Luke 1: 39-56

I don’t know if you saw it or not, but yesterday there appeared in the Fairfax Media a story entitled “Christian Lobby Boycotts Gay Student Program”.   The article described how the organisation calling itself the Australian Christian Lobby has launched a campaign to shut down the Federally funded Safe Schools program, which aims to protect gay, transgendered and intersex students from bullying, harassment, and intimidation. According to the article, the ACL’s rationale for doing so is that, in its view, the Safe Schools program is actually a disguised campaign by “activists” to “normalise” homosexuality and transgenderism in schools, and to “impose a sexual agenda” on children. The article cited a letter written by the ACL to the Prime Minister, in which it was claimed that the program also ignored the “vast majority of children” who were bullied for reasons other than their sexuality.[1]

I can’t speak for anyone else who read this article; for myself, however, I have to say it made me extremely angry. Aside from any notions of love or compassion or caring for the “other”, by dismissing the Safe Schools campaign as an example of “activism” by “elites” who want to culturally “engineer” children in schools, it seems to me the ACL has effectively depersonalised those students whom the program aims to protect: an extraordinarily vulnerable segment of the student population among whom the rates of mental illness, self-harm, and suicide are much higher than in the general student population[2], precisely because they are subjected to much higher rates of bullying, harassment and victimisation. By adopting the language and tactics of the so-called “culture wars” – that is, by characterising this issue in terms of its alleged ideological motivation, rather than discussing it in terms of need or even effectiveness – the ACL has failed to consider the humanity of the students whom this program seeks to serve. And this failure only serves to reinforce the marginalisation which these same students experience, and all the negative effects arising from it.

Sadly, this habit of depersonalisation has a long provenance in human history, as is attested to by the witness of Scripture. As I mentioned during the Service of Lament with Asylum Seekers which was held at Mountview earlier this year, even a cursory check of the Bible reveals over 260 injunctions about the treatment of foreigners. Most of these exhort the Hebrew people to remember that they were slaves and aliens in Egypt, and command them to thereby deal compassionately and justly with the stranger living among them. But the very necessity for this injunction, and the sheer volume of its repetition, points to the extent to which humans depersonalise the other, the alien, the not-one-of-us. Time and again we deny the humanity of those we hate or fear or despise; time and again we regard as not-human those who are merely different from ourselves. And as a consequence, our history is littered with the horrors of the Coliseum and of slavery, of Auschwitz and Srebrenica, of Rwanda and Cambodia.

We don’t like to think of such things at Christmas time, when our cultural context demands of us that we be jolly and cheerful. But we’ve had such things forced upon us in the last week as we contemplate the tragedies of Sydney and Peshawar. And in such circumstances, it’s difficult to see where the Lectionary readings provide us with much comfort, never mind a point from which to engage with such events.

And yet, surprisingly, we find just such a point in the latter of the two readings we’ve heard today from the Gospel According to Luke. The first of these readings, the Annunciation, describes Mary receiving news from the angel Gabriel[3] that she will bear a child who will be the Son of God. The second, describing Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with a child who will one day become John the Baptist, is mostly known for the Magnificat, Mary’s hymn of praise to God. But if we drill down into the detail a little more, we discover something else going on – something that speaks of God’s presence in human life, even at its most broken.

First, we have the centrality of the two women, Mary and Elizabeth, to this story. This is significant because in the ancient world, women were at best marginal figures, confined to a life of domestic servitude. And yet in keeping with the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures, in which women time and again rise to prominence in the narrative, right at the start of Luke’s Gospel we have two women as prominent precursor figures, pointing the way toward what will happen later in the story of Jesus’ ministry. What is more, they are two pregnant women. And the significance of this is that, according to the strict laws of ritual purity that applied at the time, these were two unclean women. So not only does Luke have two women at the heart of the story, two people who, by conventional standards, ought to have been in the background; he makes them two unclean women, people who, by those same conventions, would have been unfit for the company of the ritually “pure”.

