Category Archives: Old Testament / Hebrew Bible

The prayer of Tobias and Sarah (Tobit 8:4-8)

In preparation for the Rome family synod 2015, the bishops of England and Wales have invited Catholics to reflect in lectio divina on a selection of biblical texts, and in the light of their reflections, to answer a set of questions about their experience of marriage and family life.

In the second of the selected texts, we read about the prayer of Tobias and Sarah before their marriage, in Tobit 8:4-8.

Jan Havicksz. Steen ca. 1626 – 1679 Tobias’ and Sara’s Wedding Night

In my application of lectio divina to this text, the two lines that particularly spoke to me, with the reasons,  were:

‘It is not good for the man to be alone;
    let us make him a helper like himself.’(v,6)

Indeed, it is not good for man to be alone. We all need a companion, a “helpmate” , to assist us in our daily tasks, to support us in times of difficulty, and to shore our joy in the good times. This line mirrors a similar line in the creation story of Genesis 2: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”  As John McNeill has pointed out (in “Sex as God Intended”),  the reference to “helper” is gender neutral: it could be a same -sex partner, and need not necessarily be construed as a wife. In this particular statement of the principle in Tobit, gay men will be interested to note that this is even more explicit – I will make him a partner like himself.

In my life, I experienced for many years the comfort, joy and support of such a companion “like myself”, a same – sex partner who  shared with the routines of attending to household tasks and resonsibilities, the care of children when they were with us, and we accompanied each other through several major life stages: deaths of parents and other relations, marriages of my two daughters, and crises in careers.

What was striking in this relationship was how much it was a genuine “partnership”, in a way that just did not apply to m

and

“grant that we may grow old together” (v.7)

Pope Benedict once noted,  when addressing Italian local government officials, that one of the values of marriage, is that it relieves government of many financial obligations – for example, that of caring for the aged. At its best, marriage ensures that instead of depending on the state for care, ageing couples can rely on each other and their children for that care, in the comforting situation of a family home.

It is iniquitous of the Church to expect gay men to be deprived of that family support when they need it most. We too, need companionship, love and family support as we grow old.

The questions suggested by the English bishops for further discussion .  with my responses to some, were:

  • How might Sarah and Tobias have felt on their wedding night, knowing Sarah’s history?
  • How do you think Sarah’s parents felt leaving their daughter in the bridal chamber again? Can you describe a time when you felt something similar?
  • What does it mean to walk in trust with the Lord?
  • When have you and/or your family had an experience of God’s mercy?
  • What part does prayer play in your daily life?
  • How has prayer helped you and/or your family?

The key questions to draw the conversation together might be:

  • How does this story ‘speak’ to us about our ‘call’ to be a family?
  • How does it speak to our ‘journey’?
  • How does it speak to us about our ‘purpose’ or ‘mission’ as a family?
  • What support do we need from the Church?
  • What is already available? What needs to be developed?
  • From our family life experience, what do we offer that could enrich the life of the Church?

Reforming Nineveh (Jeremiah 3:1 – 5)

1st Reading, 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B:

In today’s reading, we learn how Jonah was sent to preach to the people of Nineveh, and by reforming them, to save them from the Lord’s destruction:

The word of the Lord was addressed to Jonah: ‘Up!’ he said ‘Go to Nineveh, the great city, and preach to them as I told you to.’ Jonah set out and went to Nineveh in obedience to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was a city great beyond compare: it took three days to cross it. Jonah went on into the city, making a day’s journey. He preached in these words, ‘Only forty days more and Nineveh is going to be destroyed.’ And the people of Nineveh believed in God; they proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least.   God saw their efforts to renounce their evil behaviour. And God relented: he did not inflict on them the disaster which he had threatened.
Well – great. Terrific. But what, if anything, does this say to queer Christians? The key lies in seeing the greater context, the prequel. Jonah had not wanted to go to Nineveh, at all. He tried to resist the Lord’s command, and boarded a boat to sail away, in the opposite direction.  But the Lord’s command is not so easily resisted, and after his familiar troubles at sea, he ended up washed ashore – on the coast of Nineveh. That is where today’s reading begins.

Continue reading Reforming Nineveh (Jeremiah 3:1 – 5)

Three Queers of the East: Thought for the Epiphany

Earlier, I wrote that some Bible stories are so familiar, we do not stop to consider their significance. I could also add, that some others are so familiar, we do not stop to ask if they are accurate. A case in point is that of today’s feast of the Epiphany, which we routinely celebrate as the visit of the three kings of the East to the infant Jesus – but the Gospel text does not specify that there were three, nor that they were kings.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
 

It is the term “magi” that has been traditionally adapted to “wise men”, or corrupted in popular imagination to “kings”. Astrologer-magicians, in the Zoroastrian religion, would be a more accurate translation. (Note the obvious linguistic connection between “magus” and “magic”). Kittredge quotes Nancy Wilson and Virginia Mollenkott, to suggest that the Magi were probably either eunuchs, or trans.

