Monthly Archives: December 2015

Family values; what is “holy”?

Apologies for the length (and yes I do have things to do apart from writing blogs) 😉

This one gets called the feast of the holy family. So I have been thinking a lot about families and wondering what is “holy” about one family or another and I will keep this in mind as I turn to the readings. Sad to find the libraries I had to scroll through a couple of websites where celibate, white, old, men tell us that a family is always grounded on a “marriage” and that marriage always intends children but isn’t about being carnal (I won’t link but feel free to google things like “catholic family”. These armchair experts on both the complex praxis that becomes “family” and seemingly at times on human relationships themselves can make all the distant, arrogant pronouncements they like but to some of us family is centred on loving bonds and commitments that defy exact classification and may “intend” a better society or a more love-filled life rather than merely procreation.

In the first reading then we have Hannah who in common with many of my friends is full of desolation because she does not have a child. Rather than accept her keen need to have children as an indication of “natural” femininity (as it often gets interpreted both in her life and in the lives of modern day women who struggle to conceive for whatever reason), I see this story as indicating how at war with their own bodies women can be when they are surrounded by patriarchal expectations narrowing the value of a woman (and a wife which in patriarchy is a synonym) to motherhood only. It may seem heartless of me on the feast of the Holy Family to question the very icon of woman/mother at the centre of all we cosily seem to believe about families- but I think of the other sisters and friends who want something other than motherhood from their lives and even in 2015 get everything from blame, snide remarks and unasked for advice about “hurry up and breed”.

In tandem with the women who don’t want to be mothers, I cannot forget those of us who ARE mothers but want to be measured by our words and deeds not just by the quality of the people who might have come out of our womb and learned much from us but like to keep within themselves a sense that they belong to themselves and not only to us. The double bind of motherhood, (if that is all we have) is that the healthy child grows up and becomes independent, wants to leave our influence and not be limited by our prejudices. So I look to the “holy virgin” the “mother of God” the blue clad female figure at the heart of the holy family and want to ask her “Who are you when you are not ‘mother’?”. The gospels give us crumbs of this in the Visitation (powerful prophet and counsellor) and at the Wedding at Cana (radically insightful disciple and theologian). But even these crumbs get reduced to “just a mother, just a woman, just the womb-source of something more important”. I don’t believe men have to face any such essential reduction of their complexity and their very existence as “person” that is so perpetually held before their eyes as a lynch pin of everything we say we value as “family”.

And what of fathers in this world view? Is their career and even their vocation more important than the children they have caused (or perhaps contributed to) a woman to bring into the world? But when we focus on Joseph I think he undermines much of what patriarchy tells us about fatherhood. For now we have Hannah’s desire to conceive.

And so the barren Hannah is nothing, not a mother, a failure and she pleads with God to give her the honour of a child which she will then radically gift back to God (or to the church). How is this less disturbing to us than Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac? How do we celebrate this story in the cosy little feast of the Holy Family? I can’t see this otherwise than as a text of terror. But unlike in Abraham’s story, no angel of the Lord intervenes. The death of the child may not ensue but Hannah leaves him there. The little boy left in the temple now that the parents’ pride has been satisfied. But even today, how many much wanted babies become nothing more than a background figure with its own computer and its expensive education and not always the time for anyone in the family to relate to each other in ways other than buying things? This is my sin too, I have to pay bills and I struggle to find meaningful time with my children and forget how to relate to them.

The psalm doesn’t solve this for me. It only talks to men who get enriched by God giving them a “wife like a fruitful vine” and “children like olive plants” (excessively multiplying and tenaciously tough? or just making mess all over the driveway?). Noone asks the wife or children what they think of this set up, since in this psalm they are prizes not people. I have vivid memories of this psalm in the daily psalter and my dad loved it and the rest of us made faces whenever it came up (which he couldn’t work out why). I guess the word “husband” suggests “husbandry”- cultivating land, plants and stock rather than relating to equal human beings. But the “blessed” who “fear the Lord” are husbands, are the owners and operators of the household. I still haven’t found a “holy” family in these readings….next…

The second reading begins well. Compassion, kindness, humility, love, wisdom, gratefulness. Maybe we have found that ideal here…the holy family. But it couldn’t stop there could it? Patriarchy once again comes into the church’s teaching on family. Uncritically, unreflectively, unwisely and as usual blinded by only having one type of person in the highest levels of authority (always male and overwhelmingly middleclass and white) the church on the day that focuses on families and the values that make them up lets in a reading that advises wives to be “subordinate” and children to “obey”. I’ve heard a lot of nonsense about how in fact it is equal and is not oppressive because husbands are also commanded to love their wives and fathers not to provoke their children! But the reality is that husbands and fathers are an imperfect and human as the rest of us and will at times (even the best of them) fail to love and will inadvertently provoke. And the only safety for the everyone else of the family is an equal status to the all too human father.

