In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Last Epiphany - the T-Fig edition

A reflection on Matthew 17:1-9 by Jacqueline Schmitt

Okay. So I’m a little late with this entry this week. Pray for me, sisters, there is a lot going on.

I found it funny that Terri would assign Last Epiphany to me, since it is one of my least favorite texts for preaching! Not that I dislike it, but every year, the same story, and sometimes in the summer, too! How much can one say? I’ve done all the clich├ęs, like “standing on the mountain peering down into the valley of Lent” and the symbolism of the booths as small-minded fears of timid Christians who feel the need to box in the Spirit. I think I feel this way because this is a powerful and strange text, so out of the ordinary from the Jesus who walks with us and talks with us. The irony of the blast of the nuclear bomb over Hiroshima coming on the same day as the Feast of the Transfiguration is never lost on me. Terrible glory, terrible horror: how do we hold those two opposing events together in our hearts?
Here’s the other thread running through my head of late: sometimes I wonder if the ordination of women has made any difference at all. Yes, yes, we have an admirable woman as Presiding Bishop, and three of the senior members of her staff are women, and we are very proud of that.

Yes. All true.

But equally true are the shocking statistics of how poorly women clergy are compensated. Did you read that book from the Church Pension Fund? At least $10,000 less at every level of experience, parish size, responsibility. This is not a second career for me, nor do I have a trust fund to fall back on. This is it. As a friend of mine observed several years ago, these guys get ordained, from another career, and they leap-frog right over us, get paid more because they have a family to support. Apparently, this is not yesterday’s news.

Another thing happened in my parish that brought this train of thought right into the home station. I was getting comments about my hair, from older women parishioners. How I really should get my hair cut, how nice it used to look, and then when I did, oh, how nice you look now, blah blah blah. It took me back to my first Sunday in my first church a week after I was ordained, when I wore the wrong shoes. My husband came to coffee hour, and was part of one of these conversations, and noted, when I was ranting about this later at home, “I had no idea that still went on for you. I used to get this when I was a young cleric, but no one has ever questioned my authority like that.”

Stuff like this takes its toll. I’m grateful to be closer to retirement than to that first day of ordained ministry, and I’m grateful that the Pension Fund will treat me well, and that I, unlike many other underpaid women in the work force, will get a pension.

So why do people in the pews focus on the priest’s haircut? I think it has to do with church architecture, which will bring me back to the story of the Transfiguration and why I ask for your prayers.

My church has a marble altar stuck to the wall, and the parishioners prefer – love! –an eastward-facing celebration. The bishop’s telling them they had to move it only made them love it even more, and for the past two years I’ve done it: trotted out my distant memories of Mass Class at General Seminary, dusted off elevations and tricky turns on narrow steps, climbed the heights of the pulpit, all that.

Not only the words we pray, but the way we pray, and where we pray form us in our faith. This kind of church architecture forms people into passive sheep, an audience – not the laos, the people of God, participating in the leadership of their own community, full members of the body of Christ and the household of God. Members of such congregations occasionally rise up as snipers, taking aim at things which are out of place, such as the priest’s hair, or talk of lay leadership, or mission, or the possibility that the reason that no one new comes to this church anymore is that there is no room for newcomers in the empty pews.

“But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’”

Peter, James and John had seen the big stuff, and it was dazzling and terrifying and all they could do was try to protect themselves by falling to the ground. The ordination of women, or liturgical renewal, or renovations in church architecture are trivial in comparison with the vision of Jesus, Moses and Elijah. But they – the recent changes in our church -- are, we have all believed, signs pointing the way to the inbreaking of the realm of God – ways to organize our human lives so that we can begin to act and live and pray and breathe the way God would have us be.

We had a visit from the Holy Spirit this winter, when the heating pipes burst and we were forced to worship in a small chapel, with a free-standing altar and chairs arranged in rows, like a choir, facing each other. It’s warm, but uncomfortably intimate.

