Tag Archives: Mary

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.

Cuddles and baby-talk

Ok so my brain is fried from the heat and I have been busy this week with my son who I didn’t see for a couple of weeks before that, but I will try to have a go. Because if i wrote about Joseph just before Christmas, and Matthew’s construction of an enlightened, spiritually attune and emotionally honest masculinity then I guess the epiphany (which occurs every year) continues this.

The gospel doesn’t tell us the gender of the Magi (and that lack of certainty can sometimes be fun to play with) but tradition has decided there were three of them and they were all male: Balthazaar, Melchior and Caspar. This is not entirely satisfactory and the exoticisation of them as various shades of black (set next to the improbable sight of a white Jesus) is certainly problematic. But let’s just for a moment visualise them as traditionally they have been painted and repainted. 3 wealthy blokes.

Suddenly they follow a dream, or an inner conviction or their intuition or something (a star no less) and trek half way around the world to see a baby. I was at a pool party today and there was a small baby there. One of my friends who usually comes across more or less as a big tough man came in and immediately scooped up the baby and started baby-talking to him and cuddling him. He brought the child over to his very pregnant wife and let the baby “make friends” with the other baby in utero. My scepticism about the way Matthew portrays men dissolved somewhat in seeing that and I suddenly pictured Balthazaar, Melchior and Caspar jumping off their camels and squatting down and baby-talking and all wanting to cuddle little Jesus. Meanwhile maybe the exhausted Mary had a backrub from Joseph or a nanna-nap or I would like to visualise her popping out for a cup of something with no baby…but maybe that couldn’t (and didn’t) happen in biblical Bethlehem.

Of course I don’t want to make too much of a big deal of men who want to be fathers and uncles and basically decent human beings around children because as has often been pointed out it’s a bit silly that men are “heroes” for doing the things women are supposed to just “naturally” gravitate to. A redeemed masculinity when portrayed the way I have portrayed it is no greater than an ordinary femininity. But maybe we can line the baby-cuddling, emotionally intelligent “wise men” up with Mary who walked miles and miles WHILE PREGNANT to emotionally support her cousin without even the emotional reward of seeing a baby. Matthew’s wise men line up with Luke’s wise woman. Maybe it’s not just about gender, but it is about being a decent and open individual.

Herod’s need to control and dominate is threatened by these strange people with their strange lifestyle, with these powerful men coming past to celebrate a baby’s birthday. The mundane is political. Everyday acts of love and walking humbly with are transgressive against the power regimes of the world. Oh yes Herod is VERY threatened by this queer behaviour and would like to kill them or kill Jesus. We can sanitise the ending as happy- both the magi and the child’s family get protected by the providence of God (and once again their willingness to pay attention to dreams). But there is a human cost.

When we celebrate the epiphany we forget that very male child under 2 was murdered by order of a paranoid king. Where was God in that event? How do we celebrate the transformation and liberation of the privileged individual WITHOUT making invisible the many who are unfairly made to suffer? If we are to embrace a good news, we can’t do it just by framing the action to sweep the abuse of children under a carpet.

The church has tried that course but we need to move beyond it! The child who escaped to Egypt was the child of God and so was the murdered infant and the assaulted mother. So is the child of God the baby born on Manus island and the baby whose mother has her centrelink cut off. As a society/church we need to put our Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh where our God is. We need to love our neighbour.

I apologise if my coherence is affected by the heat

Shout for joy- daughter, sister, beloved


I have nothing against the Sunday readings and if I had more energy would do two blogs this week. But Tuesday was the feast of the Visitation, the one day of the year when the church lectionary passes the Bechdel test (Ruth and Naomi could be argued too I suppose), and the one Feast day of the year that actually talks about God’s work working not just through men, not even just through an individual woman, but at times also through women’s relationships and networks of support. This is such good news it ought to be on a Sunday! The reading from Luke is so rich in prophecy, in affirmations of women’s prophetic, leading, teaching and sacramental role in each other’s lives and in the lives of significant male members (Jesus and John though unborn) as well. So much richness here that writing once a year I could never find it all, and I hope each person finds even more in the readings than I can say. But let’s make a beginning.

The first reading (Zeph 3:!4-18A gives away that what is coming is unusually good news “shout for joy” and that this is specifically for women “daughter of Zion”. Even this begins a bubbling up of joy. Women we are not invisible in this Feast, we are valued by God and the silencing, dismissal of our needs and attacking us as “vain” for wanting for ourselves the basic dignity and consideration that we extend to others has been dismissed by God. God is onside with us. We “have no further misfortune to fear” and God sings joyfully because of us. This is a profoundly healing thought, the idea of being so beloved by God that we are not only vindicated but the cause of joyful singing. Here we reclaim our birthright since the opening of Genesis to be part of God’s creation, made in God’s image and assessed as “good”.

But if God is singing for joy, then we know that more good news is in store so we move on to the next reading. Once again the canticle (ie like a psalm but not in psalms) from Isaiah prophesies good things “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation”. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament we see the drawing of water as “women’s work” and the well as a place of meeting and socialising for women (well maybe we don’t see the latter in the text so much and are indebted to historians for reconstructing the world around the text for us). So that nexus of women’s social life and relationships, the well becomes symbolically a place of “salvation” a sacramental place, a place where the truth of God is joyfully encountered. Among us is the Holy one of Israel. The ancient promises of God are fulfilled in the mysterious depths of women’s flesh, the womb.

This is NOT to return to a view of womanhood as solely being fulfilled in motherhood. Clarissa Pinkola Estes has written about “wild mothers”, the way older women sometimes support, mentor and teach younger women, the way younger women find their own role models and need more than one. Even this is only a fraction of the whole truth. The patriarchal promise that can only be fulfilled in the male body of Jesus may come into the world through the female body of Mary, but if that is all that matters then why the Visitation? Why does Jesus also need the “Auntie” or “Wild mother” Elizabeth in his life? Why does John leap for joy at the voice of Mary? The voice is about more than flesh, it is about opinion and agency. The canticle goes on to bid us to sing praise to God for “his” glorious achievement. Well that seems only fair, in the context of the first reading where God was singing on account of us. The glorious achievement here seems to be a nurturing and reciprocal relationship with us who are lovingly created and affirmed. This will be shown in the gospel to have world-changing, radical possibilities – unseating the unjustly powerful and bringing in a new reign of God.

The other first reading (which I am going to treat as a second reading as I think the Visitation ought to be a Sunday) gives instructions on the “good life”. Even though usually I am feeling a bit like saying “give me a break” when I have these long and complicated responsibilities placed on me, by allowing the other readings and the feast-day to contextualise it, it takes on a non-oppressive meaning. In fact the God who has celebrated and affirmed my existance and our relationship in the first reading and psalm has every right to ask for this respectful reciprocation of that gift. The instructions in this reading are really a call to be authentic, to honour who we are as God’s beloved and as sacramental, priestly people. We are called to be sincere, loving, committed, critical, resilient, courageously forgiving and compassionate. We are called to be “more than” those who oppress us, not to cooperate with oppression but also not to retaliate with bitterness and hatred. We are called to be humble in ourselves too, not to put ourselves down but to see our good like our imperfections within a context of God’s love and God’s call and the shared dignity and humanity of others also.

This reading, within a context of good news for “daughters” and the gospel that is coming is for me a powerful call to remain in the imperfect church and to trust in God’s ability and desire to find me there and sustain me. The grace of God in actual fact cannot be stopped or blocked by patriarchy but we must continue to bless even those who have not blessed us. We are called to a holy partnership with God where we pour out love to the world. I turn to the gospel to see what possibilities for transformation this call may hold.

In the gospel, Mary is not wise in her own estimation, that is she is not complete outside of her ability to reach out to others. Her good news needs to be reflected by Elizabeth’s good news. She has a need to support and be supported, to be in a community where each can rejoice in the other being blessed. Each has a relationship with a husband that in some Christian circles would be assumed to be the most appropriate arena of rejoicing. But each is part of a larger network of support, each needs also the ministry of women in her sacramental life (and don’t we all?). Mary, pregnant though she is goes on a journey that would possibly be dangerous and certainly be difficult. There is something in Elizabeth’s company that calls to her, something precious in the relationship or some need she sees in Elizabeth and responds to.

The great prophet John hears the voice of Mary, who is about to offer one of the great prophecies of liberation and hope. John recognises in this voice the same call that is already whispering into his baby heart the potential for a committed spirit-filled life. He leaps for joy! Elizabeth recognises this leap and knows what it means. Mary’s preaching will shake the church and the world. Elizabeth says that Mary is “blessed” for hearing and heeding the call of God. She recognises Mary’s priesthood. Elizabeth and John become church to accept Mary’s priesthood as Mary both literally and sacramentally carries Christ into their lives. Mary preaches her joy and hope in a God who reverses oppression and liberates. There are strong forces in a world where Mary’s people have been colonised by the brutal Roman army, she lives in a patriarchal society with limited opportunities. But her hope is in God’s power to be greater than the powers of the world.

Mary aligns herself with a utopian view of radical justice and voices her commitment to God’s power to bring this about. She grounds this vision in faith history. Then she stays with Elizabeth for three months. The relationship of sacrament is about more than words. She is there for practical support and shared affection. Faith and ministry are not about a ritual once a week but are about companioning and loving our fellow humans on the journey.

My heart like unborn baby John leaps for joy at the good news of the Visitation. I want to shout it aloud and sing it, this dignity and hope in the reality of God’s call to me as daughter and sister. My response needs to be loving and faithful to the dream of transformative justice. My spiritual hunger is filled with this good thing. I can look to the unofficial priests, when the official church leaves my pastoral needs unmet. No wonder these readings mentioned singing and joy so many times!

When the lowly will be lifted up

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.