I cannot be subservient and obedient to a father or a husband. I do not see God’s word in this sort of bondage! If this is family as the church construes it then I am done with families! I don’t feel furious that readings about donating children to the church and being blessed by being given the ultimate prize of wife ‘n kids or the supremacy of the male/father in the household are in the canon of my faith. We know what sort of societies gave rise to the canon and we know that God calls us to read it carefully and critically, to see it as a photo album of our ancestors not an authoritative recipe book for life today. But I feel furious and frustrated at the stupidity of a church hierarchy that still thinks to celebrate the ideal of “family” by choosing those readings! It explains a lot about the abuses and wilful deafnesses that the church has long been implicated in, that are increasingly coming to light.

Wake up you fools! God comes to liberate us from the sins of our ancestors not to reify them as “The Christian way of life”. As a baptised Christian each of us is called out of the original sin of the societies and imperfect families we are born into to live transformative, grace-filled faith in radical and dynamic (and ready to challenge) love with them. In this spirit my son who has not spoken to me for a few months came to my house on Christmas day, to speak to me adult to adult about his hopes, dreams, inability (and lack of desire) to obey either parent, and dynamic life within the heritage we have given him. If a seventeen year old can see beyond the narrowness of the authority of his parents (and yet be wise enough to retain what he sees as good in the values he was taught) to me that was “holy family” as were my grey months of waiting and hoping he would talk to me one day. We were not enough for him (as a husband’s or a father’s authority would not be enough for me) but as an equal he brings love and courtesy back into the circle of our “family”.

Jesus in the gospel, like my son in the world, finds he has a mission  bigger than the little family he is born into. He does not ask permission from his parents, perhaps even it is selfish of him not to communicate to them what he is doing. But he rebukes them that they ought to have trusted him and his vocation more, they ought to have let go knowing that he has his own business in the world and that this does not mean he does not love them. The story finishes with Jesus submitting back to their authority, which to me seems like an editor who did not want this story to have too much radical power to unsettle the status quo of a society largely based on obedience and varying status. To me the attempt to close Pandora’s box AFTER Jesus has escaped from parental authority and been wise on his own account is too late. The idea of the family hierarchy has already been irreparably damaged. Children have been shown to be more than the puppets of their parents.

And I reflect on radical examples of “holy” family I have seen this year. Of the father who argued powerfully for his son’s right to choose a traditionally “female” sport such as netball. Of the woman who is still a parent to her ex-girlfriend’s children while also nurturing another single friend’s children when possible. Of the foolish women who keep going back to abusive exploitative boyfriends. Of people with elderly parents who need nurture in various ways and get in the way of people’s plans for the year. Of babies yearned for or whoopsies. Of the liturgical “family” that I belong to that radically shares headship (there are leaders but they lead by enabling other people’s co-leadership) and the way they threw open their doors on Christmas Eve and welcomed in a diversity of families. Of the love my son has for his separated mother and father and four scattered siblings, and father’s girlfriend, and all friends and relatives of the family all of whom he accepts with a quiet security that family just means good people. Of the wild mothers who nurture us in our feminist journeys and the wise ancestors who wrote words we are enlightened by and the imperfect fathers who build churches and their miraculous moments of transformative humility.

The holy family is not one legalistic pattern of heteropatriarchy. It is not the dominance of man over women; adult over child nor the reification of breeding as the purpose of life. The holy family, every holy family is a complex network of love, challenge, individuality and collectivity. A holy family will always be recognised by serving the interests of God’s reign (justice, kindness, walk humbly with each other and the world). In every holy family, Wisdom is always born and reborn to every member, to the collective whole.

May your holy family be blessed with love and joy, as you recuperate over this hot and holy season of Christmas.

