Category Archives: Reflection/Sermon

Embodying “temple”

The readings this week are about being called. Samuel greatly admires his teacher, but outgrows his teacher and finds his own vocation. Eli here is wise enough to know his own limitation and to point Samuel to a direct communion with God, putting himself out of the loop when it is time. So it is with all mentors or teachers and students, the time comes when the learner needs to stand on their own feet and decide for themselves. But there is an inner voice of integrity, a call to be greater than just self-interest and ego. Another way of saying this is that our potential is grounded in the will and wor[l]d of God.

The second reading contains that old saying that many of us grew up with, that the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. This teaching was often misused to make girls in particular feel fearful of their own sexuality and guilty of any sort of sensuousness. That interpretation however is not really borne out by the text itself. A temple is not a delicate and fragile thing, so prone to desecration- it is something that has integrity. If my body is a temple to the one true and beautiful God, then my body has integrity. If my body, in its bodiliness was sanctified then my body’s abilities and desires also can point to Christ/Wisdom. This is not to say that selfishness and overfocusing on the body itself, or giving into every impulse is desirable. People can work into a beautiful church and feel no sense of the sacred. They can admire the fine architecture and art. They can enjoy the singing of the perfect choir or find serenity in the colourful, scented flowers and incense and warm amber light through stained glass and yet never think that there is more here than pleasure and momentary peace.

In the same way we can live in our bodies in a way that focusses us on narcissism, lust, gluttony and all the rest of it and never touch Godde in ourselves or others.

But how unhappy to try to correct this possibility by smashing stained glass, banning choirs, throwing out art or defacing architecture, banishing incense and flowers and denuding the altar an sanctuary of anything that is beautiful or that adds pleasure to the experience of the sacred. Granted we strip the church (partially) for Good Friday, but this is an expression of our loss and grief and solidarity with Godde’s loss and grief in this time- it is not the ordinary way we approach Godde through a rejection of all the good things of the earth.

Why does communion flatbread have to taste of cardboard? I like that Anglican churches tend to have a good quality port as communion wine. God is in pleasure of the senses as much as in the strength of being able to face deprivation.

My body in its beauty and capability is a place where I or others can encounter Godde. I was deeply aware of this, this week as I returned to work at the childcare centre and had children clamouring for a cuddle and a story and I told them that my arms were long enough to cuddle more than one friend at a time (this was necessary). Then they measured their arms too by how many friends they could reach and we laughed together at the joy of being human with long arms that long to embrace. We told stories, the older children who are on the threshold of leaving for school have listened to my stories and asked me to stop and listen to theirs for a change. In church we do story-telling, and it is called the liturgy of the Word. In church we touch with affection and claim ourselves as part of the “otherness” of God no less than the other (each other in the sign of peace and penitential rite and Godde herself in the Eucharist). I am sure other professions too can find parallels with worship (nursing comes to mind, but even politics has something).

In the gospel Jesus is being cosy and friendly and giving nicknames. To be friends with Jesus is to go out of our way and to get to know him, this includes going to visit him in the elsewhere mentioned “least of my siblings”. To be part of Jesus’ group is to be changed, to gain a new and more difficult identity to learn to be a “rock”- strong and dependable in the tides of life. I think I have mentioned before how much I relate to the flawedness and well-meaning bumblings of Peter- his impulsivity and excess of emotion. Jesus in the readings calls Samuel and Peter but he calls each of us- the female body is a temple no less than the male and the Holy Spirit dwells in the specificity and even the limits of beautiful human architecture.

I am a temple

I am a rock

I am a reassuring touchstone for those

who need to come to God’s presence.

 

I can embody liturgy

I can embody prayer and praise

I can bring a moment of sanctity

of challenge and reassurance to the days

of God’s beloved

 

You are temple,

You are rock

You are there to show me something

bigger than myself

 

You embody Godde

You channel Wisdom

You are a lovely work of art

depicting her beauty

 

They are temple

They are rock

They are something firm and sacred

that we much treasure and preserve

 

They embody our call

They embody our sacrament

They call us to the altar

of the one we yearn for

 

…they are part of “we”…

 

We are temple

We are rock

We are stones together building

something bigger than just “I”

 

When you’re Samuel

I am Eli

getting ready to allow you

to hear more than I can tell you

to be yourself and speak with God.

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When Jesus comes, the status quo is “greatly troubled”

Happy epiphany! Lectionary readings for the day can be found here. 

