Entering a New Year: Playing with the Spirit
This year, I was honoured to be asked to preach at the Christmas Eve service of St George’s Anglican Church Paddington, Sydney. This unique community of very intelligent Christians is led by Rev Dr Geoff Broughton. I respect their commitment to not only hear but also amplify women’s voices inside a conservative Sydney diocese. This midnight service was led by the Reverend, assisted by Jessica Smith from Common Grace, with music by Dr Matt Anslow, and contributions from Phil Wilcox, one of Australia’s best poets.
I’ll be honest, it can be pretty intimidating to take the pulpit at an event like this, as a Pentecostal. Any one of the above people could have preached. But it was my designated role. So, I had to work hard to think out what I could bring that others perhaps couldn’t. I chose to embrace the fact that I am a married but childless, full-time Australian working Pentecostal woman.
With this in mind, I couldn’t help but gravitate to the story of Mary as written in the set lectionary passage of Luke 2:1-20:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world (this was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria). And everyone went to their own town to register. So, Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
Unfortunately, while preparing and procrastinating on Facebook, I read a couple of posts on what makes for bad preaching at Christmas time (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/6-ways-not-to-preach-the-birth-of-jesus/).
It turns out that apparently, there was no “inn” or animals; the stable in the manger was just a relative’s way of creating some privacy for the couple (!!!).
So, this made me think a lot about the biblical facts we know about the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem (apparently thirty-one hours on foot), and this night of Mary’s labour. I couldn’t help but notice that many impressions we hold are constructed out of our Christian traditions and Hallmark Christmas cards.
Did Mary ride a donkey to Bethlehem? Or did she walk?
What time of year was Jesus born? Was it snowy? Or sweltering hot, Australian-style?
There are so many questions, and we don’t really have answers. But this passage did have enough to make me think deeply about power and privilege in the ancient world. In particular, when the Roman Emperor called a census, all his subjects (including pregnant women) must obey.
Interestingly, this contrasts an earlier story in 1 Chronicles 32, when the Great Hebrew King David conducted a census of Israel. The Bible states coldly “God was displeased.” The moral of this story was that a kings’ power was not found in numerical strength, but came directly from God.
Every step of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem seemed unnecessary. In that sense, the Christmas story seems resonant with our world today, with the state and corporation now wielding power over global citizens.
The scene could have played out in contemporary times, for instance, in LAX airport with Joseph and Mary forced to wait in a long line. Jesus’ birth could have been attended by customs officials working the late shift, rather than shepherds.
Not many of us remember the day of our birth. The person who bears the most inconvenience of power-wielding Empire is undoubtedly Mary, the teen carrying a child of her own.
Similarly today, the girl child is considered the most vulnerable of all humans (http://beijing20.unwomen.org/en/in-focus/girl-child).
When I read the story of Jesus from Mary’s viewpoint, Christmas Eve is the event that celebrates Mary’s labour. But it is also a turning point; a moment of great joy as Mary holds God’s promise in her arms.
Surely, the hilarity of this must have struck her in the early hours of the morning. Her astonishment must have increased as the angels sang in chorus, and when the shepherds and Magi arrived.
Mary was holding God, even as he was counted by the Emperor as a subject. The King was in the perfect disguise.
As in the famous Star Wars quote, “this would be the spark that would light the fire that would burn the First Order down.”
I think that we humans find our life’s most meaningful moments within this same tension – that blurred line between work, and play.
It’s important to say that I do not see Mary as a comfortable, middle-class, stay at home mother. Instead, I identify her as a strong woman of colour forced to birth her child in a foreign city. I see her as a refugee who quickly migrated to Egypt to escape the Roman rulers rather than surrender her son.
Mary in the Bible is a woman written in a rich emotional palette that includes wonder (Matt 2:11; Luke 1:34), joy (Luke 1:48-49) anger (Luke 2:48), sorrow (Mark 15:40-47), hopefulness (Luke 2:51), and fear (Luke 1:29).
Yet, somehow evangelical Christianity flattens this many-dimensional character. Perhaps this is based on preacher’s perception of the model woman in our modern age. Perhaps it developed from a fear of the Catholic veneration of Mary.
Whatever the cause, many sermons make this single event of Jesus’ birth an all-defining moment for Mary. Her only role in the biblical story is to be a mother. But this leaves Mary passive, while the disciples take centre stage as full actors. Unfortunately, this has also transferred onto many Christian women who follow in the faith.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against motherhood. I find it inspiring, and compelling. But the way that motherhood defines Australian women is often quite different from the way fatherhood affects men.
Let me explain. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency states the time women spend on household labour fluctuates considerably across their life, yet for men it remains quite stable (https://www.wgea.gov.au/sites/default/files/australian-unpaid-care-work-and-the-labour-market.pdf). That means that on average, Australian men continue to do a similar amount of housework to when they were single, and this amount even manages to decline.
Not all men, of course. My husband today was caught vacuuming the dirtiest part of the electronics store.
Nevertheless, the general rule in many Western societies is that when women become mothers they tend to do more work. The housework, and most of the child-minding. In addition, on average, women spend less time in paid employment than men. This means their work is unpaid.
Many will argue this is “the natural order of things.” But unpaid work is not really considered work. Yet, any mother picking up clothes and washing them, cooking, cleaning, or caring for children knows that it is work indeed.
The fact that women work isn’t really the main problem for Christians. Even God works in Genesis (Gen 1). The problem is that we often don’t recognize women as workers. We ignore the burden that both housewives and working mothers carry. There are few Christian resources that address working women (make sure you check out Kara Martin’s book Workship!!).
But this is my main point, even fewer resources exist to encourage women to play.
In our society, children are supposed to play, not women. In fact, an important responsibility of motherhood is to assist children to play, and therefore develop their skills. But we also have sayings about men such as “boys and their toys.”
In contrast, the life of a woman is often marked out in paid and unpaid labour.
Interestingly, an enlightening article in Quartz explains how the alcohol industry has taken advantage of the lack of play in women’s lives, and exploits the idea of “treating yourself.” (https://qz.com/762868/giving-up-alcohol-opened-my-eyes-to-the-infuriating-truth-about-why-women-drink/). It is bewildering how many products on the market assist women to escape from ordinary, mundane lives. The logic goes: when you’re conked out, you can’t be expected to write an email, or wash the floors.
Which is why, I suggest, that we turn to Mary’s story in order to realise something more profound about her.
Mary’s relationship with God was one of surprise, delight, and amusement. She treasured up these strange events in her heart and pondered on them (Luke 2:19). She sang out of joy, and dreamed about her future (Luke 1:46). She stayed with friends who believed the best for her and who blessed her impending changes (Luke 1:39).