Tag Archives: social justice

I haven’t Blogged much lately. I’ve been thinking about writing things but work just keeps me too busy. But I was on the roster at church this week and managed to throw together a reflection on the readings. I used these first reading, psalm and gospel and added in Marina by T.S. Eliot (an old favourite of mine as regular readers know) as the 2nd reading.

I spoke without having written down my thoughts, because now that I teach and lecture that seems easier than reading…but later I reconstructed more-or-less what I had said. I also used a “Eucharistic prayer” that I wrote back in March but hadn’t had an opportunity to use today. It’s been sitting in a cupboard at church with noone aware it exists. It focusses on the earth.

Here  is my “reflection” on the readings:

I grew up with a “face value” reading of today’s gospel which I didn’t (in retrospect) find very helpful. In this way of thinking the Pharisee was wrong for thinking so highly of himself, whereas the tax collector was to be emulated as being humble and not thinking well of himself. I cultivated my low self esteem carefully, thinking it was virtuous to do so. It became self-hate and was quite a toxic thing to live with. I want to be careful today not to repeat the same mistake, to look with a more nuanced eye at today’s parable.

Parables are not simple surface-level morality tales anyway. They are meant to deeply challenge us, to niggle away at the things we think we know and invite us to come deeper, experiencing otherness rather than analysing it from the sidelines. Our experience of a parable should be a long journey of learning not a point of revelation or answers. Today’s section of the journey will be looking through the lens of the first reading. When the lectionary gives us groups of readings it is an invitation to consider them together and in light of each other.

So I will look back on Sirach. This reading is about God being responsive and empathetic to the plight of any who suffer from not being heard or having their needs disregarded.  God desires justice and will advocate for the widow and the socially, materially or emotionally vulnerable. The reading also has teeth- although I don’t like the violence sometimes present in the Hebrew scriptures I feel there is a risk when we sanitise our tradition too much. God break’s scepters, acts with anger and destruction toward those who hold unjust power. From our vantage point in a wealthy, overconsuming, exploitative country we would do well not to sanitise this part of our faith out.

But the focus is certainly comfort for the oppressed. God is not neutral is clearly taking sides here. This is consistent with a 20th century Catholic teaching that used to be spoken about more- that God has a “preferential option for the poor”. God is present in the relationships and angry at the inequities of our social world.

So if we take this social justice focus back to the gospel, how to we view the two men in Jesus’ parable? The pharisee is not wrong to think well of himself and his achievements, but he is displaying a faith that is performative rather than relational. His focus is on impressing other people, comparing himself and feeling superior to others who he can pre-judge at a glance. He has filled in all his spiritual KPIs but become separated from other human beings.

The tax-collector has no such shield against the world. He has come to God with his vulnerability, his knowledge of his own failings. I am probably projecting a modern-day understanding onto him if I talk about his awareness of privilege, but I will try to explore that idea in view of what tax-collectors were and did in Jesus’ day. The Roman Empire used to impose taxes on the people- these could be crippling, and the men who collected them added their own fee to the tax they collected. They were hated in part because people hated paying the taxes, but also because many of them may have added on an exorbitant fee and so enriched themselves.

A tax-collector then might be caught between the competing demands of his family (who will struggle or starve without his income) and the injustice and imbalance of the empire’s taxes and perhaps his own added fees. He is caught up in a system of injustice and oppression, not just caught up in a web of dependency but maybe even benefiting from it. We know this too, that although there is much that is wrong with the world these days we are often the ones who benefit from the inequitable distribution of wealth and the exploitation and demonisation of others. The tax collector brings his awareness and his worry to God, not able to find answers but showing a willingness to let God inform and infuse his life for a better future. Jesus says that he rather than the escapist priest is the one “justified”.

What does this mean? How does it help to be “justified”?

What is it that we come to church for?

Dare we be honest and less than shiny before God…and what does this look like?

If God listens to the poor and oppressed, what is our role in all of this?