Three Young Men in the Burning Fiery Furnace

Today, the church celebrates the feast of three young men, Shadrack, Mesach and Abednego, the companions of Daniel the prophet: they are important for highlighting a much neglected group in the church – the transgendered.

We are probably all familiar with the stories of Daniel in the lion’s den, and of his three companions in the burning fiery furnace. What they don’t tell us in Sunday School, is that as slaves captured and taken to service in the king’s court in Babylon they were almost certainly eunuchs – castrated males. This was the standard fate of slaves in the royal court, as Kathryn Ringrose has shown, and as anticipated by Isaiah:

And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.

-Isaiah 39:7
If there is any group more likely to have the bible-pumping conservatives frothing at the mouth more than gay and lesbian Christians, perhaps it is the trans community. Yet this is entirely misplaced, as Isaiah makes clear elsewhere:

4For this is what the LORD says:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.

-Isaiah 56: 4- 5
The three young men, forcibly castrated as slaves, are clearly not directly comparable to the modern trans community, but there are nevertheless lessons to be learnt, from them and from others in Christian (and non-Christian) history. In the Gospel of Matthew, we read

But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

The Babylonian slaves were clearly among those who have been made so by others. Those who made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of heaven may be a reference to the common religious practice in the societies surrounding the Jews of men who castrated themselves to serve as priests, especially in the cult of Cybele , and also in some other religions. (Some commentators believe that is this practice of castration that is meant by the words mistranslated in some of the clobber texts as “homosexuals”, lines which more accurately refer to castrated gentile priests. In this view, it is the association with pagan idolatry, not the sexual practices themselves, which made them taboo). The idea of making oneself a eunuch for the kingdom of God later led some early Christians to adopt the practice, notably the early theologian Origen, who castrated himself in. Metaphorically, it is the same idea of emasculation which underlies the Catholic church’s insistence on compulsory celibacy for priests in the Roman rite.
Modern trans people are also not directly comparable to this third group – but they are arguably included in the first group:  made so by birth. Less directly, some scholars argue that the biblical term “eunuch” is the closest parallel in biblical language to the modern term “homosexual”, and so the welcome promised by Isaiah may be said to apply to all who are queer in church –

a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters; 

I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever

Even if we reject this connection, there remains a fundamentally important lesson for us all in the story of the three young men, a story that has relevance and resonance for us today that goes way beyond the children’s illustrated Bible pictures of men who could not be burned by the flames. To see this, remember why it is that they are commemorated. They were commanded by the king to eat the forbidden meat – to conform. It was for their refusal to knuckle under and give in to the pressure to abandon their fundamental religious identity that they were sentenced to death by burning.
But in their faith and loyalty, they were protected from the flames. Centuries later, it was the Christian Church that again turned to burning as a punishment for those who refused to conform, either to orthodox religious belief, or to heteronormative sexual standards. We continue to live with the legacy of that prejudice, which masquerades as religious obligation. Like the three men in the Babylonian fire, we too must stand firm in our commitment to the truth. In our steadfastness, the flames of prejudice and religious bigotry will likewise be unable to destroy our queer Christian community.
(The image used is a window by John Piper as a memorial to Benjamin Britten, whose “Burning Fiery Furnace” told the story of the three young men as one of his three “parables for church performance” – one act operas, although Britten himself avoided the term).

Related articles

Integrity (Isaiah 51:1-11)

Integrity is obviously important, but for LGBT Catholics, religious and sexual integrity too often appear in conflict. The Catechism extols the importance of sexuality in the human make – up, and instructs that it be fully integrated into our personality – but follows up that sensible instruction with an insistence that this sexuality may only be expressed in marriage between opposite – sex spouses.

Listen to me, you who know what integrity means,
people who take my laws to heart:
do not fear the taunts of men,
nor be dismayed by their insults,
for the moth shall eat them like garments,
the grub devour them like wool,
but my integrity will remain for ever,
and my salvation for all generations.

"Hold Your Heads High, Your Liberation Is Near at Hand" (Psalm 24).

2013 has been dubbed the “Year of gay marriage”. Pope Francis was named  “Person of the Yea” by gay magazine the Advocate, and as  number two “Gay Rights Hero of the Year” by New Yorker magazine.  The words of the Psalm for today’s Mass will theerefore have particular cogency for LGBT Christians, as we await the celebration of the incarnation of Christ, later this week.

In Minnesota, just a few months separated the need to resist a constitutional ban on gay marriage, and the passage of marriage equality legislation – with vocal support by many Catholic groups.

