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.