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!