There are no answers in the back of the book, but we can reflect on these challenges and share our thoughts with each other.

Believers, doubters, questioners: one heart and mind?

I have been writer’s blocked off late but thank God I went to church and could soak in some wisdom from people around me and experience the readings without being distracted as much I have been.

 

The first reading is so Utopian, I am almost 100% sure it is fiction (sorry to tell you that). It shows us an idealized view of the early church when all of us know that despite our best intentions organisations become filled with disagreement and mistrust, resentments flare and people feel taken for granted. Even without anyone meaning to do the wrong thing, this can happen (and some people are less than ideally motivated as well).

 

Having said that, I like to sink into that first reading, early church beautiful idyll and let it reassure me about the VALUES that our faith is built upon.

 

If you get all your information about Christianity from Facebook or other popular media sources, you could be forgiven for thinking Christianity is a very right wing and harsh religion. People styling themselves “Christians” are always attacking left-wing, pinko, tree-hugging, hippies like me. A couple of times in my political campaigning people said they liked my policies but wanted to vote for something “Christian” as if redistributing wealth and having a sense of the common good was something invented by Marx.

 

No offence to Marx, but take a careful look at this reading, so many years earlier, where they are holding property in common and redistributing any surplus to the “have-nots”. It doesn’t say they are forcing people to work or in some way humiliate themselves to receive the help either, they work for the good of all and they share generously with all.

 

If only this is what it meant to be a Christian. That would definitely be a redeemed post-resurrection reality wouldn’t it? That would inspire hope. Let’s move through the happy psalm full of the sorts of reversals (the stone which the builders rejected) that seem to be a hallmark of Jesus’ transformative ministry (and speak to me of social justice) and take a look at the second reading then.

 

In the second reading, love of God and love of other humans is linked. Obeying God’s commandments inevitably leads to love. Obedience here is not a burden or a discipline, it is a life-hack that leads to victory and right relations. When John tells us so insistently that Jesus came through water and blood I think of every birth ever where slippery little babies squeeze out of their mothers in a watery, bloody mess. Jesus’ passage through death then is a birth, some artists and poets speak of the tomb as a womb, the earth springing open to birth him.

 

Fuel for ecofeminist thought I guess.

 

Forward to Jesus, coming back to see his “disciples” and the story of doubting Thomas who I have always had a sneaking sympathy for but now the more so because I am trying to reconcile critical realism and feminist standpoint theory and think about epistemology and do we really “know” what we think we “know”? And besides given all the fake news and innuendo that abounds it would be well for people to be a little more cautious and doubting and critical.

 

Notably, Jesus is not angry at Thomas. Maybe amused, maybe having to force himself to be patient but he works with Thomas’ doubt.

 

Thomas needs experience as proof, Jesus allows him to experience through his senses the truth. Look. Touch. But also by implication (since he speaks to him) Listen.

 

It is frustrating when we know that something is true and we need people to believe us and to jump on board with it and they simply refuse. They may have a stereotypical news that what we are saying is an “old wives tale” unreliable because it is by or for women. They might think we are kidding ourselves or exaggerating or imagining what we say we know. People are reluctant to believe.

 

It is good to be sceptical like Thomas, to not try to erase truth with pretty fairytales. It is good to be cautious and demand evidence and stand back from the bandwagon. But it can hold back progress too to be over-cautious or to be overstuck in what we have always known rather than new possibilities, the “good news” in life. So there is some middle-ground that we all constantly need to negotiate and renegotiate (see my problem with the disciples in the first reading believing and knowing all things in agreement?). We need to be open but not naïve. We need to welcome, to show, to prove, to humour the unbelievers (when we believe we have some truth). We need workable middle-grounds but we also need human interactions.

