Might This Be Joy: LGBTQ People’s Witness to Audacious Love

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 is featuring lectionary Scriptural reflections by LGBTQ theologians and pastoral ministers studying at Boston College.  The liturgical readings for the Second Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 35:1-6A, 10; Psalm 146:6-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

alfred-pang
Alfred Pang

Today’s reflection is from Alfred Pang, a doctoral student in theology and education at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. To read Alfred’s previous posts on Bondings 2.0, click here.

I struggled to write this reflection. The central focus of Gaudete Sunday, this Third Sunday of Advent, is the joyful anticipation of Christ’s birth, but how to write convincingly about joy when it eludes me as I wrestle as a single, gay Catholic away from home with the pain of loneliness?

The long stretches of night and blistering winter cold now encroaching have only deepened my sense of isolation. Doctoral study is terribly long, and all that mental digging has left me craving for companionship. In these days of political anxiety that have left so many bruised, I am muted by and aghast at the bleakness of violence and division consuming our world. In such wearying circumstances when stupefied hearts do not feel free to rejoice, how do I–and how do we as people of faith– properly celebrate Gaudete Sunday?

At least, by God’s grace, there is something in today’s Gospel that could still speak to me. It is a small textual detail: John the Baptist is in prison. Despite being in prison, he hears of the works of Christ and sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Even imprisonment does not deter John from being prayerfully alive to the signs of life he senses in Jesus Christ.

It strikes me that part of being prayerfully alive means engaging our capacity for amazement. If this is so, John exemplifies a posture that challenges us this Gaudete Sunday: in the prisons that we find ourselves – of discouragement, despair, and depression – how might we remain attentive to and discerning of the signs of the times that herald God’s liberating love? How are we invited this Advent to pause and make room for radical amazement at God’s divine life, which is always at work in spite of and through the fragility of human love that can disappoint and has failed?

As the Gospel reminds us, Jesus must be the source of amazement that is reflected in Christian witness. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” What is proclaimed here is that in and through the Incarnation, God will and has come as audacious love that transgresses, subverts and heals.

thevisitationYet, Jesus who reveals God’s sovereignty does something else in this passage: he lifts up the witness of John the Baptist as “more than a prophet,” as the “messenger” that Isaiah prophesied. This mutual confirmation and affirmation between John and Jesus echoes the encounter between Elizabeth and Mary in Luke 1:39-45. John, as a baby in Elizabeth’s womb, leaps for joy upon the greeting of Mary who bears the good news, Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate. Echoing this encounter, joy is the subtext in today’s Gospel.

In these dramas of mutual recognition, I find consolation: that in the midst of my darkness that renders me invisible to myself, God sees and understands. There is also profound strength felt in knowing that God sees our giftedness as LGBTQ persons and calls us out to be fruitful witnesses of an audacious love as siblings, friends, lovers and neighbors. Might this be joy? Is joy the fruit of being fully alive in God who takes delights in us as beloved children, standing with and living within us?

I suspect the joy that we anticipate in Christmas is not based on our own striving to make room for Jesus at all. Rather, it is the joy that comes when we make room for amazement to see that God has chosen to meet us down below in the shoddiness and messiness of the manger. As theologian Karl Barth preached in a Christmas homily to prisoners:

“Down there Jesus Christ sets up his quarters. Even better, he has already done so! Yes, praise be to God for this dark place, for this manger, for this stable in our lives! There we need him, and there he can use each one of us … There he only waits that we see him, recognize him, believe in him, and love him.”[1]

God is nearer to us than we imagine, and for this we can rejoice. Should not we then rejoice?

Still, I find joy ungraspable. Maybe this absence allows me to clear a space in my heart to be attentive and amazed once again so that joy can then grasp me. I stare at the trees shedding their leaves. They stand barren in the blasting cold of winter. Yet, in the crisp sharp air, I stand amazed at the sturdiness of these trees. They do not shiver, but speak back to me the words of Isaiah – “Be strong, fear not!” They remain firm, deepening their roots. I wonder at life on the underside, beneath the ground and in the soil.

This, I suggest, is the call of Advent: to be astonished at and delight in the small signs of life found at the most unexpected places in the bleakness of time. Where there is life, there is God – with the possibility and reality of indefatigable joy, still elusive, but ever graced.

