-law Judah. Ruth was widowed and initially abandoned, until she vowed herself to Naomi who led her back to her homeland where Ruth became a servant. Her favor was negotiated with her sexuality, which resulted in her being purchased as part of her late husband’s estate so that the man in charge could take her for his wife. Rahab a resident of Jericho, identified by her status as a prostitute, was co-opted by Joshua’s spies, as she negotiated a deal to help them infiltrate Jericho only if she and her family, would be spared. Bathsheba was a married woman who king David claimed for himself, purchasing her at the cost of her husband’s life after learning of her pregnancy. Not one of these women became part of the genealogy of Jesus because they were perverse sinners or committed acts more egregious than the men in the story. Each of them was dispossessed in one way or another. All of them had been purchased in one way or another. This illustrates the injustice of power in these stories. But the commentary accepts this as the norm, and holds the women as the tarnishers of the family line. So we must be willing to understand the actions of these women within this problematic context. Women who claimed the agency of their bodies are demonized. Tamar, Ruth, and Rahab were all looking to survive – they were considered useless, outcasts, or determined to be victims of violence in the name of Yahweh. And even Bathsheba, who is portrayed as relatively passive, often ends up being held responsible by many readers, even though there is no evidence of her “consent.” Many commentaries stop short of naming that David raped her. To fail to name this is to normalize victim-blaming: What was she doing on that roof? She must have known? Why was she tempting him? She’s partly to blame. [pause] The moonlight and her beauty overthrew him. [pause] No. He was the king. I passionately believe that how we read and talk or don’t talk about the bible has a direct impact on how we understand men’s ownership of women’s bodies in 2017.
David’s status as a perpetrator is glossed over all too often. Why? Is it because the stakes are high? What do we stand to lose? David is the initial climax of the genealogy, as Jesus was to become known as the Son of David, Israel’s new king. Time and again we fail to name abuse when the perpetrator has done “so much good” theology, activism, leadership, written so many wonderful songs etc. But when we fail to acknowledge the abuse, we further silence the victims. Check in with body.
Sitting with the Darkness
As we sit with the darkness of this season, I find Matthew’s genealogy to be an appropriate entry way into the darkness. As a spiritual director, I have learned to not dismiss or demonize the darkness. By darkness I mean the space without the lightness of hope, a place of confusion requiring us to deal with things as they really are not just how we wish to see them, taking our eyes off the space in front of us forcing us to feel our way along slowly, or to just sit still until our eyes adjust anew. In fact, when my directee said “I think I need to learn to love the dark,” my hunch was that she had named her invitation in the first two minutes of our session, and it turns out she had. Darkness is not the enemy, it’s the invitation to realign, to increase awareness, and to let go of our attachments to the status quo. The darkness is not easy. It can be overwhelming. After all, if we cannot see, is it possible that we are not seen?
Attachment to Light….
None of the women named in Matthew’s genealogy, apart from Mary, was looking to become a part of the story of Jesus. We cannot use his eventual birth as a way of justifying their powerlessness. We must sit with their stories as completely tied up in threads of evil, abuse of power, fear, perversion, and violence that is part of the story of the people of Yahweh. Sometimes hope is the attachment we have to be willing to let go of. Too much light blinds us. (repeat)
The Mud & The Lotus
One of the things I referenced in my recent article was an Integrative Energetic Medicine session (one of number of ways I have invested in my body’s healing journey.) During this session, I became aware of a coldness in my body. It started around my heart and moved down my body. The coldness led to the revelation of trauma I had been carrying in my body. I stayed with it and kept noticing it. I fully expected that the practitioner would clear it from my energy field and I was certainly ready to get rid of it. Instead, she asked me to continue to be, to hold it in front of me. The cold turned to darkness, and I set my gaze on it, without turning away. This is what I know - Love turns toward the pain; Fear turns us away. Sitting with darkness is a revolutionary act of love. When we choose to look away, choose to silence the difficult things, we must ask ourselves why. As I sat with the darkness, at one point, light flashed and a white lotus appeared. Having no particular connection to this image, I reported it to the practitioner, who said, “the lotus can only grow where there’s mud.” She said “your gift is in your body.” Ah, redemption. I recognize that! This is the work I have been doing in so many other levels – emotionally, theologically, cognitively. Now I’m accepting that physically, I cannot move toward healing without allowing my body to transform in the darkness, being present to trauma and to trauma’s transformation. My body had to be with what was in order to allow something new to emerge. Later I remembered the story of Jesus putting mud on the eyes of a blind man. So earthy, so embodied, so messy. To heal him.
Matthew closes the genealogy with Mary. This fall at our church’s retreat weekend, Pastor Isaac Villegas came and spoke to us about Mary. He said the words I had been longing to hear from the pulpit for the last decade: “If we want to understand the gospel, we must start with a woman’s body.”
