Tag Archives: magnificat

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.

Among women

So I did try to be a good girl and focus on this week’s readings. The first one had some potential being God trying to talk the people out of having a king with all the sort of symbolism of hegemonic masculinity, militarism, ruling class parasitism and all the rest of it. Well done God! Now you know how I feel trying to speak out against “common sense” (that’s common sense in the sense of Gramsci) arguments. God of course didn’t prevail and was whipped enough to give the people what they wanted.

I am a bit conflicted by seeing God that way. I guess I could have turned it into a discussion about free will, family loyalties, vocation…..etc, etc, etc.

But I am sad enough to have missed last week’s Visitation story. Not only (as I already mentioned) is this a bible story that actually passes the Bechdel test but I have always thought that at some point I need to talk about Mary. When I was a little girl I was in love with her. I didn’t know it was called being in love and I didn’t know lesbians existed or that I was one. I just used to stare dreamily at the blue-clad statues (sorry this is not a protestant-friendly post…if statues offend you feel free to give this week a miss and come back next time). I was catholic so any of the myriad churches my mother, father and especially my grandmother brought me into had statues of Mary. She wore blue. I have always loved the colour blue on women (correlation or causation?)

Once at least the statue was in a rose garden, there was what at my young age almost seemed like a maze and at the end of it the beautiful blue woman serenely holding her smiling baby and her eyes down-cast which was supposed to signify humility but to a three year old signified eye contact. She looked at me. She loved me.

I was encouraged to think romantically about this beautiful woman by my catholic relatives, especially by my grandmother who was also devoted to her (maybe more innocently…maybe not). A lot of older women wearing black brought Mary flowers- roses mainly and kissed her feet and touched her hands and I wanted to as well very much but my parents told me it was not really the right thing to do to touch the statue.

Many churches had a place where you could light a candle then go kneel by the statue and you were supposed to pray but all I prayed was “here is your candle dear Mary you are so beautiful I want to touch you”. Why should I see sexuality in that when I was only three? Because 33 years later when I realised I was a lesbian, when I recognised the lesbian feelings inside me the particular sort of nostalgia I felt the next time I saw a statue of Mary  (who looks alarmingly young to me now) helped me connect the dots.

I guess it was more like courtly love than a modern version of romantic/sexual love in that I never saw myself as Mary’s equal. I half wanted her to touch me and half wanted to be her and I wanted to be close to her and make her happy and be worthy of her. Catholics are allowed, even encouraged to pray to the saints and especially to Mary. I prayed to her even more than I did to God. Because I was taught that God was male and inaccessible and without an image HE was alienating. Mary was welcoming and I could understand the idea of unconditional love in her soft look (and I consider myself non-visual). When I dreamed of God, I dreamed of Mary too. When I dreamed I died and had to face judgement (which was something I worried about all the time since I was told just how sinful and unworthy I was all the time) I always dreamed there were three figures who were God (I hadn’t heard of the trinity) and one looked like Mary only with a crown of flowers on her head as if it was Jani.

When I googled this week’s gospel (Mark 3: 20-35) with the word “feminist” a poem by Brian Wren came up about Mary. It made me think about the scene I missed last week of Mary and Elizabeth having their exclusively female community of support when huge things happened in their lives. Wren has thus managed to connect 2 very different gospel stories by seeking a pro-feminist reading. The joy of seeing each other causes so much oxytocin that the child in her womb seems to leap. That can happen, the mother’s emotions can move the baby. But is Jesus also thrilling to be allowed into this intimate female space- not as a colonising privileged male but as a voiceless witness to unselfish, courageous friendship and wisdom.

Mary is wise. She comes out with the Magnificat a great manifesto of the kingdom of God who “casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lonely” (If you click the link please note the Magnificat is actually from the bible and the catholic church do not own it, just as they don’t actually own marriage either).

But God casts down the ruthless, expoitive ruling class and lift up the proletariat; casts down the privileged white person surrounded by white culture and lifts up the every other race; casts down the wealthy authoritative male and lifts up the single mother; casts down….down with all privilege, all domination, all exploitation and lifts up and liberates the 99%.

Here is some real good news!

Yes please God. Mary’s vision is one to make everything within us leap for joy, to help us reach out in friendship to one another even when it takes a huge effort to offer that support. I am not trying to continue some sort of awkward older-woman crush that I had when I was 3 years old when I look now to Mary for revolutionary wisdom, guts and authoritative discipleship.

If Jesus, the young man had his moment of not being interested in his mother and brothers (sounds like my son) then so be it. I wonder though, what was Mary doing all this time? What acts of radical discipleship might there be behind the masculine world of the text which focuses on the one shining figure of Jesus? What words of friendship and wisdom might have gone unrecorded? Mary most often gets remembered or celebrated for being a womb…but there are snippets of evidence that she was other things too.

I don’t pray anymore by closing my eyes and imagining Mary touching me. But I see her as sister-disciple, mentor, inspiration, wisdom’s daughter and mother. I hear last week’s gospel about Mary and Elizabeth embracing and talking radical politics and I think here is a sacred site in the text where people like me and experiences like mine exist and are sanctified. Sisterhood is no longer something alien to the kingdom of God.

Hail Mary indeed.