[1] Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives, trans. Marguerite Wieser (New York: Harper and Row, 1961), 142.

Alfred Pang, December 11, 2016

To read the Advent reflection for the First Sunday, click here, and for the Second Sunday, click here. For all of Bondings 2.0‘s Advent reflections from past years, click here.

Embracing the Superabundance of Love

The readings for the first Sunday of Advent are Jeremiah 33:14-16, 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2, and Luke 21:25-28, 34-36. You can view the readings here.

As Advent begins, Catholics worldwide prepare themselves for Christ’s entrance into creation. In the already/not yet nature of Christianity, these weeks both anticipate Christ’s coming anew and celebrate  the Incarnation that brought us a historical Jesus. Each week we hear encouraging messages of hope, joy, and peace.

For LGBT advocates within the Church, we begin this Advent  on a particularly positive note with recent victories for marriage equality and as we witness a growing trend of acceptance, affirmation, and welcome amongst Catholics at large.

In this hope-filled Advent context, this Sunday’s readings seem jarring in their use of  harsh apocalyptic images to refer to the coming of God’s kingdom, which is elsewhere shown as peaceful and just. Catholic LGBT advocates also know of the harshness of a hierarchy doubling down in its oppressive anti-equality work as we struggle to ensure each person and every family are legally protected, at a bare minimum.

Luke’s gospel (Lk 21:25-28) has Jesus identifying nations in dismay, roaring seas, death from fright, and the powers of the heavens as signs of this new era when God’s justice will reign. Jesus’ further exhortation to be ready for what will surprise us and to remain strong during the trials seems a tall order. Jesus’ words can seem terrifying for the Christian — exactly the opposite of what we desire to aid us at Advent’s hopeful beginning.

Thankfully, the second reading from First Thessalonians contextualizes how preparedness, vigilance, and prayer demanded by Jesus may be lived out. Paul writes to the emerging community in Thessalonica in this pastoral letter, the earliest book of the New Testament and thus in close proximity to earliest Christian belief.

Couched amid apocalyptic passages, the reading today comes from Paul’s blessing for the community. We hear two parts proclaimed. The first desires an increase in love and the second calls for a strong Christian witness by the early Christians (1 Thes 3:12-4:2):

“Brothers and sisters:
May the Lord make you increase and abound in love
for one another and for all,
just as we have for you,
so as to strengthen your hearts,
to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father
at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones. Amen.

“Finally, brothers and sisters,
we earnestly ask and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that,
as you received from us
how you should conduct yourselves to please God
and as you are conducting yourselves
you do so even more.
For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.”

We in the 21st century Church find ourselves desperately requiring this same blessing that the Thessalonians received. Paul does not merely pray that they may love, but directly addresses Christ in his prayer. To quote the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Paul “asks for a superabundance of love directed within and beyond the community” where the apostles lead by their humble witness.

In this, Paul demands the Church’s ministers lead by examples of love, and we can hope that the bishops and other church leaders will do the same. Given present affairs, we cannot wait on them to be loving witnesses to Christ — this superabundance of love must come from the laity and supportive religious and clergy. In this preparatory period of Advent, when we begin life with Christ again, it is this superabundance that might be a powerful focal point.

Superabundance isn’t a sufficient amount; it isn’t even more than necessary. Superabundance is gratuitous. It is overflowing. It is uncompromised, unrestrained, and perhaps unwieldy.

A superabundance means all, without exception, find their places in community and all, without exception, find more love than would suffice for even the most suffering people. It means that LGBT persons with their loved ones, their children and their families, their friends and their allies are not merely accepted, but eagerly invited to participate in a life with Christ anew.

I challenge myself this Advent to extend beyond just working out of love for structural changes and legal victories. These are essential, but only loving an ordinary amount comes from a love that two millennia of Christianity has tamed far too greatly.

This Advent, while we ready the way for Christ, let us re-embrace the superabundance of love found amid the earliest Christians, unconcerned with doctrinaire thinking and always concerned with how the community enacted its faith-filled witness.

Then we can be Christians that will stand before Jesus when God’s kingdom nears, confident that in loving superabundantly each person we lived well.

-Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry