Christmas Day: Women and Religion

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.

    On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.
You have made the nation great;
    you have increased its joy.
They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest,
    as those who divide plunder rejoice.
As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them,
    the staff on their shoulders,
    and the rod of their oppressor.
Because every boot of the thundering warriors,
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned, fuel for the fire.
A child is born to us, a son is given to us,
    and authority will be on his shoulders.
    He will be named
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
There will be vast authority and endless peace
    for David’s throne and for his kingdom,
    establishing and sustaining it
    with justice and righteousness
    now and forever.

The zeal of the Lord of heavenly forces will do this. (Isaiah 9:2-7, CEB)

Merry Christmas, Reader!  It has been quite the journey this particular Advent; now we come to the “payoff,” so to speak.  Christ is born—alleluia!  The Church year has restarted and soon the calendar one will as well—but what shall happen to the women when Advent ends and the Church follows the very much male Jesus through His life?

Today’s particular passage from Isaiah, besides being a pair of great pieces from the Messiah oratorio by Handel, is applicable not least because there are so many ways in which we walk in darkness.  From the context of this female-affirming Advent series, we walk in the darkness of those who continue to overlook the gifts and presence of women within and outside of the Church.  We walk in the darkness of humorous nativities that still don’t challenge the lack of women in our faith stories (you can have an iPhone but not a female angel, really?).  We walk in the darkness of those who are still arguing God intended women to be utterly submissive to men.  We walk in the darkness of clouded glass ceilings.  We walk in the darkness of having to choose and defend pronouns for God as though God actually has a gender and inclusivity of both “He” and “She” somehow challenges God’s ability to be God.  We walk in the darkness of inequity and injustice.

And oh, how good to see a great light.

In this passage Isaiah hails one who made the nation great—long before red hats ever proclaimed the campaign slogan, Cyrus of Persia sent Israelites back home to rebuild their temple after having been in exile for hundreds of years.  Christians of the early Church took the passage and remade it to recognize the risen Christ who would make all nations great in shattering the binding yokes and oppressors’ rods.  In this new place with this new ruler will be justice and righteousness flowing like the rivers Amos invoked in his prophecies.

feminism_fair_enidePart of that justice, part of that righteousness, is the Church’s commitment to honor its people through the year.  Mary and Elizabeth fade back into the Christian tapestry now that Jesus is born, but their voices are not silenced.  Mary continues to appear in Jesus’ life as an important figure, and other Marys and a Martha and many nameless women walk across that world-changing stage.  Women do not drop out of the narrative, then or now; their voices continue to be important, their gifts continue to deserve development, and their place in the work of bringing God’s reign into human life continues to matter.

So how can the Church work into this justice?  Listen to women’s stories; hear their voices without trying to correct them or reshape them.  If you are a woman and you feel comfortable doing so, tell your story; speak of what religion and faith mean to you and the places within your tradition where you find acceptance.  Actively seek to place women in leadership roles—and women, do not settle for not having them.  Learn about the damaging history the Church has with women and pay attention to the ways that those words and actions continue in the present day.  Challenge fellow Christians not to let passive sexism slide.  Challenge yourself to call out those who make crass comments or jokes to you.  Pray for guidance in relationships with those identifying as female.  Read through Scripture, paying attention to the places women are and aren’t.  Love the women around you, whether as a woman yourself or as an ally and supporter.  Recognize that Jesus, Wonderful Counselor, did not turn away from women, and neither can we.

Merry Christmas.  May the love, the joy, the hope, and the peace of the season go with you to your places of celebration.  May the coming year truly bring us closer to the increased joy of a land on which light has dawned and women and men are both understood to be gifted and called into the priesthood of all believers equipped to go and bring that light to a dark world waiting for good news.

