Tag Archives: priesthood

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!

“You give them something to eat” – Priesthood that makes a difference

This week we celebrate the body and blood of Christ (corpus Christi). Traditionally this has been a time to talk about Eucharist and priesthood. I had almost finished writing this blog when I was fortunate to experience the ministry of a community of women theologians who also shared food that each had prepared. My head and heart are too full of good things to rewrite the blog but I feel there is something relevant to ideas of body, blood, sacrament in what happened today. Nevertheless for want of more time I will stick with what I wrote earlier in the week…

The readings were:

Genesis 14:18-20

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Luke 9:11b-17

 

I was always taught that the most special thing you could ever do was to be a “priest”. This was a somewhat unfair thing to teach to a girl. I grew up wanting to be the one who broke and shared the life-giving bread and spoke the word of hope. I felt depressed, even suicidal about not being the one who could do these things. This week we celebrate the body and blood of Christ, and with all the things I have been told about real human bodies and blood as opposed to the supposedly better risen body and blood of Christ, things that sometimes contradict each other I feel like there is a maze that I have to carefully find my way through, avoiding turns into despair or superstition.

The first reading and psalm draw to our attention ancient patriarchal traditions of priesthood. Liturgy here is something Melchizedek performs for his patron (in the sense of paying him a tithe) Abram. The psalm reinforces this as a continuous tradition. So far all that is there are all the old feelings of exclusion, the idea that all of this would mean something if I was a man and could become a priest. As a mere woman in the aisles however I get a little bit sick of being expected to look up to and praise male figures and male symbolic actions for no very good reason, just because I am told to. There is no mention anywhere in these readings of any sort of meaning or even trickle-down effect to women. It all begs the question why would you bother even being there, let alone supporting it with your labour, approval and money (as women do).

The second reading then places this ancient tradition of priesthood in a context of Jesus’ last supper action as retold by Paul. We are told, as we are constantly that this is the tradition, that Jesus took the bread and cup and broke them and….hang on a second! Here Jesus is quoted as saying “Do this in memory of me!” He’s not saying “Watch a guy in a dress who thinks he is special doing it” he is saying “Do it”. No wonder that little girl that I was, was not content to sit and watch the action week after week after week, year in and year out. So there is some sort of call to priesthood here. Not a call to have priests but a call to be priests. Returning to the first reading and psalm but as a middle-aged woman who has been denied ordination I still am thinking “nope I don’t get it”. Something in the tradition is not gelling for me.

Onward to the gospel!

The gospel is one of feeding the crowds. The Twelve propose a system of individual responsibility where each person needs to go and sort out their own meal. Reading in a neoliberal time I cheer to see Jesus rejecting this approach. No, says Jesus. Our way is not to send people away. Or way is welcoming and feeding. In the face of overwhelming need we take what we can and distribute it. In the face of the “bottom line” and the “Real world” we refer the problem to God but then we take in our physical hands, the small amount that we have and we distribute it.

After five weeks unemployed and income-less I believe in miracles. Most of the miracles I have seen in that time have walked around on two legs. Most of them are people who are faced with too much to do and think and too little to distribute. Some of those miracles are my own capacity to do with less and to survive.

The lectionary puts this feeding of the five thousand as a Eucharistic act. It is a sacrament when we take the meagre supplies we can scratch together and confront the endlessness of need in the world with it. In another place Jesus points out that noone lives on bread alone…on the other hand we access the Word of God by refusing conventional wisdoms of turning people away and breaking our privilege and plenty down into crumbs that go further and do more good. When I see the miraculous feeding, and society building engaged in by Jesus, then I see a model of priesthood that is quite different to the ritualistic and patriarchal priesthood. Priesthood as nurture, priesthood as service. Priesthood as selfless giving for the sake of a better world. Priesthood of mothers and nurses, teachers and food growers, counsellors and artists and fire fighters and anyone who follows a vocation to serve others. Priesthood of doctors that refuse to be silenced as they speak the indignant Word of God concerning Manus Island. Priesthood of feminist theologians who support each other and gently heal themselves and then come back to tend the ungrateful church with their underappreciated gifts.

I used to think of women in the church as staying within an abusive relationship (which would be sinful) but I have come back to the church thinking it may be possible to be less co-dependent. It may be possible to see myself as limited by my status within the church, but I am called not to be “with” or “in” church but to be church. And then the limits I experience are part of myself, just as my body is limited in flexibility, energy and capability. This is not to take on the church’s abuse as somehow my fault, but to render irrelevant what the voice of men’s power says in attempting to boom through the church that is really my church. Some bodies live well with depression or asthma or diabetes or even cancer.

And so when I am church, I am invited into the Eucharistic act of feeding the world. The people come asking for a word of hope and healing, but they also have bodies that tire and need food. It is foolish to ignore the body and to pretend we can live wholly as spirits. In the gospel everyone sits and shares and is satisfied. In the gospel everyone looks to the sustainability and picks up the crumbs.