 

Imagine if Thomas had switched off so much he did not speak to the other disciples any more or if they had cast him out for his unbelief? Then he either would never have encountered the risen Jesus or they would not have witnessed his encounter. If our truth is life-giving we need to constantly invite people into it. If our critical questions are valid we need to try to have some loyalty and link (as far as possible) with our communities that need the challenge. It’s easy to say, much harder to show exactly where and how and who has to give way to preserve peace.

 

It helps to believe that Jesus will come and/or send the Holy Spirit to inspire our connectedness and our constructive critiques.

 

It helps to hold out some measure of the flickering hope that resurrection is possible. Even now.

 

Maranatha.

 

At the foot of the cross

I wrote this more than a week ago, but I have had internet problems (forgive me). I am hoping to get a guest blogger to belatedly post an Advent 1 reflection for last week, and then later today possibly I can post my advent 2 reflection. Sorry to do nothing so long then swamp you with three at once. Living in Australia, I must have learned something from the weather. Anyway the drought is broken 😉

This morning a mother came in (I work at childcare), and I was busy assisting with the French lesson- we have a group of children of varying needs and temperaments so it was not something I could take my eyes off, but I smiled a greeting at her.

“It was you” she said… “Sorry, I mean did you go to a protest last weekend?”

“About Manus Island” I said slowly. There you go St Peter; that is how it is done! Then again for all the momentary panic I felt (or was it panic at looking away from the children for a couple of sentences?) she was smiling at me, making a safe space for me to be “out” about how I am in the world. I suddenly understood that Peter’s denial of Jesus was about closetedness- and I do know something about that, even as an “out” person I sometimes retreat into various closets about my gender identity and sexual orientation and political views and of course religion. Sometimes perhaps I have two closets facing in on each other and run from one to the other depending who I am talking with.

My excuse is always that this is a time of stress and hatred and blaming all the wrong people. So apologies Peter, I owe you a beer. I don’t really do any better at being “out” than you did.

The mother started saying how sad she was…how hopeless…how she stubbornly hoped…how we ought to treat people bloody well better than what is happening at Manus Island at the moment and I thought back to the protest. My mind is my own while I work- which is to say there os plenty for it to do, but I can sneak in a few little thoughts of my own during the day at the quiet times when I am patting someone to sleep or comforting someone with a grazed knee (the no-brainer activities) or even wiping over tables and floors. So I thought a lot about Manus, and about being recognised in a photo that apparently is circulating on Facebook (I haven’t seen it).

Then I remembered the protest gathering itself and how I fit it in sneakily before the Feast picnic, how I was running late, how I saw my sister on the way there. The first person that I saw when I got there was another friend of mine…she had her family with her. Standing there with a sister and a female friend…at the foot of somebody’s cross, while the speaker told us she understood how powerless we all felt and we all wept. She told us there was no shame in weeping. She said (for us) that it was impossible not to. Powerless to stop someone else’s suffering.

But then the speaker and another speaker both mentioned communications they had had with the modern-day Jesuses on Manus island, the people caught up in someone else’s politics and paranoia and tortured and perhaps killed (if the government think they can get away with it). And unlike the original Jesus of Nazareth, these dark-skinned, suffering men at least have mobile phones (or their supporting angels do).

Compared to the marriage equality rallies, these rallies for human life are so small (but note that many queer looking people were at the Manus island rally, and some signs in the Feast Pride March carried signs about “no Pride in detention” and other words of solidarity, so there is no call to pit one against the other).

But according to the speakers there is some point to these rallies, even if our government appears to have no ears to hear us and no hearts at all! Because the men who are suffering hunger and thirst and heat exhaustion and sickness and the occasional beating and deprivation feel encouraged when they see us gathering in solidarity to know them and to love them and to wish to help them. There was a long message about humanity, that we are human and they are human and we are sharing humanity in this experience of suffering- our tears and nightmares and their reality. So we sat on the ground and crossed our arms above our heads (as the men do in protest) and we sat for what was probably about four minutes but to my aching arms felt like an hour. We sat in silence and we continued to sit as a message from a refugee was read out. Of the people passing by, some looked like tourists and took pictures of us and nodded gravely, their body language appearing to convey approval. Some joined us, most averted their eyes, a few car-loads of people hurled verbal abuse. Tears streamed down my face.