We live in a world, where it is supposed to be “common sense” to blame the refugee, the foreigner and the welfare recipient for hard times.  Firstly, these times are actually not all that hard if we are not a refugee or welfare recipient ourselves; secondly such as they are, they are caused by choices the government makes to support and shore up the rich rather than the poor.

It is not the person from a war-torn or flooded country that is taking funding away from public hospitals while allowing multi-national companies to use up the natural resources of the country without contributing any tax! It is not the injured breadwinner, the single mother, even the shiftless artist who is stripping funding from public schools to fund pointless and dehumanising plebiscites, give free money to the now foreign-owned propaganda machine and the mining companies; or who is tying our economics to outdated and inefficient coal and scoffing at new technologies that are proven in other parts of the world to work. And as far as “family values” go…it is not the loving and accepting parents of the trans child, it is not the two women bringing children up together that are telling us that compassion is a luxury we cannot afford and that everything needs to be ruled by the dispassionate, uncaring market…the values of the market are the values we now follow as a society. It seems we have a new God.

I reject that God and all the victim blaming and mathematically unsound “economics” such thinking brings with it.

I look for a star in the east, the new hope and I try to be like the magi. The magi got pulled out of their comfort zone, to go to a culture they knew nothing about and to find a poor (perhaps) and seemingly insignificant family that had had a baby. Sure in terms of the gospel, we are meant to nod and smile, this is “proof” that Jesus was someone special but the fact is that God is full of these sort of proofs, that in fact every foreign and poor and displaced baby is “special”. Each one is the hope that this world has.

Gold, frankincense, myrrh- these are material resources, worldly wealth for the “kingdom of God” after all. That is to say, our “spirituality” is not just about being “spiritual” and praying and feeling good and some sort of inner “niceness”. There is a practical dimension to our travelling with God and to the foreign baby, God. God demands an easier life for the poor- real gifts, real help, real earth-rooted and material signs of love and dignity.

Individual acts of “charity” may not change the world, but they change a life or three and they show a commitment– yes God we will go out of our way, yes God we will allow you to help yourself to the goods of this life, yes God even our “worldliness” is centred on you. It starts with the generosity I can show toward others in my life or in my networks and it flows from that to an attitude of acceptance and love, a desire to advocate for Jesus wherever s/he lies, whatever manger, whatever sheets- and let’s face it at times he is not the poorest of the poor either, his life is not the meanest of the mean but he needs something from us other than judgement and a turning away. When Jesus the refugee manages to get a decent job, to get into a decent school, wear fashionable clothes or buy a mobile phone you get people saying “see how easy it is for ‘them’- too easy” but Jesus is still asking us for acceptance, for love, for equality.

When Jesus the single mother can afford a haircut or a glass of wine or is given a nice handbag for Christmas, then she does not fit our idea of abject poverty and we may think that welfare payments are “too generous” that she “has it easy” that she is not suffering enough to deserve support or dignity. But the idea that Jesus lived in a stable in Bethlehem and froze in rags, though picturesque, is probably wrong (houses had mangers in them). Jesus was crowded, displaced, his parents had an uncomfortable journey and much stress (especially once Herod wanted to kill their child) but they may not have been so “respectably” poor.

The poorest, the homeless and the literally starving need our generosity and our support but so do the merely depressed or merely struggling or merely locked out of promotions…the lonely, the under-confident, the disorganised, the depressed, the apathetic and the uneducated. Jesus has needs and is not here to gratify our vanity by showing credentials, being the deserving poor- safely, tamely in a corner that we can define and get out of. Jesus is one of us and will irritate us with poor life choices and a less than warm manner at times!

I struggle to feel emotionally charitable to some of the people that I see on Facebook- I want to judge, condemn, block or destroy with reason many of the people who tell me they are fearful of Muslims for example, or of allowing children to be trans. Then there are the people who don’t understand that their inadequate dole payment and unsatisfying and underpaid work is because of the way we have structured society- not because of these “others” who also want something, who also have needs and families. Jesus is sometimes distant and foreign and hard to spot. Jesus challenges me, frightens me.

Like Herod when I hear of Jesus it will probably be in a context where some power or privilege I have is at risk. Like Herod the temptation is to pretend to help, but really to undermine.

But power and authority, do not always act as Herod. I can be pretty critical of bishops and church leaders, and with reason but occasionally they surprise me.

Today, according to the bishops is the beginning of Migration week in the US Catholic church. I’m in Australia but I like their idea and I will with them pray and reflect on how I can companion, support and advocate for migrants and refugees better. Even though the bishops are asking people to pray, there seems to be an underlying message here of a larger conversion toward better compassion  and acceptance. Prayer is suggested as a foundation for who we are as a people.

Baby Jesus,

I pray with Magi, with bishops, with the powerful, the foreign to me and those who search. I pray ready to travel, ready to receive people from other places.

I begin my year of travelling, searching, loving you in the world and within my own heart. Like la Befana from the children’s story I have been busy with trivial things that the world judges me on, but my heart yearns to be part of your miracle. Like her I know that seeking later is better than never. Like her I have the wisdom to see that every child can be gifted in your name and that every act of generosity is a step on the journey to you.

Like the magi I can be distracted by the Herods of the world- powerful people and their propaganda. I can look in the wrong places but I will eventually find. I can use the wisdom in my own life, in my own culture because every person and their culture are created in your image.

Baby Jesus, show me what to do to support those who are out of their own homes, those who search, those who are looking in the wrong places, those who only wish they could be in the safety of their own home. Help us build a world where you (or the “least of these”) will be welcome and safe in any corner of the earth and the earth itself is respected and healed.

We have seen your star, we come.

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holiness, families, connection, otherness

The first reading today, is a couple of disjointed passages from a longer section where surprise, surprise the father (patriarch) of a household is setting up his own wellbeing and interests as “God’s law” over his children. There is a section defining the parent’s power over children as natural and right, God’s will, then he sensibly looks ahead to a future time when he may be feeble or have dementia and sets up taking care of him them as a virtue for his children.

While I agree that looking after the old with compassion and respect is virtuous, as a whole this piece of writing leaves me cynical and disconnected from my tradition. I want to look for holiness instead at real holy families I know… two women who defy their church and some of their relatives to give loyalty and nurture to each other “for better for worse, for richer for poorer…” and let their mutual love outflow to their communities… a single mother on the barest pittance who struggles to put food on the table but always finds some change or a cigarette for any homeless person who asks her, and refuses to give up her World Vision sponsored child…the couple who take turns running for election or supporting each other’s efforts, who work together to manage their household finances, chores, child rearing, extensive political involvement, gardening and still find time to each have personal interests and entertain friends (how do they do it all?)…the single person who knows s/he (I know more than one of these)is on a good income and looks for opportunities to be generous and transformative with their money, even while enjoying a good standard of life themselves…the elderly people whose love for their own (now grown up) children spills over into grandchildren and others who they can mentor, support, encourage…the teachers who are like family in the way they see and respond to an emotional need…the nurses who heal more than a physical wound by lingering or listening for a (precious and scarce) moment longer than they have to…the chef who finds an excuse to feed people even beyond the call of duty…the boss who genuinely cares about how unique her employees are and their individual needs and issues…the now separated or divorced couple who remain friends for the sake of their child, or add encouragement and support to the ex, rather than bitterness and judgement…”

And there are broken families too of course, people betrayed, abandoned, insecure, criticised, misunderstood, neglected…all families are Christ’s family whether we approve of them or not, whether we can see the life-giving potential in them ore not.

To extend this logically, the family called “the church” which is also extremely flawed and at times abusive is Christ’s family too…

The second reading starts off well, with all the advice about loving and forgiving each other, but also ends up devolving into patriarchal family hierarchies. Husbands over wives, parents over children. I don’t want to rehash all the apologetics here about “this is actually liberative for its time and culture because it is two-sided.” Maybe, maybe not but I am reading it on the threshold of 2018 and this way of putting it does NOT liberate someone who has experienced being a child and then a wife. As a lay-person in a church where there is so much power and authority accorded to clergy I am wary of this asymmetrical two-sided responsibility where my responsibility to obey is supposed to mesh with someone else’s responsibility to nurture me. That has often not been the way it has panned out. I also added back in here the verse the lectionary has swept under the carpet, because I think it illustrates our need for caution with texts.

God created all humans with intelligence, will, agency; it in no way makes sense for some to give up their own ability to reason, choose and decide and to hand that power over to others.

I am digging in my heels at these reading with a big fat NOPE.

In the context of these two readings, the gospel seems a little bit oppressive too. Here is Jesus’ family following tradition, celebrating his maleness and first-borness by killing some pigeons. I understand that this is not my culture and I try to bite my tongue as I read it (but there were those other readings to set the tone for me to resist this too). So here they are doing everything that is “prescribed” and Jesus’ specialness is affirmed by people outside the family, people important within their religious community.

As someone who never got to be “special”, as “only a girl” I can watch it from the outside but this story has never really captured my imagination much, nor has it given me any sort of useful concept of “holiness” so that as a child this feast-day was more of a puzzle to me than anything else. I was a pious little goody-goody so I took it for granted that they were holy, I was not and my role in the faith always was to obey and follow- never any more.

