Tuesday, December 7, 2021
Katie Snipes Lancaster
Matthew 1:19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
Reflection on the Nativity
Amy Jill Levine was an Orthodox Jewish girl living in a Catholic neighborhood in Massachusetts. She was born in 1956 and when she was seven years old, a little Catholic girl came up to her and said, “You killed our Lord.” Not knowing what that could mean in the slightest, she began to study the Christian scriptures and never stopped. She is now a New Testament professor (yep, a Jewish New Testament professor) at the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University and in 2019 was even the first Jewish scholar to join the Pontifical Biblical Institute teaching staff in Rome (in other words, her work is deeply respected globally, and across many religious traditions).
Frequently Amy Jill Levine’s biblical scholarship explicitly addresses places within the Christian tradition where interpretation of the biblical text might problematically lead to little Catholic girls telling little Jewish girls, “You killed our Lord” (and as we know, this kind of biblical interpretation is not just playground bullying, it can make its way into the terrible minds of those looking for a “Final Solution”). Matthew 1:19 is one of those places of tension. In her new book “Light of the World: A Beginner’s Guide to Advent,” Levine suggests “a number of uninformed commentators assert that Joseph acted quietly to prevent Mary’s being stoned to death on the charge of adultery. This is bad history.” She says for example, in the more ancient story of David and Bathsheba, they were “clearly guilty of adultery, but they are not executed. No one in the Bible is. The rabbinic tradition does whatever it can to prevent the death penalty from ever being carried out.” Her attentiveness to the rabbinic tradition helps the Christian tradition unstick itself from the bigotry-producing suppressionist idea that Jesus came to “make better” or “get right” or “replace” the former tradition. When we bring in the worst-of-the-worst biblical laws (like stoning unmarried pregnant women) and place them up against New Testament characters who don’t follow those laws (and thereby insinuate that only New Testament “good” “Christian” folk ignore such terrible laws) we run the risk of suggesting that Christianity is better than Judaism, and the 20th century has shown us the horrific risk of that mindset.
Instead let us assume that culturally, any man in good standing put in this position would want to do what Joseph does, dismiss her quietly. This was a story that was not meant to be told anywhere outside the small circle of Mary’s friends, let alone to the whole village, or the world. Quietly Mary would have had her baby, been surrounded by her mother and aunts and cousins, and raised her son on the margins.
What does this tell us about prayer? For me it points to a hard truth, the words we use in prayer matter. Amy Jill Levine is attentive to places where the Christian tradition might (unintentionally even) have embedded within it ideas of superiority over other religious traditions. Prayer can be used as its own kind of weapon. In some contexts the phrase “I’ll pray for you,” can become a phrase used to diminish the personhood of those who are deemed “other.” Prayer however is not meant to make one person feel more superior than another. Prayer is meant to bend us toward the One who we meet in the in/tangible everyday enfleshed, embodied world, who we meet in friend and stranger alike.
Praying the Nativity
O God of the quiet places,
Open our ears to the world,
so that we might hear your call
to humility, gentleness, kindness
and radical love.