Mary’s sexuality is at the heart of her identity too – she is a virgin. Glass half-full, she’s self-possessed. Half-empty, her virginity desexualizes her, making her role less “problematic.” I would like to believe that, either way, her sexuality matters. Ultimately, it’s what she and the miracle will be judged by for better or worse. Her choice to carry Jesus into the world makes her both brave and vulnerable. Not only does it call her into question as a potential rape victim, but her fiancé Joseph initially made plans to divorce her until he was convinced of the presence of Divinity.
Though there is also reasonable speculation about the amount of power Mary would have had to say “no” to the angel’s proposal, I often have asked myself, when reading this passage: How did Mary know this was the right decision? I grew up being taught that giving any credit to Mary was idolatry. Any images of her I saw depicted her as passive, overly meek, and somewhat obtuse. Think about the song “Mary did you know?” A few years ago I heard someone describe this as epic mansplaining.
Mary knew. But how?
In the Luke 2 passage we see the conversation with the angel unfolding in two main parts:
Mary’s initial response takes her body and sexuality into account. She wants to understand what’s going to happen and how. I see this as the mark of someone who is self-possessed and wise – unafraid to question.
The angel then cites the miracle of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. The angel did not go into a declaration of God’s mighty power, but rather, he pointed to another woman’s body as a sign of Divine accompaniment.
Mary first checks in with her own body and then with testimony of another woman. Personally, I get this as being part of Mary’s process. My anchoring “church” has been circles of women. In these circles, we have the freedom to acknowledge our bodies and their wisdom, and the counter-cultural way of connecting with one another, knowing that our wisdom, our healing, our power, and our wildness are bound up together. I must note that, following the publication of my recent article, I received a book about body healing, a thesis on the Feminine Divine, and a sermon about recovery entitled “Me Too,” the work of women who turned toward their own darkness and reached out to connect their empowerment to mine. These are the hands holding my own as we journey in the darkness.
I think there’s another piece here as well– Mary’s theology, evidenced in her song. Mary cites the faithfulness of God from generation to generation. She is aware of this history of her people. She also cites faith in a God who sees people who are vulnerable, who deals justly with pride and power, who looks favorably upon the hungry and the servants, and claims them as part of the story. Mary was familiar with the darkness – her eyes adjusted to see from a perspective that could challenge the status quo of power and violence. I think it is fitting that she is the one and only Matthew names as the begetter of Jesus, shifting away from the patriarchal rhythm of the genealogy. She invites Jesus into the darkness of her womb. Jesus comes to the world through darkness of a woman’s body, not light. Notice your body…
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend chapel on EMU’s campus for “Take Back the Night” week, an international initiative established to name and deal with the reality of sexual violence towards women, including on college campuses. The students leading the service did a remarkable job of inviting the community to sit with the darkness and let their eyes, ears, and hearts adjust. To listen to the stories of survivors, and to spend time in lament. To sit without hope. For many women, hope is not yet reality.
In this season of Advent we will be counting down days. We will have a clear deadline for hope’s celebration. This too is an important practice. But, like my directee, as we here in the northern hemisphere have the opportunity to experience Advent in the darkest season, perhaps we can be challenged to be with the dark. To practice, physically allowing our eyes to adjust and simply notice our body’s response. On a spiritual level, perhaps we can decenter our attachments to the status quos in our communities, systems, and world, and we can allow our hearts to continue to adjust and grow to create a space where bodies really matter, and power is held accountable, where truth is embraced.
Tomorrow belongs to those of us who conceive of it as belonging to everyone; who lend the best of ourselves to it, and with joy.
When we do this, we open ourselves to healing, able to embody lives that live into new possibilities. We take back the night. When we practice being with the darkness, we ready ourselves to birth new life in the world - even in the night and the most unlikely places.
This is Christmas.
References & Inspirations
Andreas J. Kostenberger, Alexander E. Stewart. “How to Read Jesus' Genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew.” Crosswalk.com, Salem Web Network, 3 Dec. 2015, www.crosswalk.com/faith/bible-study/how-to-read-jesus-genealogy-in-the-gospel-of-matthew.html.
Blackie, Sharon. If women rose rooted. September Publishing, 2016.
Cousland, J.R.C. “The Gospel According to Matthew.” The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version Containing the Old and New Testaments ... Introductions, Comments, Cross References, General Articles, Measures and Weights, Chronological Tables of Rulers, Maps, and Indexes, 4th ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 1746–1747.
Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. Women who run with the wolves: contacting the power of the wild woman. Rider, 2008.
Levine, Amy-Jill. "Gospel of Matthew." The Women's Bible Commentary, 3rd ed., Westminster John Knox, 2012, pp. 467-468.