 

 

 

 

It’s your birthday: let’s not forget!

I’ve been relatively good at doing what the lectionary tells me for a while, but today I am cherry picking the first reading from  proper I and the gospel from proper III (only because I love them so much, not for any profound reason) and adding in my favourite Micah segment because for me it is a symbol for my commitment to God and my need to recommit and reorient toward God constantly. 

Happy birthday darling, little Wisdom. Always new and beautiful as a tiny baby. Always vulnerable to our neglect or mistreatment. Always for us to bring into our lives, and introduce. Happy, happy birthday.

Once long ago, somebody asked what you would like for your birthday. They suggested rams and rivers of oil or maybe human sacrifice (please note: not even for you would I sacrifice my sons). These seemed fitting tributes if you were a great warmongering deity, an accepter of tribute. But you came to us as a persecuted baby, as a voice that the powers of the day wanted to silence, as Wisdom dancing and treating us. And you said there were really only three things that you liked, to take all other presents back to the shop and exchange them for the only thing that could ever make you smile.

You wanted us to act justly, love with kindness, walk humbly with you. Why is it that so much injustice and cruelty and arrogance are brought in your name? Why is it so hard for us to get the present right? I love you, I want to give you your heart’s desire.

And yet you come, not demanding but giving. Our world walks in darkness and you offer us “a great light” and incredible joy. So easy to read this light as a lightening of the depressive load we bear, a kind of escapism from the realities of the day. Easier still to see the “joy” as dividing the plunder of first world privilege, of 24 hour shopping and maxed out credit cards, of tables groaning under a burden of too much food, too much of which will be thrown away while most of the world starves. If this is the only joy we have, then we do not have your joy!

But you come for the burdened people, the oppressed and enslaved and exploited. Will you break the yoke of capitalism, the bar of vacuous consumerism and the rod of inevitability and despair? Will you break open our hardened hearts and let flow the tears we have repressed so that you can wipe them and hold us close once more in compassion? Will you show us how to be miracles upon the earth and let the refugee free while supporting the single parent and the young?

The suspicious and unloving within our hearts, the militaristic hatred and tendency to move to protect our excess and privilege you will burn. Within your love we have no need of such things..wondrous child.

Yes as a mere child you come, again and again.

As what is small and powerless and easy enough to ignore, to bury in cast off wrapping paper and the expectations of our nearest and dearest. Even if we problematise Christmas how tempting to growl “bah humbug” and leave it at that. Easy either to enter into the spirit of silliness and excess or to condemn and retreat. How much harder to enter into your transformation and allow a child of truth to be born in our lives? How will you transform me? Do I have courage to step upon your path in the coming year and let you lead me into the unknown? But not entirely unknown because your path is always truth- the unchanging truth of right relations with humans and the earth itself (justice, kindness, walk humbly: once again my refrain).

If your zeal will do this God, then I look to you to enflame my heart with your zeal so that I may follow and serve your interests (there you told me I might find real joy).

As for the gospel, you know me: what a nerd I am and how I am a person of words of reading and writing and lively discussions. How kind of you to be “Word” when you touch my humanity. How slow I am to discover that all life that is worth living is within you, to ground my own life, my own words, my own meaning in you…always you. But you are not only for me- as some sort of feel good inspirational text would be- you are deeply and transformatively political “for all people”.

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” we wrote those words upon my mother’s grave. Wisdom and love are far reaching, more than I usually dare to believe. You embody yourself within us, within our human heritage of love passed down and imperfect wisdom too. Through you we come to believe, to know at last what is important (justice, kindness, walk humbly). Like John we are commanded to make a way for you into the hearts and lives of others. How to do this for you birthday-Wisdom to whom I owe so much?

We are not the light, but the light needs our work so that it may shine.

We receive you because we were born from something greater than the “will of a man”, you called us into being and again into fulfilment of that being. “The man” may block our progress, but God does not accept the inevitability of failure and death. No. Even dying on the cross the eternal hope of God screams out in defiance of all oppression, of all that dehumanises, of all that seperates. We could mourn the state of the world but God gives us life after death.

The Word knows us well having become flesh and soiled nappies and been utterly reliant on the love and goodness of imperfect others. The Word gives us grace and truth to go on and bring light and change the world.