Why should we be abused for believing in the humanity of others. Why were these people so out of touch with their own humanity? What hope was there without ordinary Australians (more of us, most of us, all of us)?

Let us pray,

God who has suffered, I see your face in the refugee and likewise in the activist and the healer who seek to take you down from your cross. Teach me to weep publically, so that my tears may move the mountain of apathy and fear, of ignorance and greed, of hate and despair. Teach me to weep with others, embracing so that our sobs turn into songs of protest.

Where is the resurrection here, at this Golgotha at Manus Island? Where is the hope?

God of passion, break hearts of stone; turn our society around; show us the way, the truth and the life.

As we approach advent, Mary’s God bring in the Magnificat vision of restitutive justice! As we celebrate your coming, show us how to nurture you ever present in those we deem “least”

Maranatha

Amen.

If God were a superhero

So I went to see Wonder Woman on the weekend. I won’t review the movie here- I loved some things and really didn’t like others about it. But she had this love interest called Steve (many of you probably knew that) and in the movie there is this scene where Wonder Woman (Diana) is battling Ares, the God of war and Steve and his friends are busy sabotaging a nazi plane (long story, see the movie) and someone says “what’s that?” terrified by all the flashes of lightning and things breaking and basically the outward signs of an epic superhero battle (the sort of cheesy thing you can’t not have in a superhero movie).

Steve looks up briefly and says “I can’t do anything about that, so I am going to stop this plane flying.” (or something). That stayed with me. That in the moment of existential terror, where powers bigger than anything he can handle are doing things to the universe and he might just die regardless of what he does, he keeps doing the ordinary heroics of human existence. Maybe he trusts that Wonder Woman will manage the larger battle, maybe he thinks that even if it is all futile he will go out with meaning. He doesn’t spend time worrying about what might be, he plays his own part.

He is also a fictional character.

I am thinking then of something I read in Rethinking Schools’ environmental education edition. That it is not the people who recycle tins and plant gardens that will save the world but that we must stop what the military and capitalism are doing to the planet on a larger scale and I sort of agree- but then it all looks too much and too hard. When I shared my despairing thoughts with a friend of mine, they said “maybe but it makes me feel better to shop ethically and to avoid using plastic” and another friend added “we save the environment at home AND we get political”.

Those friends are real people and perhaps doing more for the earth than I am (though I try too).

This brings me to the part of the liturgy called “Intercessions” or sometimes “Prayers of the Faithful”. I can’t find my trusty old missal at this moment but usually the priest or someone trusted has written a bunch of prayers about the world, the church, the community, specific people who have been sick or died and each prayer ends with: “Lord hear us” upon which we are all supposed to chorus “Lord hear our prayer” to add our agreement, and it’s all about unity or something.

And explanations for why we pray this way range from “because God will do whatever two or three ask of him” (I think that was a misquote from the bible) or other versions of the belief that an interventionist God has some sort of triage system for sorting and answering our prayers and if we perform them well we might win the blessing jackpot, to “give it all to God” that we can pray about the things we don’t like in the world instead of doing anything about them.

Having said that I notice the people in the church I go to (where we all share the prayers in our hearts, sometimes about current affairs or the environment, other times more personal ones) pray about refugees AND THEN take up money and sponsor a refugee, they pray about unemployed people AND THEN they give practical support to the unemployed families present. Someone prays about her cancer AND THEN people hug her and give her a friendly phone call during the week. We pray for tolerance for LGBTIQ+ people AND THEN when I rock my rainbow jumper people make sure to make me feel just as welcome as any other week (I think they make more effort because they want to position themselves as pro-diversity and anti-homophobia.