But when I was pregnant myself (no longer a child by then) I thought a lot about Mary and her struggles, about Joseph and his ability in other parts of the gospel to put his family radically first (which is pretty transgressive in a patriarchal context). I thought of Jesus’ contradictory attitudes toward his own family- now clear affection, now a seeming desire to escape and deny…of his need to be more than his origins or pedigree, of his resistance to being subsumed in domesticity or family expectations. Leaving the security of the family leads to the cross; the cross might have broken Jesus’ body, but imagine the wreckage it wrought to Mary’s heart?

I prayed that none of my children would ever in any way or in any movement be a “Messiah” and yet I also knew that whatever they were or were not, despite the first and second readings of today I would neither choose nor control. The holiness of “family” then, must lie somewhere in that contradiction between individual agency and call, and collective support, love, acceptance of one another. We yearn as human beings both to connect and to be free. We can achieve so little alone, as a pure individual and yet perhaps the most frustrating and perennial challenge is the attempt to be understood by each other (and the pain of stopping our own knowledge and emotions in their tracks long enough to know another).

So on this feast of the holy family, I look at my own flawed self as a mother of sons, as a sister and daughter, aunt and cousin and friend. I look at my single-state, my difficulty with managing intimacy in my life, but miraculously the relative stability of my friendships. I offer a prayer of thanks for the people who have with-held judgement (or even advice) and have offered encouragement and practical help, fostering my slow growth.

I anticipate my need for more- necessary but slow and painful growth to better relationships and the best inspiration I can find in tradition can only be the prayer of St Francis,

Divine Wisdom make me an instrument of your peace,

where there is injury let me sow pardon,

where there is hatred, let me sow love,

where there is confusion, let me bring Wisdom,

(God I know the original said something different but I mean to bring creative doubt to over-certain faith as much as reassuring faith to toxic doubt)

where there is sadness, let me bring joy

where there is darkness let me bring your light

(and as a three-year old once pointed out where there is too much light let me bring the rest and peace of your darkness)

and to despair let me always show the chance of hope.

Oh beautiful and loving One teach me always to seek

more to console others than to need consolation,

more to listen and understand than just to be heard and understood

especially when I have privilege in worldly terms.

Teach me not to be needy in matters of love but to be generous and ready to pour out and be poured out in love.

 

Let me know with you that it is in giving that we receive

it is in pardoning and making allowances for others that we lose our own guilt and complicity in sin,

and somehow, in some hard to comprehend,

miraculous way

even death is not final as our eternal vocation is into You.

 

Make me an instrument, a way for you to play the music

that is peace and healing

to all.

Amen.

Not being silent

So many readings to choose from for Christmas services…and many of them so well known they’ve almost become a cliché. But I will start with the vigil, which may sound like an odd choice (and in fact any Christmas vigil mass I ever went to used Luke’s nativity story which is more child friendly). The gospel is a bunch of this person “begat” that person. I didn’t bother using a more modern translation this time, because I remember when I was a kid referring to this passage as the “begatteries” (I think I got that from my Dad and thinking it was the most boring passage (and to me pointless) in the hole bible. I wondered who cared about hs patrilineal line that way as if he was a breeding animal or something. Jesus’ remarkable person was nothing to do with who “begat” who.

Later on, I noticed – or perhaps it was pointed out to me- that in this account of fathers and sons four women manage to squeeze their way in and for a time I thought it was a feminist victory of sorts. I don’t like “liberal feminist” ideas though that some women (often at great personal cost) can break into patriarchal places in small number, because of their own individual “empowerment” or some such- but the norm is still exclusion and low status of women in general. I sometimes see this in churches that begin to ordain women, it takes a long time for real change to happen (and to me it doesn’t matter so much these days who does or does not get ordained- it is the effect on the wider community that matters).

Then again this is God’s history, not “man’s history” and if you look carefully at what sort of women have got a mention in the patrilineal line they are transgressive types- Tamar and Rahab and Ruth, who in various ways broke conventions or used their sexuality and agency to achieve moments in the story of liberation of their people or themselves. Mary also, she has been colonised by so many artists and theologians- depicted as passive and submissive but if we knew her only from the scriptures then she comes across very differently- as outspoken, courageous and somewhat of a visionary.

So Jesus could be a male saviour in a male story of a male church- except God keeps calling women at various points in time (probably always) to transgress patriarchy (like Wisdom herself who is free from constraint) and to change history for the better. This text is not very feminist, the very few women mentioned are all mothers and wives, their other deeds unmentioned but they are THERE and if we look at the story in full then we know them. And we know who is missing- Jepthah’s daughter for example and other victim’s of men’s violence.