Noone tells us what happens to the crumbs that are gathered at the end of the miraculous healing.But then again it wasn’t women who wrote these extraordinary happenings down in the first instance. Those leftover crumbs too were the body of Christ. Five thousand is just a beginning, our mission is to feed all the world.

A woman’s place

 

There was a pope who tried to tell us we are not allowed to talk about women’s ordination. He forgot to rip this page out of the bible though…

Before I had even looked up the gospel for this week, I was listening to Everything’s alright from Jesus Christ Super Star and even though it diverges in some ways from the story as “John” originally told it, there was a lot to ponder in it about power, about priorities and about how issues of gender are reflected in the story of Jesus.

‘Mary Magdalene’ in the song is looking after the mental health of Jesus, seeming to offer and evening of peace, massage and forgetting to be a workaholic savior figure. Although she is interrupted first by Judas’ pseudo-political critique and put downs and then Jesus’ irritating posturing (remember I am still talking about the song) which verges on mansplaining, I love that each time she relentlessly comes back with her message of comfort and gentleness and peace.

The ‘Jesus’ in the song comes across a bit like a neoliberal celebrity having an ego trip “you will be lost and so sorry that you didn’t pay attention for me” almost like the way of the cross is an attention seeking drama. The cult of the marketable personality is more important than the “poor” in the song. Meanwhile MM shushes both Judas and Jesus and insists that it is time for relaxing and letting go. Her idea of calm and domesticity and even perhaps pleasure, she insists is as important as any delusions about “bigger” things. Taken in moderation I think this is a good message, besides it underlines what it is that women do. In the midst of big events they continue to relentlessly take care of the little events (sometimes instead of the big ones but just as commonly AS WELL AS the big ones).

So this was the gendered idea I was taking into my reading of John. I knew that in the gospel it is Mary of Bethany (not Magdalene) who performs this scene and I was really hoping that Jesus would be less attention-whore rockstar and more wise teacher in the original, but I smiled at least that in the musical the scene belongs to Mary and Judas and Jesus do their important man-argument thing but can’t shout her down.

What then is Mary doing in John? She often gets interpreted as a prostitute or comfort women or at best a girlfriend sort of character for Jesus. We are meant to be so sex positive these days that we uncritically accept this, we avoid being slut shamers by embracing the idea that women is equated with sexuality. Jesus is just telling them not to slut shame her. Well…in a way perhaps there is that in the story because the history of interpretation is part of what we have as church and as church and society we have again and again been told that a good woman is a wife or girlfriend and a bad woman is a prostitute. Either way a woman exists for the comfort of the real hero (man/Jesus).

But this is Mary of Bethany.

Mary who Martha tried to pull back into a traditional female role and Jesus said “let her go she is following her true vocation” (apostleship/priesthood). Can we read her in the simplest and most obvious way? Considering the powerful symbolism and mystery that the gospel of John weaves through every and all story, all building toward the sacrificial and Eucharistic climax of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection? Considering it is a week before Psalm Sunday. This is the curtain raiser for the sacramentally enormous happenings. Mary is using oil in the lead up to Palm Sunday. Mary anoints the one who is to be the sacrifice. Mary surely here is a priest!

She uses her hair to wipe his feet. Her long, womanly hair is part and parcel of her priesthood to Jesus. She is not an honorary man in her role she is called and consecrated AS A WOMAN to serve Jesus and minister to Jesus and minister for Jesus and perform the prophetic, liturgical action for all time in the moment and in the gospel that is written as sacred.

Everything that she is she brings to lay at the feet of Jesus so that she too is at the feet of the teacher. She is a priest and a prophet a faithful apostle and one who has sat at the feet, one who has learned the trade, one who can teach after the teacher passes on. If we see any sexual tension in the idea of scented oil and female hair, then we need to sit with the discomfort of that sexuality being a priest-thing. Because it cannot be doubted that there is priestly work happening here.

Judas’ criticism (in the song he says “people who are hungry…they matter more than you” the ultimate put-down. Even in the song he is only caring for the poor because Mary is worth even less than them. But in the gospel, there are more sinister motives attributed to Judas. He wants to control the funds so that he can embezzle them. This is partly to set him up as the villain of the story of course, but it also speaks into the tendency many Christians have to suddenly develop a social conscience when talking about how other people should spend their money and their time.

Jesus’ retort then “you will always have the poor with you” can then be interpreted NOT as claiming that he is more important than social justice, but as a refocus on RELATIONSHIP not isolated “good works” as the key to the kingdom. Judas has the purse strings, he could be distributing funds to the poor every day but he waits until now to be suddenly concerned. An act of disconnected generosity here or there will not change the world; nor will top down controls over how people behave with their money or time. Judas as the treasurer, as a man tries to control Mary who is only a woman. Jesus reminds Judas that Mary’s faith journey is her own, how she expresses it is also her own.