Continue reading "Hold Your Heads High, Your Liberation Is Near at Hand" (Psalm 24).

"The Miracle of the Crooked" (Isaiah 40:3-5)

From The Bible In Drag

A voice cries out, “Clear a path through the wilderness for Adonai! Make a straight road through the desert for our God! Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low; let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges become a valley! Then the glory of Adonai will be revealed, and all humankind will see it.” The mouth of Adonai has spoken!

Isaiah 40:3-5

The Long and Crooked Road by Ed Chan

A more traditional rendering of the phrase “and the ridges become a valley” is “and the crooked shall be made straight.” While this phrase speaks to camel roads meandering through the deserts, today’s queer cannot but take notice of this turn of words that the “crooked” is to be made “straight.” One time my spouse was approached by a mutual friend about “straightening” me out. I had no clue if he was addressing my theology or my sexuality, but the implication was clear crooked is “bad” while straight is “good.”

In the world of sexuality much failed effort is put into making the crooked straight. Never tempted to seek gay-aversion therapy myself, a few of my friends have. Their personal experience was one of being twisted into knots. It was a reversal of this biblical invitation as something as straightforward as love was bent into a crooked understanding of the “bad” self.

via The Bible In Drag  December 12, 2013

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"Comfort" (Isaiah 40:1-2)

From “The Bible In Drag“:

“Console my people, give them comfort,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem’s heart and tell it that its time of service is ended, that its iniquity is atoned for, that it has received from Adonai’s hand double punishment for all its sins.”

From “Body of Work” by Gili Estlin Hirsch and Alex Ogden

As one born and raised in the christian tradition these words are very familiar this time of the year. The passage is paralleled with the advent of the Christ as a way of emphasizing the new thing God is doing. For me the essence of my faith is the ready reception of newness as given by the presence of Jesus. This passage has brought me much comfort as to the role of God in the unfolding of history.

Yet, as a gay person this very same text which once brought me comfort now leaves me a bit weary. As one who stands among a community that has been proclaimed sinful I take umbrage of the notion that Jerusalem has received “double punishment for all its sins.” Historically, we are observing the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the seventy years it laid waste until its reconstruction. Metaphorically, I’m afraid we are speaking of a God who acts more like a jealous husband bent on “training” his wife than a loving parent nurturing her children.  Or at least that’s how “sexual sinners” have been treated at the hands of those who supposedly speak on behalf of the Divine.

via The Bible In Drag – Queering Scripture, Dec 5th, 2013

The Bible In Drag: "Unconventional" (Ruth 1:11-13)

But Naomi said to her daughters-in-law. “Go back my daughters. Why do you want to come with me? I have no more sons inside me that you can take as spouses. No, you must go back my daughters. I am too old to marry again. Even if I told you that there was still hope for me, if I were to find a spouse and have children tonight, would you be willing to wait until they are grown to marry them? Would you refuse to remarry for this far-off hope? No, if you did that, it would tear me apart, for the hand of the Most High has been raised against me.”

Ruth 1:11-13

Many a queer person has been were Naomi is at: where the path forward seems clogged with insurmountable obstacles. We have felt her sense of hopelessness in the midst of mayhem. Life has crashed down around us as it crashes around Naomi. Why even pretend to hold out a thought that the pendulum will swing our way if we bleive the voice of the entrenched that God is set against us?

Naomi’s dispair comes in the midst of the bleak reality of a life marginalized and adrift in the culture of her time. First her husband and then her sons died. She is a widow in a foreign land. All she can see is a road that leads to a life of poverty and begging. While Naomi’s fate may not be a direct threat to us, as les-bi-gay-trans-queer-intersex-asexual people we also have been left bereft and adrift in the culture of our time. She is a sister, a member of the family, who has traveled the road of the disenfranchised before us.

via The Bible In Drag – Queering ScriptureNovember 21, 2013

God's Inclusive Love for All (Wisdom 11:22-12:2).

At Sunday Mass this morning, I was delighted to able to do the readings, and in particular this superb text from Wisdom – for which the relevance to lesbians and gay men is so obvious as hardly to need spelling out.

In your sight, Lord, the whole world is like a grain of dust that tips the scales,

like a drop of morning dew falling on the ground.
morning dew
Yet you are merciful to all, because you can do all things
and overlook men’s sins so that they can repent.
Yes, you love all that exists, you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence,
for had you hated anything, you would not have formed it.
And how, had you not willed it, could a thing persist,
how be conserved if not called forth by you?
You spare all things because all things are yours, Lord, lover of life,
you whose imperishable spirit is in all.
Little by little, therefore, you correct those who offend,
you admonish and remind them of how they have sinned,
so that they may abstain from evil and trust in you, Lord.
-Wisdom 11:22-12:2
1st reading, 31st Sunday of OT, year C