I’ll go back to the first reading with all this in mind, and proclaim together with it that I will “not be quiet”. The first reading is all about “Zion” depicted as female and needing advocacy (and waiting for God’s intervention). Unsilencing is a theme of Christmas, especially if we consider Jesus the “Word” of God- speaking and spoken (through Mary’s embodied production of “Word” and through Joseph making room for Mary’s work in this). God unsilences the voices that call for repentance, change, better ways of being and knowing and relating.

They sing that “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” which I suppose is meant to be a moralistic guilt trip on the tendency of children to talk and complain so much, but instead I think little Jesus screams his lungs out like the healthy, fully embodied human he is, like the voice of unquenchable Wisdom, like the son of the composer of the Magnificat (and of God and of the quiet and assenting carpenter), like the future preacher and threat to the status quo. He screams that unjust hierarchies and powers will fall and Herod hears enough to be frightened (that comes later of course).

When I went to Latvija, I was in a relatively atheist state of mind. I was “over” church and I didn’t know what I believed apart from the fact that church is too often boring, depressingly patriarchal and generally unhelpful (this is not true in the community  I attend but while travelling further from home I often find services that shut me out in various ways). After walking out of a service which seemed to be about the little, guilty me having to grovel to the patriarchy (which is a form of idolatry anyway) I went to visit my great aunt, Stefanija, for whom I was named and who has since died. I have posted her picture on this post so you can see her.

She told me stories of what it was like living under the Russian regime. Atheism was part of the ideology of the state. People who strongly advocate for universal atheism, often claim that atheists have never visited religious oppression on anyone. That is simply not true. In Latvija during the occupation you could be deported to labor camps even for saying “Merry Christmas” on December 25th, the state proclaimed that the correct festival was the secular “new year’s eve” and any religious celebration was forbidden. Church was not available, nor were decorations and the like.

Enforced atheism has shown itself to be every bit as horrifying as any other enforced religion, for all that atheists tend to claim a moral high-ground…educating ourselves about the (un)beliefs of others in a spirit of tolerance might be a better thing to try.

Anyway Stefanija told me that she and her husband had some Christian neighbours, that they knew it was safe to say “Merry Christmas” to (very quietly so no one would hear and report them) with a little smile of significance because Christmas is still a big deal to a Christian even when you are not allowed to celebrate it. And I realised that my faith does mean something to me after all- when it can mean quiet defiance of an unfair regime, it can mean a joy and hope we are not “supposed” to feel.

So like the shepherds in the reading I didn’t get to discussing, we stop work for the evening to focus on someone else’s baby in wonder and awe. Like the magi in a few weeks we follow even a star, even a rumour of a hope to connect across cultures with generosity and respect. Like Herod we might be threatened by the politics of the kindom of God, and need to resist the temptation to defend the status quo by making othered families suffer. Don’t you think you are Herod? What is your attitude to refugees? To trans-kids? To teenage mothers? To the unemployed or homeless? The wonder and transformative power of the Jesus story has been very resilient over centuries and it is part of our identity as individuals and as communities.

Jesus was grounded within his own Jewish tradition with its problems (eg patriarchy) and its possibilities (eg the radical call to social justice). I am Latvian, my relatives were courageous about having a “Merry Christmas” under an oppressive regime.

Merry Christmas to all my readers and your families. Don’t be silent- be advocates for the oppressed, be hopeful, be joyful. Let us be in the Jesus movement together!

Lovers, sisters, friends and God’s presence

My intention was to write a reflection for the 4th Sunday of advent but the problem with websites, is they have their own rhythms and when I switched on, the US bishops’ website showed (as always) the readings for today. I did mean to flick across to Sunday, I did! But today’s readings are some of my favourites, it is like turning your back on rich dark chocolate to flick past them. So sorry, but it is going to be readings for the final Thursday in this advent instead (I am sure there will be many other people giving great reflections for this Sunday, or you can consult a decent commentary and make your own with prayer).

In the first reading, the call from God is shown us as a call from an infatuated and very attractive lover. The earth is in perfect harmony with this lover- flowers are springing up, the harshness of winter is finished and this is the beginning of a “happily ever after”. OK so I sneer at romance novels and keep a cynical smirk on my face when anyone says “happily ever after”…usually. But looking past the metaphor this is God we are talking about. God comes to us in desire and joy and beauty, seeing the good in us, “my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one” and calling us into the flower-scented springtime of life.

