A sermon preached on Advent 4: December 18, 2011 at St Alban’s Episcopal Church in Albany, CA
While we probably already have at least one image of today’s gospel story in our imagination, whether that be a fantastical vision of Gabriel descending upon a young woman in a field, or Charlie Brown’s Christmas Special, or a remembrance of a children’s Christmas pageant where there were toddlers dressed as sheep… I want to offer two more images to you today.
First is a billboard posted by an Anglican parish in Auckland, New Zealand. Apparently known for its rather public and progressive (not to mention, button-pushing) statements, St Matthew’s in the City paid for a unique rendition of Mary to be put up on a billboard.
This Mary is portrayed in an older style of painting – like that of Caravaggio or Titian – dark, rich colors. Mary is wearing blue. A strong light shines from above onto Mary’s face, giving strong definition to her features and casting shadows. She even has blonde hair.
However, her gesture is one you’ve likely never seen in painting of Mary. Her hand is over her mouth in a gesture of shock. Her eyes wild with panic and anxiety. And as you follow her gaze downward, you see she’s staring… at a modern-day pregnancy test-strip.
This billboard has created quite a stir so much so, that a group of conservative Roman Catholics decided to vandalize the billboard, cutting out the part of the picture that contained the pregnancy strip. There are people who venerate Mary as the Blessed Virgin Mary, or as we call her in seminary – the BVM, holding her up as an icon of purity and virtue and refuse to see the more human side of her.
The second image is a video sent to me from my dear friend who has a young daughter. The video was produced by an organization called “itonlytakesagirl.org.” While gorgeous cello music plays in the background, dozens of girls and woman hold up pieces of paper with words – much like the Bob Dylan video, if you’ve seen it – that tell a story about the importance of educating girls.
The story is that there are over 600 million girls in developing nations and about ¼ of these girls are not getting any education at all. It tells us that of every dollar of international aid that is spent, only 2 cents goes to girls. It tells us that these girls in developing nations are thought of as burdens to poverty-stricken families so these girls are often sold or given away in marriage at a young age.
The video goes on to say that girls who stay in school and marry later, have fewer, healthier children themselves and are better able to avoid severe health complications due to pregnancy and childbirth, genital mutilation, destitute widowhood, and HIV/AIDS.
If a girl can stay in school, fighting customs that force her into marriage to an older man in order to relieve the burden she is on her family, she would not only effect her life, but the life of her community and her nation because then her daughters could be educated too. Education, for these girls, is a form of agency.
And in today’s readings on this fourth Sunday of Advent, we have what we Christians call the Annunciation story, where Mary is a central part of our salvation story – that is the birth of the Christ.
Here at St Alban’s, a parish of the Episcopal Church in the San Francisco Bay area, I suspect it might be a little difficult for us to truly understand that there are places in this world where women have no agency, no ability to act on their own behalf. Our Senior Warden is a woman. Our youth group coordinator is a woman. Parish Administrator, Godly Play Coordinator… the list goes on and on.
And then we have our clergy. Three women deacons: Barbara, Kathleen, and Lauren; and two women priests: Julie and yours truly. As a parish, we understand ourselves, perhaps without even realizing it most of the time, as a place where women not only have a role, but have a significant amount of agency to affect what happens in our lives.
But there are still many, many places in this world where a woman’s role is to be the object of another’s agency. Where the action of individuals, the action of society is done unto women and girls, rather than the woman or the girl having their own agency – determining their own fate.
And in part, this has happened because of the Annunciation story. This story of Mary has been used and continues to be used as a way to funnel girls into a particular mode of behavior, a confined concept of self that limits a young woman’s sense of agency. For these people, Mary becomes a model of chastity, restraint, purity, and obedience. The message is clear – if you want to be a part of the salvation story, you should aspire to be like Mother Mary, whose sole purpose is to be obedient to the will of men and bear their children. In a society where salvation is about the propagation of the species, or the propagation of a nation/race of people, you might be able to understand why bearing children is such a crucial and hopeful part of the larger story of salvation.
And please be assured, that I’m not saying bearing children, even in our overpopulated world is NOT an act of hope and salvation. It is. Children embody hope in a way that most adults have forgotten. Which is probably why we have toy drives and spend so much of our time and money making sure that children have Christmas. Because we want, more than anything, for that hope, that child-like belief in Santa Claus to be nurtured, to never disappear.