And the point of this is that spirituality is not the sole preserve of men; holiness does not reside in notions of purity, but in the visceral realities of life: in things like intimacy, pregnancy, childbirth, and blood.[4] Holiness is located in the business of human life, in all the unromantic and even painful realities of human being – realities like childbirth and parenting, like screaming children and soiled nappies. Holy business is human business – and, as a result, is frequently messy.[5]

Second, we have the personhood of Mary and Elizabeth, which is located both in their humanity but also in the specificity of their gender, in the fact that they are female. In a time and place in which women would have had to endure both obscurity and abuse – a reality which, sadly, has not been overcome today – Mary and Elizabeth’s status as central characters in this reading does not deny their specific identity as women[6]. For it is as women – pregnant women – that they appear on centre stage in today’s reading. And this is an identity which we tend to forget, with Mary especially, when we are inclined to think of her virginal conception as somehow placing her beyond women, as being “other” than “normal” human women[7]. Tellingly, however, Elizabeth declares her to be “blessed among women”.[8] Mary’s participation in the divine plan does not mean she is less than or more than human, less than or more than other woman.[9]

In other words, today’s passage resists the movement toward depersonalisation; it resists treating Mary as “other”, as non-human. Even with Elizabeth, who has conceived at an age when it is not normally thought woman can become pregnant, the tendency can be to treat her as “other”, as some kind of “special case” not like other women. But her story is a powerfully human story, a story of the personal pain and social stigma attached to not being able to bear children; and the miracle of her childbirth is no less miraculous than the childbirth that comes to any couple who have struggled to have children at an earlier stage. Today’s passage, in addition to declaring that holiness – that God’s love – resides within the messiness of human reality, also declares that this holiness, this love, is resident in the specifics of our particular, individual, human identity.

And this is critical, because there are thousands, tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of people within and without the church who feel that God’s holiness, God’s love for creation, cannot possibly be bound up with their personhood: with their gender, their sexuality, their intimacy, the messiness of their humanity.[10] And what today’s passage tells us is that if we diminish the humanity, the personhood, the reality of God in the messiness of Mary’s and Elizabeth’s lives and the particularity of their gender, then we depersonalise them; and if we depersonalise Mary and Elizabeth, we depersonalise all the “others” of human history, all the people declared to be “not-one-of-us”, “not-really-human”, not “normal” or “acceptable” or “respectable”.[11] We dehumanise all the people who, in this Christmas season, are alienated and marginalised by the cultural insistence on a banal and superficial happiness that takes no account of human woundedness.

Because Christmas is the season of marginalisation. Jesus is marginalised by Santa Claus. The Gospel of God-among-us, of God resident in the lowliness and brokenness of human existence, is marginalised by the commercial imperative to make a buck out of the peak shopping season.[12] And everywhere we look, people are marginalised – depersonalised, dehumanised – on the basis of their particular personhood: their gender, their sexuality, their parental status, their whatever-it-is to which we take offence or exception. There is much more at stake in today’s reading than an improbable tale of two miraculous pregnancies; because this passage from Luke does nothing less than convey the participation of human life in all its dimensions in the operation of God’s love. And if we dehumanise Mary and Elizabeth, we deny them their participatory role in God’s love; just as we deny this participation to every other human being whom we depersonalise on the basis of their particular, human identity.

Which brings us back to the Safe Schools program and the ACL. Which brings us back to Sydney and Peshawar. Which brings us back to the Coliseum and slavery, Auschwitz and Srebrenica, Rwanda and Cambodia. Intolerance, unkindness, cruelty, atrocity – all these are products of depersonalisation, of denying the brokenness and glory of human life in all its particular identities; and of denying the redemptive love of God at work in the broken places, at work in the glory revealed in each and every human being. In today’s reading, Mary and Elizabeth resist this impulse; they reach out to us as real human beings, in and through whose messy human existence God operates.   And in doing so, they invite us into a space in which every particular human identity plays host to the holiness of God: ours, and all the “others” to whom we are “the other”, and with whom we share that journey with and toward God that is a human life.

[1] Jacks, Timna “Christian lobby boycotts gay student program”, theage.com.au, located at http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/christian-lobby-boycotts-gay-student-program-20141219-12a0xf.html, accessed 20.12.14

[2] Ibid. According to the article, LGBTI students are 6 times more likely to commit suicide, with the average age for the first attempt being 16.

[3] Gabriel in Hebrew means either “man of God” or “God is my hero/warrior”. See Coogan, Michael D (ed.), The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha. Revised Fourth Edition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, p.1250

[4] Loader, William “First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary: Advent 4”, located at http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/LkAdvent4.htm, accessed 20.12.14

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s