Happy birthday beloved, beautiful Word of God- invite me to be a better friend to you this coming year. Make my heart and hands big enough to respond generously to the need of those you love. Give me the little words that reflect your own Wordness. Let me like Mary labour to bring you forth in faith, hope and always LOVE.

 

When the lowly will be lifted up

It’s quite interesting how it’s always human nature to read this week’s readings as offering radical hope and restitution for “us”. We are keen to look at every wrong ever done to us and to barrack for God’s action of redressing injustices and imbalances. But how do we read it if we get honest about our own privilege, which we work so hard at being blind to? How does the white, middle-class, first world over-consumer read this radical idea of the hungry being filled with good things at the expense of the rich? This isn’t an “Everybody wins” situation remember. Those who have taken more than their fair share of power, pride and wealth should feel threatened by this kingdom of God. God’s radical and unsettling justice comes, why do we face it so calmly, and not see the huge reproach implicit in a rebalancing action of God?

We complain about the stress and expense of Christmas, but we still buy toys and decorations made by underpaid children in sweatshops in other countries. We think we are very generous to give a little bit of money or a couple of tins of food to the poor people who are willing to play the charity game, but we calmly let our own society go on creating poverty and increasing poverty here and overseas. We naively leave the union and we talk about how people should get back in touch with the “real meaning” of Christmas and not expect handouts from us. We expect what we pay for education to only benefit our own children, or to at least put them ahead of the “others”.

We say there is no room in our country for families and workers and intellectuals who are fleeing war and horrendous happenings. Last week John the Baptist called us a “brood of vipers” because we want our salvation and our holy joy without any effort, without any transformation, without giving up the unfair advantages we have over “others”.

Is it us that are the “lowly” to be lifted up?

As women in a patriarchal church…perhaps.

As exploited workers, overworked to the detriment of our families…surely

As a queer person in a heterosexist, heteronormative society…undoubtably

As a person who is in any way cast down, rejected, silenced, taken advantage of or abused we can expect God’s restitutive justice to come to our help to point us toward justice and solace. But what will God’s justice do with me when I am the oppressor, the exploiter, the blindly privileged?

We think of Bethlehem as a sweet little town where cute baby Jesus was born. We have a noble idea of it, it goes back to the Old Testament and has been prophesied about. We don’t recognise it for what it was in Jesus’ day a sort of Bogan Hicksville. Our nice middle-class sensibilities like to judge the sort of people that in reality Jesus came from and was born amongst. Shepherds: perhaps business owners of the cashed-up-bogan variety or perhaps just the labourers. Mary whose pregnancy wasn’t adequately explained and Joseph who accepted this! Even if we read Matthe’s gospel where Mary and Joseph are well off or well-connected enough to be in a house, and are visited by what we refer to as “kings” or “wise men”, God is actually tried to unsettle us with heathen foreigners using their own non-Christian religion to discover the Christ child. Not to convert to Christianity, let’s remember they went back to their own country by another way.

So the God that we wait for with all that assurance seeks in, in a stressful time ruled over by unjust governments, to the poor, the not so nice, the foreigners and the underclass. To single mothers and their families to two women meeting together to support each other in pregnancy- finding a non-patriarchal space to share some prophecy and some presence with each other.

So with Mary now, we are pregnant with possibility and it has been a long and hard journey waiting for the impossible- for God to infuse our experiences and make Wisdom out of what has happened to us. That is what it means to be close to Christmas- tired of waiting for transformation and too weary for the work ahead but full to bursting with a defiant sort of a hope. It’s significant then what Mary does with this hope. She has every excuse to throw in the towel- she has more than enough to deal with but she takes herself out on the road and makes a demanding and dangerous journey to her cousin to share her hope and joy and to be a support to Elizabeth.

That strong bond of love, so that she can only experience her hopes and fears adequately by sharing them with her cousin and so that her heart is moved by compassion even beyond the weariness of a long and unlooked for pregnancy. Elizabeth’s statement “Blessed are you among women” is often taken as a statement of her superiority among all women. She is taken by the church to be the first woman, peerless. But when I read it I hear “you are blessed among women, you are blessed to be in a safe environment of women supporting and listening.”

There is a space in this reading that the patriarchy of the church has tried to limit and trivialise because it cannot be colonised. The babies might be males (and how often is that the main focus in Sunday preachings) but they are males who are accepting and enjoying this all-female space where two powerful theologians meet to create meaning together. John, the great prophet as a foetus hears the voice of Mary (hears her unsilencing) and leaps for joy. He correctly interprets this women’s speaking as enriching for the church and related to the message he will come to preach.

