Sunday, November 30, 2008

Where do Babies Come From? Pt 1 or Trees!

Reading for the Day: Genesis 18: 1-16

Genesis 18:1 -- Now the LORD appeared to [Abraham] by the oaks/terebinths of Mamre, while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day.

This passage always leaves me with questions--what is a terebinth? Just how big was the tree? Why does Abraham bow to the strangers? How does he recognize the LORD--by their clothes, their bearing, their wings? 

I imagine a grove tucked into a wide, spare landscape. Scrub brush, dirt, and dry rocks. Sun hot, air heavy, you lower your head and let the afternoon pass. You scan apace from your tent door. Shadows out past the terebinths. Figures flicker in the distance, unannounced.  You squint, blink, wipe your eyes. Guests are coming. You do not let them come. You run to meet them at the trees. Jowels shake, belly bounces, you are old and bounding. They walk steady on. You're thighs tremble, ankles cracking. You're close enough to see them smiling. Yes, these are guests. These one two three. They have come to me. Your clothes fall to the ground, a lump with your body, and for a time you pant and pause. "Do not pass your servant by." 

The hot road will dry where you held your forehead. 

The scene of this meal has been a favorite for artists, most notably in Orthodox iconography. Rubalev's icon is perhaps the most famous. Note the slender tree, the mountain that could be a wave, the half-calf's head on the table. Something holy in this meal. Chagall's rendition is vivid as usual. His tree seems a burning bush. I love his stately strangers' faces. 

According to some, the trees were the site of a Canaanite cultic shrine (read: ancient tree-huggers?). But here, a pagan site, holy strangers come. And near these trees outside the tent, barren Sarah conceives enough to laugh, a suppressed chuckle. Out of earshot might it expand and rise from chortle, cackle, guffaw, to tears in her eyes?

We get the joke, though. Because while one of the strangers quotes Sarah saying, "Shall I indeed bear, when I am so old?" we know she actually wondered, "After I have become old shall I have pleasure, my lord being also?" 

Yes, Sarah, pleasure is where babies come from!

Saturday, November 29, 2008


Friends, Family, Sundrie Purveyours of the Interweb, 

Welcome to this page, this site, this intended, meager lode.  A hairline fissure next to other online places, but a place nonetheless.  I am glad you have come. My ambitions for this blog are nearly none. For now, it will serve as a marker for Advent season 2008. 

I came to Advent five years ago with equal measures of surprise and delight. Brought up evangelical, with a Precious Moments nativity on the mantle one month out of the year, I never knew much of Christian holidays besides Christmas and Easter. Nor during college did the evangelical university I attended promise much in the realm of tradition. Yet tradition found me, next to Phil Stoakes and Warren Rankin in the bass section of a Methodist church choir.  

Come Christmas time, I saw more changes than a poinsettia decked-stage or garland strands near the sanctuary ceiling. The communion table put on new colors, and the Pastor took to matching. The scripture readings shifted. Someone had tossed a handful of candles on the stage. The choir sang only the first tunes from the hymnal's Christmas section (although Wednesday nights we still agonized over notes of an impending cantata). Suddenly, the holiday was not jolly and jiggling red velvet.  In fact, it began to look a lot more Jewish. 

The few things I know about contemporary Judaism I have heard from Jewish friends, and while I cannot claim to be an expert on Jewish culture, identity, or history, I have read and loved one of their sacred books (the one Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Christ hijacked and canonized with a book of their own--remember?). This book is where Advent begins. Without the Hebrew Bible, you'll have to forget your shepherds, angels, magi, untune the Magnificat, and disband the animals huddling around the stable. The genealogies wither along with wizened Elizabeth and Zachariah. No dreams, no journeys, no "no room at the inn," no births. Simply, our book cannot be read apart from theirs. 

When we read the stories of the Jewish Bible, we get a sense at just how strange a turn the Christian Bible makes. The Jewish men (and woman?) who wrote these words were profoundly connected to their literary tradition, and their method of reading--interpreting Jewish stories as types of the story of Jesus--has informed literature, art, history, politics, and culture for centuries after. But Advent is not so concerned with what happens after Jesus as much as it is what came before him. Its tune is waiting and preparation, and the stories it celebrates have characters that do just that--wait, prepare, wait a little longer. Christmas doesn't happen overnight.

With that said, I hope to read the Hebrew scriptures again this December. While understanding and insight are integral to reading, my first aim when I hold a book in my hands is always pleasure.  Whether this is your first or fiftieth Advent, please join me as I try to make a little room for Christmas.