Seems to me as though at that church “prayers” are a little bit like working with a super-hero (I love using Wonder Woman as a metaphor for God, I really am enjoying that). On the one hand a lot of what is happening in the world is too big for us and we can’t do anything about it. We may not like the leaders of our country, we may not like the corrupt business-people they pander to. We may be appalled by the suffering experienced by families in refugee camps and bombed cities and on the streets of our own city. But prayer lets us stop for a moment, recognise that God is doing something (somehow and we can’t really see how or what) and there is also something we can do. So we just do the thing we can do, we at least do that (Steve’s contribution in the movie was literally a matter of life and death – more than once).

If you think I have made a theology that is a lot different from my usual view of God as vulnerable and among us instead of as a super-hero then yes I guess I have. I have entertained an idea I usually try to steer clear of that God is somehow going to be powerful and “fix” things. I have entertained it carefully however- God is doing whatever it is that God does and we must do whatever we must do influenced by God.

Coming back to Wonder Woman, it was enchanting in the movie how her view of things was both bigger “It’s Ares behind it, the Germans are good people inside” and smaller “oh look a baby” or crying over each individual hurt soldier than the views of the humans who’d been living in the “real world” all along. She influenced her friends to see the aim of the game as peace rather than victory. Her way of working was not what they expected and really challenged them but they found that their yearning – like hers – was for peace.

There are some problematic aspects of the movie that I have deliberately ignored but at the end of the day I want to acknowledge that Wonder Woman is not Godde.

We bring our prayers to Godde because we want to come together as a team with the others at church, with Godde herself- to be close to her and be influenced by her. We bring them because in articulating what troubles us we might find inspiration about what to do next, or let it go for now for our sanity (not as escapism but as rest and trust as part of the dance/struggle toward justice)

Wonderous Godde hear us,

Wonderous Godde hear our prayer.

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

The greater gifts- liberation, transformation, repentance, challenge

19:14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

Hey look, I know how we are supposed to take this week’s readings. Going to church on Sundays is important, organised religion is wonderful and the elevated status of the clergy is a valid and healthy “difference” ordained (pun intended) by God. Well you can believe that if you want right after you pour a glass of wine for the tooth fairy and feed my winged swine.

Ok I am being a bit extreme, to be fair I AM probably going to church on Sunday and I DO appreciate having a sense of community (not a hierarchical prison) in my faith and there are differences in the way we all minister to the world and thank God for that. But the way these readings are traditionally preached about “yay yay yay Gooooooooooooo church” doesn’t cut it for me in my marginal non-ordainable dirty female space where I can’t keep as silent as I am supposed to. Cause the church is not perfect and most aspects of it do need to be problematised, especially the inequities when it comes to power. And the closed-mindedness on these issues by the clergy, even often decent men who are in some ways great human beings but love their collared privilege too much to ask the deeper questions…that is pure toxin to the life of the body of Christ. Because parts of bodies all need to be treated with care and respect for the whole to thrive. You can figure your toes are less important than your face, but then you might get gangrene in them.

So I felt a bit sick about the celebratory tone of this week’s readings like I always do after the Lord’s prayer when the priest (or someone) says “Look not on our sins but on the faith of your church” all smug like as if the church’s faith is so shining bright it makes up for all our sins. We say “don’t look at how I treat refugees, look at how shiny white bleached the priest’s chasuble is. Don’t look at the way we abuse children, look at how well we polish candle sticks. Don’t look at the fate of the widow and orphan in our land, close your eyes and enjoy us chanting “Lord, Lord, Lord” in a euphoric incense high.”

But what does today’s gospel add to all the self-congratulation of the celebrating church with its “different” gifts that not everyone can have?

Ok it starts of as Jesus the super-preacher doing the right thing by his church and going back to the “official church” instead of breaking free (the part you usually hear about when people preach on this Sunday). But what does he actually say his mission is? To make an easy life for a small elite number of dude-bros? To make the most beautiful liturgy full of spiritual valium to quiet the conscience of the middle classes? To build higher and higher monuments to tell God that we PRAISE him?

