These thoughts were written for the 10W podcast for the week of 12/13. Please find this podcast here.
In this space, those of us who record this podcast usually offer a very short homily- some theological thoughts. I beg your indulgence to let me offer some personal thoughts this time. The book of Ezra is very difficult for me to read in one short bit, as in today’s reading.
It is a deeply emotional and theological book. The beginning of the book details the return from the exile of the people of Judah. This return, however, is one of deeply mixed emotions. There are people who were left behind in Jerusalem who do not know those who are returning. There are Jews who remained in Babylon, not remembering or having a relationship with Judah- the land or the people. There are non-Jews, Gentiles, who now also reside in Jerusalem or who have taken ownership and care of the land itself.
The first temple, built under Solomon, was built with conscripted Israelite labor. That conscription- slavery itself- led to deep divisions within the land. The second temple, now, will be built with permission and supplies via a decree from King Cyrus. While Ezra and parts of Isaiah acknowledge Cyrus as a servant of God’s will, whether or not Cyrus knew it, this still means the Holy of Holies has a mixed history at the hands of people.
Finally, the book of Ezra will end with the men of the prophetic class (and perhaps others) being required to set aside their foreign wives and the children they have for their wives. Perceived to be a threat to the religious purity of the land and the people, these women and children are, presumably, sent back whence they came. Despite the guidance of the law to care for widows, orphans, and strangers- regardless of their origin- Ezra holds up the ideal of internal purity of a people as a commendable goal.
The weight of awareness of privilege- Western privilege, white privilege, cis-gendered privilege, straight privilege, and even the advantages that I haven’t fully comprehended- the awareness of these things compels me to say this: Group homogeneity, or sameness, disguised as ‘purity’ is not a spiritual goal given by God. When we make an idol of a time when “we” were all the same, allegedly great, we are willfully ignoring the work of God’s hands creating difference and drawing together into community. We are willfully refusing to see the others in the land, in the city, in our neighborhood, in our family, as a child of God. We are willfully choosing not to see Christ in the person right next to us.
Perceiving the Messiah in the stranger is not a reality within the community in Ezra’s time. We should not read shame backwards onto that group for that failure. Instead, in the burgeoning labor of the Advent season, as we wait to celebrate Christ’s light at hand, we should read shame forward in that we- fellow humans with Ezra’s community- are still often too ready to shut out strangers. This unwelcome often goes by the names: safety, security, greatness, borders, danger, different.
When I think of reading Ezra in Advent, I think about this: in two weeks’ time, we will read of an unmarried couple, whispered about in their community, seeking to fulfill the demands of the law. The place where they are legally required to file paperwork is full of outsiders. Even though there are many related to them by blood, faith, or other ties, they end up in the spare space that belongs to generous strangers. That night, the woman undergoes the most dangerous thing that would happen in her life: she gives birth. Strange men come to see her and talk about night visions in the sky. Stranger men come from further away, later, and tell her of the danger to her and her baby. Her partner has also perceived this danger and they flee. They flee to a place that had enslaved their ancestors, but there they find safety.
This is the story of the holy family. Our Advent prayer must be for God to birth in us the welcome and openness of the shepherds, the magi, and the Egyptian community. And for God to let die in us the fear of the other, the urge toward purity through shutting out others, and the hesitation to welcome difference in our communities. Amen.