This close to Christmas then, there are two things we need to do to prepare for Christmas (more important than shopping and cooking and decorating and all the rest of it). Firstly we need to reconnect with the justice and equality agenda of the reign of God, before we can claim to be “waiting” or “hoping”. We need to seek God’s interests, beyond narrow self-interest (wanting to allow refugees in a a very concrete example of that, but there is so much to be done to undo the wrong and inequality that we hide in). That is the first thing we need to do to be “prepared” for the real Christmas which is more than a festival of consumerism.

The second thing we need to do is find those solace points that feed us, those wise people who need our presence. We need to reach out with support and ask for support not just from the great leaders of society and of the church but from the grass-roots community. There is a space in God for a women’s space, a queer space, an ethnic space, a space to be ourselves with the people who with us may be trivialised by the rulers of this world. Mary and Elizabeth on one level are “switching off” from the patriarchal church perhaps, but they are not doing it in an empty way. There is a moment of communion, of feeding each other God’s word. A moment of praise and prophecy. A moment of love, an embrace.

They bring their heavy, pregnant bellies into this communion, their baggage as the nurturers and care-givers of families. Only when we are in that safe space- accepted for who we really are can we really mean the words ”my  soul glorifies God”.

Justice….relationship….then peace on earth begins to look more possible.

“You’re Hurting Her!” A Story of Consent in the Santa Line

The Consent Crew

UPDATE Dec 14th 2015
Since this story was first posted it has been shared extensively around the world. We have received many comments, so many in fact that our website is experiencing difficulties, and is unable to display comments at this time.

Some people believe it is a made up story, or that it has been heavily embellished. Others have reacted strongly to the story and believe it is playing into unacceptable gender norms and other societal scripts.

The Consent Crew presents this story here as it is, an eloquently retold real life story of what a father experienced when he took his seven year old son to visit Santa. It does seem too good a story to be true- and yet sometimes amazing things do happen in real life. By presenting this here, we hope to generate discussion about the ways we teach and role model consent to both young people and adults.

We have added…

View original post 1,134 more words

What now you want joy?

Let’s face it, this time of the year we are all beyond TIRED. Our workplaces have chewed us up and spat us out and now expect us to plan how we will further pour more of ourselves than we have into them next year, expecting us to face that with a credible performance of excitement of joy before we have even had our measly 2 weeks off. And those two weeks will largely be spent overworking to get excessive amounts of food and commodities to impress already well off relatives and close friends. Is that all there is to life? This is a good time for me to look for any sort of “meaning” that can transform the death by first world privilege that I increasingly agree with TS Eliot on (yes I quote Marina every other week or something).

So readings, please give me something…

In the first reading a feminine reader is commanded to rejoice by a masculine and militaristic god who takes away judgements against us and rescues us and stuff. OK, I get it, our tradition is suffused with all that stuff and we can’t really just pretend it isn’t there, but even as escapism the being rescued by a bloke thing doesn’t really do it for me. Like our bosses at work and relatives God expects a performance of joy and excitement in the midst of our exhaustion and the general meaningless of life? Forget removing “judgements” against me God, I asked for justice…for my sisters, for my children, for my earth. Oh forget it, men never listen properly. Next time just get me a voucher!

The canticle is really more than the same, but I can glean one small thing from it. Drawing water from the wells of salvation! In the recent heatwaves, in the dryiness of waiting for a response about my paper, in the disappointment of a failed job interview and the grief of an end of an era at my son’s primary school I say “yes please” to salvation by water (not by male rescuer).

With that in mind, I take my parched soul off to the second reading. But I am mellowing, because even though once again it bids me to “rejoice” and I still don’t really feel like it, it goes on to talk about being open with your gentleness. Why do we feel so vulnerable when we are gentle, and spend so much of our lives trying to htfu (harden up)?