We will always have the poor with us because we have not-yet become one with the poor to challenge the systematic injustices (such as man over woman). We will always have the poor with us if I am more interested in telling you, the less powerful how much to give to charity than in having the courage to challenge those who are setting up systems of abuse and inequality…or interrogating my own privilege and my use of the resources I am steward over. I think the church all too often acts like a Judas in our preaching and in the sort of actions we enable or close off.

So this week’s reading for me, reifies a woman’s absolute knowledge that Jesus has called and consecrated her to ministry. It turns and interrogative eye back to those who would try to keep her “in her place” or distract her with minor “good works” while basking themselves in an unfair system. It tells us that liberation is going to happen from a place of respect and dialogue (in this way it reminds me of Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed) not from a top down set of rules or decisions from above. This is a democratically arriving kingdom of God.

It speaks to me of the longing for an authentic, visionary and always political church. There are churches like that (The man who threatened Rome tells of one example but I think there are ones also closer to home). How tragic that often in those stories of hope the church, bishops and Vatican play the part of Judas and shut down authentic liturgical action.

If only all of us had courage to practice a priesthood like Mary’s. Could we trust that Jesus would stand up for us when we are attacked?

God is everywhere, even in the church

It is difficult for me to find a path into this week’s readings. They seem patriarchal and colonising (God will give other countries as hostages to ransom you chosen privileged ones) and alienating. I can see the modern-day fundamentalists standing and cheering at this week’s images of powers that seem almost magical, charismatic male leaders and the chosenness and power of baptism. Because the readings can and have been read like this, it is very important to come back with a more liberative reading of a tradition we dare not ignore.

I myself was brought up with the idea of baptism as sacred but I remember my son at age five asking me what God’s attitude was to one of his friends who wasn’t bapitsed. I didn’t know what to say, but I couldn’t imagine that god throws out the unbaptised like rubbish, nor that we should desperately pray that they can be “saved” by a priest throwing water on them. I floundered.

“God is everywhere”, I told my son, “Every shower of rain is a baptism if you love the earth and love all people, every swim with friends is baptism, every bath or shower. We don’t know at which point a person goes under the water and comes out into God but it isn’t just for church people, God loves everyone.” It must be obvious where the flaws in my oversimplified answer are and I don’t offer it as an adult understanding of baptism, but simply a starting point. How do we take the recent epiphany on board as we return into more formalistic, ritualistic ideas of church? How do we broaden and deepen ideas of “church” and “sacrament” to be as large as the all catching, all nurturing grace of the real God (as opposed to some stiff church icon).

John in the gospel today is speaking with much better humility than the priests and leaders of our church usually manage. He offers a baptism in water, a symbol of repentance and a door into a greater and more mysterious reality. But John knows that he is not the Messiah and that his ritual of baptism is not the real or only baptism. John’s celebration of what we have later come to understand as “sacrament” is merely an entry point into something deeper and uncontrolled by him. He is not a gatekeeper for Christ who may also act on his own behalf.

Jesus also comes into the scene with humility. If we wish to find in here an individualistic and wholly independent model of faith we can be disappointed. Noone more so that Jesus could see beyong the limits of the church or could criticise the flaws of the church. And yet Jesus does not reject John’s baptism. Jesus finds within church, within his connections and following of imperfect people and their imperfect rituals a place of encounter with God and here God acts to seal and proclaim Jesus’ unique ministry. Maybe here is part of the answer why I so strongly feel called and tricked back into the church by a compassionate yet persistently nagging God. When we allow ourselves the pride of “giving up” on the church what good do we really achieve? Do we run off and start a dazzling ministry of our own? Generally no, in my atheist and anti-church phases I have turned to hedonism and escapism and individualism. Imperfect though our families are we cling to them in a difficult mixture of love, loyalty, duty and exasperation. The church also is one such family and we are called to transform it through struggle not to drop out and disengage.

Having said that, I feel that I have done the right thing by finding the most resisting and least oppressive pocket of the church that I can and hiding within that. Within the mainstream church I am supposed to act as if I have no vocation beyond the capacity to bear children (and not even that since my marriage ended)…the mainstream church is like a bushel placed over the light of many woman, to stop their vocation shining for the world. I regularly watch how one of my friends whose call is apparent to anyone comes up against the repressive and hurtfully silencing might of the church and I feel no envy for someone still battling that after all these years.

I would rather lurk on the margins and minister to people like me who are also marginal and somewhat bitter. I am at the point where it is easier for me to see sacrament in a three year old passing me a bowl of rice than in any ritual involving an ordained “father”. This Sunday is a challenge to people like me poised on the margins of the church like stray cats ready to fell back into the shadows beyond the margins. It is also a challenge to the church not to take the easy path of seeing this week’s readings as rubber-stamping the privilege and authority of the church elites but to be like John and avoid that narcissm and humbly refrain from even claiming to undo the strap of the sandal of the real reality.

The Christian life done properly is ALWAYS ministry. Will we ever see a church that looks at the priesthood of every single believer and says: “you are my daughter, my beloved; in you I am well pleased.” God asks us to accept and affirm them all, “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”