I am unsure if it is still God calling, or the soul calling back in the last stanza (who is yearning to see and hear their “dove”?) but any separation needs to be ended.

This is what it truly means to “repent”.

We all know that any lover or close friend will take us out of our comfort zone, upset our careful routines and defence mechanisms and call forth from us some sort of change, not because they are finding fault with us but because in relationship it is always needful to accommodate to each other.

We often get the dreary guilt trip to “repent from sin” to “repent from how awful you are” and all of that, like children being constantly told to “wash your hands” and “don’t whine” and “act like a big boy” (although I try to avoid the “big boy” comment these days). Repent because you are dirty, repent because your desires are unanswerable or even wrong, repent because you are (spiritually) immature.

But the lover in the first reading (hint: it’s always God with the bible) says “Repent away from loneliness. Repent away from boredom. Repent away from not knowing you are beautiful. Repent with me into the abundant harvest. Hear me (or let me hear you). See me (or let me see you). Arise my love, my beautiful one and come.”

This seems like an excuse to turn to my favourite Christmas carol (as I already did in last Sunday’s liturgy) and I will use it as a bridge into a gospel that actually passes the Bechdel test (I know I said that last year…but it’s part of the reason I love this story so much).

Let me retell the story in my own (rather biased) words.

Mary understood how important “girl talk” can be for making meaning and offering support together, woman to woman. Although she was pregnant she journeyed a really long way to get to Elizabeth and offer her compassion and share her joy…also to exchange the exciting and slightly scaring news (I think it bears mentioning that the gossipy angel had mentioned to her that Elizabeth had news to share in the first place).

This story so far is full of the sort of femininities that often get mocked- the need for gossip and talk and emotional support and there is a heroic quality to Mary’s determination to offer and receive support in this way. Scripture is not working for the patriarchy here.

Mary “travelled in haste” and got to Elizabeth (in Zechariah’s house, scripture won’t/can’t move out of defining Elizabeth by her husband and his ownership of her home). As soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, as soon as the inspirational female preacher spoke, the exceptional prophet (ie John the Baptist) in her womb leapt for joy.

Of course we have always been told (and I don’t entirely disagree) that the reason he leapt for joy was the proximity of Christ (in Mary’s womb). Yes, but what signalled Christ’s nearness? Mary’s voice!

Mary spoke and John heard the first stirrings of his vocation and knew joy. Elizabeth recognises this reaction from her infant/prophet and theologises about it. A gossip session has turned into an important meeting of theologies. But there is still the traditional element of women’s talk- giving compliments “Blessed are you…” (please note I, myself, am really bad at giving compliments and am still learning how to do it, but working in an all female workplace for a number of years has shown me what an important part of interactions it can be).

There the text stops which is disappointing because it means I have to pull my bible off the shelf (or open a new tab) to get the text of Mary’s proclamation and preaching. Mary places her joy and work firmly in the kindom of God with radical restitutive justice sweeping through every human dealing “he fills the hungry with good things, sends the rich away empty” and grounding herself in ongoing salvation history (echoes of Israel, Abraham and all the rest of them). I’ll say it again- with a mother like that can we be surprised Jesus was a great preacher and perceived as a dangerous revolutionary?

A couple of years ago I needed (for personal reasons) to explore a possible lesbian reading of Mary and Elizabeth but this year I am sitting with this as a meeting of minds, an intellectual and spiritual encounter set within the “women’s work” of nurturing and “gossip”. The common theme with this first reading is affectionate, joyful human relationships as places of encounter with the divine. Human love as the vehicle of vocation. Like the lover in the first reading- Mary (and Jesus) travel at haste toward someone they want to be joyfully with – Elizabeth (and John). As in the first reading the one who comes calls and the response in the one visited is joy and transformation.

John recognised in the voice of Mary the presence of Jesus. John was perhaps smarter than some official church leaders who think it is impossible for a woman to preach or minister (I do mean minister as I am sure Mary washed and fed and tended to her heavily pregnant older cousin and family, not just talked). Jesus came into the world surrounded by the buzz of “girl talk”, the sharing of news, the giving of compliments, the radical politics and theology…everything we know we do when we get together with other women. He also had the nurture of Joseph who trusted Mary to go on this long journey, who was the supporter not the “boss” of his family, although he does not appear in this story.

As the last few days of advent roll by let us listen for the voice of love that will make Christmas meaningful. We tend to eat too much and exchange gifts no one really needs and sometimes we feel guilty or judgemental about that. But it is our way of trying to connect in love. Instead of a more ascetic approach to Christmas, perhaps we can discover a more inclusive or transformative approach where gift and food are shared to those who need it “he fills the starving with good things and doesn’t burden the earth by giving his rich relatives stuff they don’t even really want”.