But what I am saying is that something else is at stake here in the story of Mary. It’s not simply a story about an obedient woman who is chosen by God to bear His child because she is pure and chaste. There is much more here.
Let’s take the story at face value… putting aside the discussion about whether or not Mary was sexually active, whether the word “virgin” means simply “unmarried” or means “chaste.” Let’s read the story through it’s more traditional lens – that this young woman named Mary finds herself in an astonishingly impossible situation, one that she had no part in creating, one in which she is the object of another’s agency.
When this story was written, women had no access to healthcare services such as Planned Parenthood, where the reproductive health of women is the focus and pre-natal care is offered. Being pregnant was a condition that brought fear for one’s life, especially amongst the poor. Women were the property of men. And while there were differences between wealthy women and poor women – the places to which they had access, the influence they had in society – women were not citizens at all. They weren’t second class citizens, they weren’t citizens at all. And I’m not simply talking about the right to vote.
I’m talking about having the fact that women had no control over their bodies, no ability to decide where they could live, what they could do, where they could go.
This is why Christianity was seen as such a radical departure from the cultural norms – because as Paul tells us, in some places women in Christian communities were given the same status as men through baptism. Women had no agency at all in first century Mediterranean society.
I looked up the word “citizen” in the dictionary. A citizen is a legally recognized subject of a national or state commonwealth. A legally recognized “subject.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but I remember diagramming sentences in my 7th grade English class. The subject is the thing that performs the action in a sentence. You cannot have a sentence without a subject and a verb. You cannot have a story unless you have a subject that takes some kind of action. You cannot have a life, unless you are a subject who takes action, even if that action is simply to be. It is the subject that “is.”
A citizen is a legally recognized “subject”… meaning the entity which can take action in a society. Meanwhile, the object in the sentence is that which the action happens to.
The story is about Mary – an object of other’s agency, a human with no agency of her own – a pregnant, unwed woman of lower social class. She is no citizen of the empire. Why is Mary such a key figure in our salvation story? Why is this non-citizen, this lowly creature, this non-entity… so vital to salvation?
In reflecting on this, it’s because I don’t think the Christian salvation story is not a story in which systems of oppression are vehicles of deliverance. I think the Christian salvation story is a story about the reversal of power, where objects become subjects in their own story… where the powerless claim agency within the system and in doing so, they overturn it.
Mary, an unwed, pregnant woman of a lower social class, claims her agency. Mary says yes to God and in doing so, claims a place in God’s kingdom. By saying yes, Mary turns the system of oppression on its head and becomes a citizen. This is not story about Mary’s purity, about that which keeps her separate from the world. This is a story about Mary’s power and her deep connection to the flesh of humanity.
It’s a story of Mary’s call to ministry. And we can take this fantastical story of agency – of becoming a subject – and use it to understand our own call to ministry.
It is in the places where we feel most vulnerable, most defenseless, most exposed that we are in danger of being objectified, the places where we lack citizenship. And quite instinctively, these are the places we want to shield from the world. We would rather show the world the parts of ourselves that we believe have value, the parts of ourselves we feel are worthy of citizenship.
But these places, those that are the most tender, the most raw… are those that, if we are willing, can open us up to others. This is where our compassion comes from. Compassion means to suffer with. And this place is where the impulse to act, our agency must activate itself. In this space of compassion that knows and understands what it’s like to be outcast, what it’s like to be an object, to be acted upon by others… this is where we know God’s reign.
This place of lowliness, this place of no place, where we have no citizenship… this is where Christ is gestating, where Christ is and is becoming, the place where agency is simply waiting for us to engage it so that it can manifest itself.
We all have a womb where Christ lies. We all have a place within us that knows that same place in others… where the Christ light recognizes itself in our fellow creatures. This is where hope lies awaiting its moment of birth, its moment of agency. And our Christian call to ministry is right here. What is crucial is that this agency, this Christ light, is always used to connect to and encourage that agency in others.
Ministry is not about doing for others because the salvation story is not about doing for others. But rather, ministry is about engaging the agency of others in ministry together because the salvation story is about meeting one another in this place of mutual tenderness, calling forth the Christ light in one another, empowering one another’s agency, becoming subjects in God’s reign on earth.