Fourth Sunday in Advent
Cartoonist Alison Bechdel has become famous for a tongue in cheek comment she put into the mouth of one of her “Dykes to watch out for”. This character says she only watches movies that have a scene where two named female characters have a conversation about something other than a man. This means the character has not been to the movies for several decades. It’s more than just a joke, when people bring the “Bechdel test” to popular culture and the classics, very few things pass the test.
If you are already spotting that the test is flawed, you’d have that in common with many commentators, but it needs to be remembered that this comes from a cartoon, as a provocation rather than a rigorous hermeneutic tool. Flawed or not I find it useful. As you can imagine, very few bible stories pass the Bechdel test. In the Old Testament we have Ruth and Naomi, a story that does not seem to feature in the Sunday lectionary. In the New Testament we have today’s absolute gem of a story.
Like John the Baptist I leapt for joy when I saw that I was rostered alongside what is possibly my favourite gospel story the ONLY ONE THAT PASSES THE BECHDEL TEST. I have several times written about it in my blog, but I feel I will never exhaust my love for this reading.
I have chosen to lengthen the pericope given in the man-made lectionary. I think I am justified in doing so, but it takes up time so I will be careful not to speak for long and just briefly skim over some of the points that strike me. This is a rich story we could return to again and again, always for more meaning.
Notably, this good news centres not only two women, but the women’s powerful, courageous and somewhat revolutionary voices. The man-made lectionary seems to miss this point, cutting out Mary’s rant. It’s more cosy for the patriarchy if we think of Mary and Elizabeth as two nurturing wombs – Elizabeth is old but has miraculously been turned back into something that is useful for patriarchy after all. For those of us who are casualised workers, or whose worth is somehow seen as contingent on usefulness to others this reading is constricting. Similarly Mary is often read as kind and unselfish, as always putting the needs of others before her own. Thus dealt with, the patriarchal reading pushes the two women into the background, as if the only real characters here are the two unborn babies. I wonder if you can think of any chilling contemporary parallels to this in America, or even closer to home.
The feminist reading comes to the text asking what if a woman is more than just her ability to reproduce and nurture? In the hope of finding any stories of faith that pass the Bechdel test, we can look at the reading centring the worth of Mary and Elizabeth to themselves as characters, as social agents, as more than just a vehicle for men’s birth or salvation.
Elizabeth needs to have a baby, it is true. Her age and seeming infertility have been a huge misfortune not because all women can only be happy or complete with a baby, not because of a biological fate determined by God, but because of a social fate determined by man. Man, despite the assumptions our social world run on, is not God. Elizabeth finds herself in a patriarchal culture, her economic wellbeing is tied to her kinship to a father, a husband or finally a son.
Mary’s long journey to see her is not just “kindness” but is a startling act of independence, empowerment and a centring of a relationship between two women. They both have a need for this relationship of friendship, not economic dependency. They need someone to talk to who will listen and understand, there’s affection here and solidarity but definitely something more than just baby talk.
As soon as Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting the child leaps for joy. Elizabeth is carrying not just any baby, but perhaps the greatest prophet of Holy Wisdom bar one. The rest of this reflection will show who the even greater prophet is. So the child who leaps for joy is John the Baptist, who will grow into a truly courageous, relentless and revolutionary voice that threatens the status quo, specifically in the person of Herod. I guess John the Baptist would know good news when he hears it, and the good news that he reacts to here is the VOICE of Mary resounding. Before even her words are formed, there is resonance that something vital and worth hearing will be told.
We know Jesus as the word of God, but if we say he was fully human we must acknowledge that someone had to teach him language and moral discourse. Jesus the child grew up closely following and listening to the same voice that John the Baptist is so impressed by even before he is born. Mary has been chosen not just as a womb but as a prophetic voice of reason, of right relation, of revolution.
So if Mary’s voice has excited the prophet John the Baptist, and been the foundation for developing Jesus, himself, how dare we cut off the story without listening to her words. We too should be excited to hear her and should find the potential in her words to make God’s Wisdom present. I have previously reflected that we should not get so bound up in words and spiritual things that we neglect the body. Now I acknowledge that nor is it fair to reduce women to bodies and reproductive capabilities only, to thus deny them the Godde-given capacity to preach that is so clearly outlined in this reading. Mary preaches to Elizabeth and seemingly little ears are preparing themselves to listen too. John’s preaching later (see last week’s gospel) contains more than traces of Mary’s subversive politics. Mary was chosen by God for her voice, her mind, her integrity at least as much as for her previously unoccupied womb.
Outspoken, courageous, strong Mary with her BFF and cousin Elizabeth (she of the loud voice in today’s gospel) refuse to be cut out of the gospels. At Cana again Mary will show her inability to remain silent and will kick-start her son’s ministry. Elizabeth’s husband has been temporarily silenced by the truth of her underestimated body.
The Almighty does indeed cast down the mighty and elevate the invisible- such as women. God’s preferential option is for the poor, the refugee, the exploited worker, the single- mother, the one outside the gates.
In what way are we the hungry who will be filled by Godde with every good thing?
In what way do we allow ourselves to be the privileged, who miss the point of grace and are sent empty away?
Wisdom is so near to us this time of year, let us reflect on Mary’s certainty that God’s kindom runs counter to the inequitable status quo.