But I hope all my readers will have a really joyful Christmas with the people they love, and find somewhere within the celebrations the voce of the lover “Arise my beloved, my beautiful one and come”

A commitment to joy

I decided not to “preach” this Sunday and not to ask anyone else to preach either. Instead we can all let the readings and music wash over us in silence and then discuss with people around us. If you want to take that option and ignore my words that is fine (we’ll be listening to “Tomorrow shall be my dancing day” but you may have your own favourite advent or Christmas joy music.

For those who actively seek out words to interact with, I will however post some thoughts and maybe an implied or worded prayer. It will be a good exercise for me to do this morning before I begin the jobs of an absolute marathon of a weekend.

The first reading finds God’s Spirit located within the one who has a vocation (hint: that means all of us). Think of modern versions of anointing. The closest I can think of are beauty routines or massage- ways of taking care of the body that come with the scent of essential oils, the pleasure of touch – oils are for embodies experiences, they honour the “here and now” beauty of the world we live in. To associate anointing with spirit is to break down the body/spirit dualism. Located in our bodies, honoured by oil is the Spirit (take that certain pesky Pauline texts).

For those of us who may have got the impression that this life on earth is inferior, that the body is a prison we wish to escape from or that (physical) pleasure is inherently bad this is revolutionary thinking.

And why has the Spirit indwelled into our all too human bodies? To inspire (the word kind of gives that away) us to “bring glad tidings to the poor (please note, no tidings are glad on a hungry belly), to heal the brokenhearted (hint refugees are brokenhearted, so are other people we systematically destroy), to proclaim liberty (and liberation) to captives……” all the good we can do in the world.

I had some drink with work-mates last night, with a group of committed, nurturing women who do childcare together and once the boss had had several glasses of wine, she started talking about her view of early childhood education.

“We are in it to make the world better” she said “that is the only thing it is about. Every child deserves a good childhood. Every child no matter where they are and we are in it to make a world where that happens.” She wasn’t intentionally talking about God but it seemed like anointed, inspired, prophetic talk to me (and we were all agreeing that that was our reason for choosing early childhood as a profession). We all had some thoughts about what sort of adults, what sort of societies might stem from a positive childhood for every child, because this idea of “childhood” wasn’t that sentimental, romantic appeal to an idea that children are innocents or terribly vulnerable, it was more our belief that a good society where everyone is treated right stems from children learning as early as possible in life to be active and caring citizens rather than simply cynical consumers.

Beginning to read Chittister’s “Wisdom distilled from the Daily” I get the same thought from her. Spirituality is something that imbues everyday life, it is not a novelty or set of commodities you can buy or “experience” or consume. Spirituality is not “therapy” it is life. The Spirit of God IS upon me, now in my everyday marathon weekend with parties and liturgies and doorknocking and housework and all the rest of it and God HAS anointed me to do good right now, today in some way…but not necessarily to talk about God, just to carry the Spirit into every place I go and allow her to show me how to be the good news, the liberation, the healing for any given situation.

We rejoice then, because God has beautifully clothed us in salvation and justice and makes justice and praise spring up like plants. This is who we are too, one with the plants, created to be dazzlingly beautiful in our God-clothedness (justice, salvation…again that vocation).

As the second reading tells us we need to keep this sense of joy going, not just for Gaudate, the third Sunday in advent but “always…in all circumstances”. Do not quench the Spirit by insisting that you have the only possible recipe for faith and anyone who disagrees with you is WRONG. Test everything (have some reflexivity and grace in your faith rather than dogma and certainty). The tet goes on to promise that perfect holiness is possible (through the work of God in our lives). Lucky then that we already know from the first reading that God is upon us, within us.

These two readings in this week’s liturgy get joined together by a lovely bridge, no less than Mary’s Magnificat. I like to think that Mary’s passionate and beautiful (and political) preaching in the Magnificat explains much about the man Jesus turned out to be…that while we assume he inherited all his goodness from God, Mary’s genes and teaching might also have been very formative in bringing us a wonderful embodied Wisdom-healer like him. And what of Joseph’s committed care…it takes a village to raise a child as God ought to know!