Go, It Is Sent

At the end of the Catholic mass back when it was in Latin (pre Vatican II), the second-to-last phrase was “ite, missa est.”  This became “go, the Mass is ended” when churches switched to English, but that’s not actually what it means.  In Latin, the verb missio means “I send;” to add “est,” the third person present form of esse (to be), makes it passive—“it is sent” rather than “it sent.”  There is much debate as to what, exactly, is sent—is it the congregation?  the Eucharist?  the coffee tray for the folks waiting in the narthex?—but there’s no agreed-upon concept of the noun, only of the verb.  To be part of the Body of Christ is to be, of necessity, someone who is sent out into the world; this is why the Church talks a lot about mission (yep, also a derivative of missio).

Last week I went on my first-ever mission trip.  And not only was it my first, I went as an adult leader for a group of high schoolers.  Hah!  This is one of the many things that convinces me God exists; surely I wouldn’t be stupid enough to volunteer to take vacation time and do this sort of stuff of my own volition.

It was, I think, a success, to whatever extent that sort of language can be used about mission trips.  Most people didn’t get sunburned, no one was bitten by snakes, and we delivered to their parents the same number of kids we took with us.  Many of the folks from my congregation as they were sending us (which was a whole other kettle of fish, that service of them sending us with their prayers and support and all; it’s still a hell of a thing for me to brush against the holy like that.  It’s somewhat like getting a static shock; not unpleasant, but it definitely causes you to draw back for a second) told me that it would be a life-changing experience, and perhaps it’s just that I’m truly a curmudgeon, but it wasn’t.  I didn’t have any shocking OH WOW GOD moments, and I wasn’t totally thrown out of my understanding of the world to come back enlightened.  It helps (or doesn’t) that the area where we were working is close to where some of my family grew up, so it was actually a kind of coming home for me.

But a big realization I had to work on all week and am still working on is that really, it wasn’t my mission trip.  Technically, yes, I was sent to work with these folks and I most certainly did the work of painting, building, sanding, cutting, sorting, hanging, etc.  But my primary role was to make sure the kids could work with these folks; I was there to make sure the trip happened without one of them cutting his hand off or something.  They were my mission field.

Reader, I am having such a hard time wrapping my head around that, not least because it still makes me laugh that people put me in charge of anything at all.  Surely they know I’m actually an irresponsible 15-year-old, not an adult.  My life is so often that dog meme that I have no idea what I’m doing, although I think that’s adulting in a nutshell.  It’s the epitome of “fake it ’till you make it,” but even still it’s really weird for the kids to look to me to get things done or tell them what to do or even to make sure they turn the lights out at night and then sing them awake in the mornings (yes, I did that).  I had one gal tell me at the end of the week that I was an imposter, I was actually a teen pretending to be an adult because I could talk Internet trends with them and I knew most of their music.  It was a hilarious moment of both being found out and being a little horrified that they should think it shocking for me to be “in the know” when I’m only a decade or so ahead of them.

I loved the opportunity to get out of the office and use power tools and tear stuff apart and build things—that ever-delightful concept of a task you can see with a beginning and an end—and also I got to know my fellow adult leaders who are some seriously neat people.  I have finally arrived at the place where I get to know all the secret back-door stuff adults do when the kids are otherwise occupied, and I don’t even care that it’s mundane, it’s still awesome.  My childhood self is vindicated.

I also got to see my kids going.  Part of this is the literal going, in the sense that freaking none of them had “off” buttons holy crow how did they never stop AT ALL, but some of it is also that I got to see them truly taking on this sense of mission, of being sent, of reaching out to places and people that scared them and about which they were totally unsure and then growing into these new spaces.  I got to co-lead devotionals every night and it was basically the best thing ever; sometimes my kids said incredibly stupid things, but more often than not they took me to school and taught me so much about grace and hope and the bigness that is God.

It was, actually, awesome.  And the best thing was that it wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was totally life-affirming.  I want this, even this, even though I came back home and slept for 14 or so hours the next day.  I don’t want to be a youth minister, necessarily, but let’s get this minister train on the tracks.  Even the hard days are totally worth it.

Maybe it’s that passion that is sent.  Or maybe it’s just me.

“Get up, for this is your duty, but we will be with you. Have strength of heart and do it.”  (Ezra 10:4, NLV)