Jesus’ reads a traditional text to explain his mission:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus is here to upset the status quo, to change the world to bring material change to those who are not having a great time. For him to do that imagine what that would actually mean for the privileged? For us?

But it’s ok isn’t it, because Jesus means some sort of eschatological future fulfilment of all things in the heavenly kingdom.  His not mixing religion and politics is he? He’s not actually criticising our church or our society?

“Today” Jesus says “This is being fulfilled today”. The presence of Christ means changing the world. The presence of Christ means an end to captivity, blindness and oppression. Can the church take it? Do we still want to celebrate this charismatic young preacher?

Pray God I will summon up the courage to reflect on what Jesus wants me (yes me) to do to further his mission. Which oppressed people am I keeping from God’s transforming grace?

Preparing for transformation

I have been feeling a bit uninspired and even (here’s a confession) judgemental as Christmas approaches and all I hear is a whole lot of consumerist drama about presents and food and decorations and which unpleasant relative people are going to half kill themselves in order to please (all while matching the napkins to the baubles and making glittery centrepieces). I wonder that people who usually come across as sensitive and thoughtful suddenly seem to bury themselves in consumerism and stress and as a result some of them (the active ones who have to do all the work) wind up snapping “I hate Christmas”, while the ones who have a high emotional investment in “receiving” a perfect Christmas- gifts, invitations also end up disappointed as the reality can never match the expectation brought to us by that ”John the Baptist” equivalent of the consumerist religion, Santa.

Someone is going to argue with me that “Santa” is actually a Christian figure being based on St Nicholas but when I look at the North pole dwelling, red, no longer unfashionably plump, ruling class business owner and exploiter of elves and reindeer and his hiding in the shadows (making cookies of course), “Mrs Claus” I say “bollocks”. This myth may indeed have come out of an appropriation of  a Christian story but it has morphed so far I think it is even too late for reclaiming. Is noone apart from me uncomfortable with the Christmas pageants where this older (and often depicted as married) man has a sleazy relationship with teenaged beauty queens and Christmas fairies? This is not a version of Christianity I want to subscribe to, nor is the meritocratic lie that the children who get lavish presents are the “good” ones, and the ones with unemployed parents have done something wrong and deserve less. There is a popular movement for parents to “cut down” the number of presents they buy each of their children to FOUR. FOUR?? I only ever bought each child one (and maybe snuck in a book as well because I am naughty that way).

So I have been feeling anger and despair about Christmas, and I don’t like to admit this but I better- I have been looking down on people who think these things are so important- all the presents and hideous decorations and having the right fashionable foods (and too much of them). I have been reading Vandana Shiva (another “john the Baptist” figure but more to my taste) and agreeing that we privileged first-worlders use up the planet for empty crap, we don’t even get enough satisfaction to be worth the plunder and we are unhealthy as anything because of our over-consumption.

But I have survived this year, in a job that has some joyful moments on even the bad days, with one entire day nearly every week that I can devote to my favourite activity in the world of writing and I live with the most thoughtful young person in the universe who alternates getting me a coffee or a hug with his witty humour and undemanding habits. And if I find meaning in quiet times with him (no work for two weeks) and sunsetty evenings at the beach in the wet sand and the chatter of rainbow lorikeets and the company of the same friends who have supported and challenged me all year, and family members who do their best to tolerate me…then it is time to stop and examine my own privilege.

Because not so many years ago there was an impoverished, struggling single mother who felt cut off from relatives and other people alike- who saw judgement and rejection everywhere (even where it wasn’t) and who suffered through grey day after grey day under a burden of anxiety and self-hate and her own inadequacy. I have to remember her, who I was for so many years. And that grey-day woman wanted a bit of colour in her life and used tinsel and fairylights and wrapping paper and cards to try to make some fleeting connection to the rest of the human race and bought too many gadgets and gizmos to try to brighten up the lives of the children who were unfortunate enough to be stuck in her life. And that wasn’t “right” and it didn’t completely “work” but it provided some sort of fleeting relief and that is what it does for all the people who get caught up in commodified Christmases as well as the dating-at-any-price mentality which I think it related: the idea that you can’t be happy unless you have a partner.