So I am trying to be in touch with the gentleness that I feel is somewhere inside me. I am trying to make time for the vulnerable and the lonely people. I am trying to listen and not to judge. But I am tired….tired…tired. My prayer and supplication should be for justice….for refugees…for those worse off than me but I am asking for the courage and strength to take my career more in hand, for eloquence when I write, for the company of the people who inspire me (they seem as busy and exhausted as me). If I “rejoice” with gentleness then I think of my absent sons who I have a chance of seeing over the “break”, of my sisters who will take us as they find us and add laughter to the mix for Christmas, of my beautiful youngest who greeted me at the door when I got home from uni saying “did you get the email from the lecturer” and I almost burst into tears as I told him “She said the paper was shit” and he looked at it and disagreed, “That’s not an ‘it’s shit’ message” my little wise one said.

I need to take some of that rejoicing gentleness to work where there are children and exhausted adults who feel as grumpy and fragile as I do this time of year. How hard not to worry about anything. What a tough call from God. Where’s this peace we are promised? I posted too many Facebook statuses today and got back humour and hugs. So much shit in the world, but always there is love too. Rejoicing…gentleness…love…the wells of salvation. Not escapism, but the quiet activism of remaining human regardless.

And yet the gospel, on this day of joy gives us the wrath of God for the decadence after all. We can’t expect God to be on side if we are not sharing with those who have less than us. John is asking for a radical giving, the second coat you have not the fifth or the sixth. He is not asking us to make a big deal out of the “charity” of giving a tiny skim off the top of our greed, he simply wants us, the haves to equalise the situation. There is no question about whether those who don’t have a coat deserve one or are willing to work for one or pass an activity test or will pay us back. It’s simple redistribution- those who have need to give half to those who do not. Apart from that there is the reminder not to use power inappropriately.

Even now the axe is at the tree. Are we going to pay attention to these simple instructions for living?

Preparing for transformation

I have been feeling a bit uninspired and even (here’s a confession) judgemental as Christmas approaches and all I hear is a whole lot of consumerist drama about presents and food and decorations and which unpleasant relative people are going to half kill themselves in order to please (all while matching the napkins to the baubles and making glittery centrepieces). I wonder that people who usually come across as sensitive and thoughtful suddenly seem to bury themselves in consumerism and stress and as a result some of them (the active ones who have to do all the work) wind up snapping “I hate Christmas”, while the ones who have a high emotional investment in “receiving” a perfect Christmas- gifts, invitations also end up disappointed as the reality can never match the expectation brought to us by that ”John the Baptist” equivalent of the consumerist religion, Santa.

Someone is going to argue with me that “Santa” is actually a Christian figure being based on St Nicholas but when I look at the North pole dwelling, red, no longer unfashionably plump, ruling class business owner and exploiter of elves and reindeer and his hiding in the shadows (making cookies of course), “Mrs Claus” I say “bollocks”. This myth may indeed have come out of an appropriation of  a Christian story but it has morphed so far I think it is even too late for reclaiming. Is noone apart from me uncomfortable with the Christmas pageants where this older (and often depicted as married) man has a sleazy relationship with teenaged beauty queens and Christmas fairies? This is not a version of Christianity I want to subscribe to, nor is the meritocratic lie that the children who get lavish presents are the “good” ones, and the ones with unemployed parents have done something wrong and deserve less. There is a popular movement for parents to “cut down” the number of presents they buy each of their children to FOUR. FOUR?? I only ever bought each child one (and maybe snuck in a book as well because I am naughty that way).

So I have been feeling anger and despair about Christmas, and I don’t like to admit this but I better- I have been looking down on people who think these things are so important- all the presents and hideous decorations and having the right fashionable foods (and too much of them). I have been reading Vandana Shiva (another “john the Baptist” figure but more to my taste) and agreeing that we privileged first-worlders use up the planet for empty crap, we don’t even get enough satisfaction to be worth the plunder and we are unhealthy as anything because of our over-consumption.

But I have survived this year, in a job that has some joyful moments on even the bad days, with one entire day nearly every week that I can devote to my favourite activity in the world of writing and I live with the most thoughtful young person in the universe who alternates getting me a coffee or a hug with his witty humour and undemanding habits. And if I find meaning in quiet times with him (no work for two weeks) and sunsetty evenings at the beach in the wet sand and the chatter of rainbow lorikeets and the company of the same friends who have supported and challenged me all year, and family members who do their best to tolerate me…then it is time to stop and examine my own privilege.