The gospel rounds off our call to joy and to embodying the Spirit of God. John the Baptist comes along not just to big-note himself but to point to something bigger and better – Jesus the living Wisdom and Word of God. John is not the light, but testifies to the light…it can be reassuring to remember that in our calling we are not alone. We are part of something bigger. We carry and show the light but we are not the light. We can rest sometimes, fail sometimes, leave it to others sometimes (though it is important to strike a balance and not assume that our work is unimportant or that we can slacken off too much, John didn’t just leave it all to Jesus).

Let us commit today to be happy and to celebrate the nearness of the kindom of God. Let us witness to the good news (that God wants justice for the poor, the broken hearted, the captives, the prisoners) and be part of the movement to the light. Let us wear our kindom outfits: “robe of salvation, mantle of justice” with pride in how beautiful we become and joy as if we were marrying our truest love. Let us find the little acts of joy and love we can share with everyone we meet today and every “now” each day. May we entirely- spirit, soul and body be caught up in the deep holiness of God’s closeness to us. Amen.

The discomfort of camel-hair and the pleasure of washing.

I said this at church for advent 2. The readings were here. 

I bring uncomfortable words, but it is advent and John the Baptist urges me to be courageous and honest. Hopefully there are no Herods here, but in any case I attempt to find a truth greater than my own thoughts and experience. The truth (God) is also greater than the text, because the text is not God.

The first reading begins by promising us “comfort” and initially my heart sang at the thought, but then I read on.

I find no comfort in the gendered relation of power that is revealed, between a guilty (feminine) Jerusalem and her punishing Lord, however much in this reading he is staying his hand. This smacks of a cycle of abuse.

Reading on there is ecological disaster, the earth turned upside down for the sake of this “Lord”, mountains and valleys eroded. This version of “power” is all too familiar in the modern world and I find terror, not comfort if I attempt to identify God with it. The shepherd imagery at the end is tender, however we know that in reality shepherds exploit and eat their sheep who they tend to view as “stupid”. Similarly at times in political debate, people who naively accept what they are told are referred to as “Sheeple”.

I love my tradition and I want to find God in it but I am wary of how I will view myself, others or the world if I accept this reading too casually. I am sure wiser people than me might rehabilitate it somehow, I would rather sit with John the Baptist in camel hair, foraging for survival and not accept the precarious comforts of living in the shadow of abusive power- even when it claims kinship with God.

But we know God, we know her from the entire scriptures not just this one passage and we know her from the saving and companioning work of Jesus, from the heart-lifting vision of radical justice of Mary in the Magnificat, from the desperate call for repentance of John the Baptist, from the well-meaning, impulsive bumblings of the apostle Peter and from our own lives and meaningful connections.

In the second reading, Peter (if this is in fact he) is uncharacteristically humble, admitting that he does not have all the answers. We are urged to hope in God’s desire for universal salvation- whatever that will finally mean and however that will finally look. We can’t control the conditions around us, we can neither hurry nor delay the grace of God but what we can do is make ourselves ready, make our own conditions ideal for God’s presence.

There is a form of spiritual self-care that I think is being suggested here, which if we think of advent as a time of pregnancy, a time of bringing into being radical possibilities for the whole liturgical year starting with a birth at Christmas, then by nurturing ourselves and our inner life we are also nurturing the Christ-possibilities within. In that sense we can leave behind anything that defines “repentance” as responses to punishment or guilt, and see it instead as a call to a better, more hopeful, joy-filled life- what has sometimes been called “right relationship”. I frankly did not see a good example of right relationship in this first reading.

Across all three readings, there is a clear call to admit our sin and then a suggestion that baptism will wash away some sort of spots or dirt marks. Even then if sin is what makes us or our ways of being dusty and dirty then it originates from outside of ourselves from abusive patterns in the world. Thus to turn away from sin, to wash ourselves is self-care and associated with rest and even the pleasure of hot water and fragrant soap– repentance does not have to be about self-blame we can deeply understand and forgive our own imperfections (as a way of helping us be more tolerant and forgiving toward others). Instead we can turn toward God for the love of the divine “otherness” of God and for the joy of our potential to sink into and become one with that otherness as a deep affirmation of our own truest being.

John reminds us that when we act as “church” we enact sacraments that are shadows of the real sacrament of the real Christ. The priest, the prophet, the enacter of the mystery is no more worthy than the one who repents and accepts sacrament.

Let us sit and ponder a moment

What is the camel-hair, the uncomfortable reality we need to grapple with this advent?

How do we wash ourselves, be our best and most cared for selves? What do we repent from? What do we turn ourselves toward or into?

As we do this, let us stay with the idea of being gift and having gifts that is also part of our advent reality. Let us be brave and critical in our faith as we share our thoughts with each other. Let us trust our own experience of God in love and joy.