And sitting in the relative wealth of Australian society we DO need to look at our consumption and we all need to cut down on it- every household, every individual but especially industry and the military! And I don’t want to return to an uncritical “bread and circuses” attitude to Christmas, granting that the consumerism alleviates a little bit of an existential angst for many people and leaving it at that. The first reading expects more than that from us…we are to point ourselves toward the joy and beauty that God calls us to (which can’t be giftwrapped or sent out for). But in my judgemental attitude I have thought about how to “break their hearts of stone” and I haven’t considered that that is not what I need when I get trapped in escapism and patterns of despair.

How instead do we embrace their hearts and offer them a home? The baby John the Baptist in the canticle is not praised for his incisive criticisms and his rousing hellfire sermons (alas because I think I would make a fantastic old-school preacher). He is told he will prepare Jesus’ way through preaching the “forgiveness of sins” through the loving-kindness (is this hesed?) of God to break upon us like a new dawning. Like finding out that I was a rainbow, not a brokenness. So somehow if we are to accept the impossible mission of John the Baptist (and even here I am mindful of how he ended up once he irritated the ruling class enough), we are to bring peace and loving-kindness and light to the world, not simply threats and criticisms. Do I detect God laughing at me, because she knows how I love a good criticism!

In the second reading, “Paul” (I am never sure when it is the real Paul and when it isn’t but this guy thinks it is) is thanking God for some supportive person/s who have shared the gospel with him. And I think of the people who fill my heart with gratefulness and light whenever I even think of them, and some of them are believers in God, and some are not. But what they all have in common is that they came into my life in a “before” time, when I was more depressed and they have to some degree walked into my darkness to greet me and accept me and show me the light of love. The people who saw something in me before I was ready to see it myself have (cumulatively) changed my life! So if we want to convert the next Paul, or even if we just want a better society then the call is to be prophets of love and light to the world.

And now I am beginning to sound more Christmassy I think which is good because next week is the “joy” week and the drought of advent-waiting will need to be ready to be transformed to a more expectant state then.

So back to the gospel, to our old friend John the Baptist. As an environmentalist I feel horrified shivers at his metaphor, but as a teacher who is interest above all else in social justice I resound with the idea of equalising. Despite the capitalist wisdom of the day “a rising tide floats everyone’s boat” the fact is we live in a world of finite resources, and for one to increase, someone else must pay the price. So to prepare for God’s kingdom, we must raise the status of the poor and the refugee AT THE COST OF THE WEALTHY who need to be made lower. While I feel quite poor still, on a world wide scale I am one of the (smaller) hills that will need to be smoothed down to exalt the real valleys.Isn’t it tempting to water down the redistributive demand of God’s revolution here and to say that all God really wants us to do is be “nice” and “moral” and “caring” in a bland way that doesn’t offend anybody.

But no! God’s demanding Word asks for nothing less than a complete overhaul of our social landscape to smooth out mountains and valleys into equality. Yes that is hard, hard work! But that is what it will take to have God’s reign in our lives. We can’t achieve this purely as individuals, we can’t just make ourselves “good” and “holy” people inside there is a social project and a struggle implicit in bringing God. “All flesh” are to see this salvation together, not singly while leaving brothers and sisters to suffer outside the gate.

So that is the Christmas to prepare for, the radical challenge that God’s word always brings to the powers that be. Prepare to be offensive to the Herods and the Pilates of the world when Jesus comes- prepare to be no friend to the wealthy Pharisees and to be seen on a par with tax-collectors and prostitutes. The restitutive, redistributive world of God’s Holy Wisdom is going to make a few changes around here. And we get to be part of that!