Because not so many years ago there was an impoverished, struggling single mother who felt cut off from relatives and other people alike- who saw judgement and rejection everywhere (even where it wasn’t) and who suffered through grey day after grey day under a burden of anxiety and self-hate and her own inadequacy. I have to remember her, who I was for so many years. And that grey-day woman wanted a bit of colour in her life and used tinsel and fairylights and wrapping paper and cards to try to make some fleeting connection to the rest of the human race and bought too many gadgets and gizmos to try to brighten up the lives of the children who were unfortunate enough to be stuck in her life. And that wasn’t “right” and it didn’t completely “work” but it provided some sort of fleeting relief and that is what it does for all the people who get caught up in commodified Christmases as well as the dating-at-any-price mentality which I think it related: the idea that you can’t be happy unless you have a partner.

And sitting in the relative wealth of Australian society we DO need to look at our consumption and we all need to cut down on it- every household, every individual but especially industry and the military! And I don’t want to return to an uncritical “bread and circuses” attitude to Christmas, granting that the consumerism alleviates a little bit of an existential angst for many people and leaving it at that. The first reading expects more than that from us…we are to point ourselves toward the joy and beauty that God calls us to (which can’t be giftwrapped or sent out for). But in my judgemental attitude I have thought about how to “break their hearts of stone” and I haven’t considered that that is not what I need when I get trapped in escapism and patterns of despair.

How instead do we embrace their hearts and offer them a home? The baby John the Baptist in the canticle is not praised for his incisive criticisms and his rousing hellfire sermons (alas because I think I would make a fantastic old-school preacher). He is told he will prepare Jesus’ way through preaching the “forgiveness of sins” through the loving-kindness (is this hesed?) of God to break upon us like a new dawning. Like finding out that I was a rainbow, not a brokenness. So somehow if we are to accept the impossible mission of John the Baptist (and even here I am mindful of how he ended up once he irritated the ruling class enough), we are to bring peace and loving-kindness and light to the world, not simply threats and criticisms. Do I detect God laughing at me, because she knows how I love a good criticism!

In the second reading, “Paul” (I am never sure when it is the real Paul and when it isn’t but this guy thinks it is) is thanking God for some supportive person/s who have shared the gospel with him. And I think of the people who fill my heart with gratefulness and light whenever I even think of them, and some of them are believers in God, and some are not. But what they all have in common is that they came into my life in a “before” time, when I was more depressed and they have to some degree walked into my darkness to greet me and accept me and show me the light of love. The people who saw something in me before I was ready to see it myself have (cumulatively) changed my life! So if we want to convert the next Paul, or even if we just want a better society then the call is to be prophets of love and light to the world.

And now I am beginning to sound more Christmassy I think which is good because next week is the “joy” week and the drought of advent-waiting will need to be ready to be transformed to a more expectant state then.

So back to the gospel, to our old friend John the Baptist. As an environmentalist I feel horrified shivers at his metaphor, but as a teacher who is interest above all else in social justice I resound with the idea of equalising. Despite the capitalist wisdom of the day “a rising tide floats everyone’s boat” the fact is we live in a world of finite resources, and for one to increase, someone else must pay the price. So to prepare for God’s kingdom, we must raise the status of the poor and the refugee AT THE COST OF THE WEALTHY who need to be made lower. While I feel quite poor still, on a world wide scale I am one of the (smaller) hills that will need to be smoothed down to exalt the real valleys.Isn’t it tempting to water down the redistributive demand of God’s revolution here and to say that all God really wants us to do is be “nice” and “moral” and “caring” in a bland way that doesn’t offend anybody.

But no! God’s demanding Word asks for nothing less than a complete overhaul of our social landscape to smooth out mountains and valleys into equality. Yes that is hard, hard work! But that is what it will take to have God’s reign in our lives. We can’t achieve this purely as individuals, we can’t just make ourselves “good” and “holy” people inside there is a social project and a struggle implicit in bringing God. “All flesh” are to see this salvation together, not singly while leaving brothers and sisters to suffer outside the gate.

So that is the Christmas to prepare for, the radical challenge that God’s word always brings to the powers that be. Prepare to be offensive to the Herods and the Pilates of the world when Jesus comes- prepare to be no friend to the wealthy Pharisees and to be seen on a par with tax-collectors and prostitutes. The restitutive, redistributive world of God’s Holy Wisdom is going to make a few changes around here. And we get to be part of that!