So pray for me, sisters, and for my congregation, on this Last Sunday after the Epiphany, when I tell them that when we move back into the church for Palm Sunday, the pews will be moved, the altar will be in the midst of the people, and God will be frighteningly dislodged from the liturgical east. Pray that I may find the words of Jesus to say, “Get up, and do not be afraid.”

Friday, January 25, 2008

Reflection or Epiphany 3

Reflections on Epiphany 3, year A by The Rev. Margaret Rose

Matthew’s recollection of the call of Jesus to Simon and Andrew, James and John is one which might well make every woman cringe. As the text has it, the men were on shore, doing their work, minding their own business—presumably well adjusted, not looking for a better life or a new adventure, perhaps planning to head home for dinner as soon as the sun went down. A stranger ( we have no written record that Jesus was yet known in these parts.) walking along the beach addresses them with great authority. “Come , follow me. And I will make you fish for people.” Moreover, we will tell the good news of the kingdom everywhere we go and cure every disease. With these words, immediately, the text says, Peter and Andrew dropped their nets. Immediately James and John left the boat and their father and followed him.

Perhaps they were young men without families. We do know that James and John were fishing with their father. But imagine the effect that might have on a community who depended on the fishing of four men of the village.
At least with James and John, it is reported that their father was there to go back and tell the rest of the family where the brothers had gone. Imagine what it would be like if your husband or wife or daughter or son failed to come home one evening and around town the word was that a stranger had come by with the radical notion of preaching good news. And your loved one had gotten into the car and gone. No good byes to anyone. We would send out a posse or at least call the police.

Upon reflection, from our 21st century perspective, we could equivocate and say, Oh, times were different then. There was always the hope of a Messiah to arrive and the Jews were waiting expectantly. Or more practically, there were not the same financial commitments and distances were traveled on foot. But there were families and mouths to feed. And there is no doubt that this must have been disquieting to families and indeed to those disciples who left seemingly without a look behind.

This call to follow, this commitment to Jesus caused them radically to reorient their lives. With hindsight we who now hope to be disciples are glad they said yes. But as we calculate the cost, I suspect it was still the women who were left to carry on. As far as we know, it was not the women who left everything to follow. I am aware of my own mixed feelings as I attempt to faithfully follow this one who calls us from a place of comfort and reorients our traditional responsibilities. Time and again, the story of Jesus and his relationships remind us that Jesus was really not a traditional family man.

So what of the women? We do have their stories. Often unnamed, there were many who traveled with Jesus though their call is not recounted in this stark way by the evangelists. More often we hear the stories of their faithful home life or that of the Samaritan women whose response to Jesus’ living water made her the first evangelist. Or they were present as Lydia was to invite the disciples to her house and to baptize her family. They often remained to receive those who traveled with Jesus and to offer hospitality. And later on of course, as the church was in its early days, they hosted the house churches and presided at the tables where bread and wine became the Eucharist.

And like Chloe, in 1 Corinthians, they were disturbed by the disagreements in the church and called on Paul, their founder to help set them straight.

It is not often Paul provides the text for a feminist reflection. Like many of you I am schooled in what Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza called the Hermeneutic of Suspicion. Usually I am railing against Paul’s admonition that women keep silent or his claim of some theological notion called male headship. But on this third Sunday after Epiphany, he has it right. This first letter to the church in Corinth reminds us that there are varieties of gifts but the same spirit. And that the members of the body---literally and figuratively all have gifts and functions necessary to the working of the whole. There is no part of which one might say, “I have no need of you.” In Corinth, a church founded by Paul, ecclesiastical differences threatened to split the church. Not so much related to doctrine as to personality, Paul calls on the whole body to focus on the one who unites them and not on the particulars of the special qualities of their baptizers. He rails against the special interests and tribal aspirations that can arise when the focus is on the one who was the catalyst for conversion and not the work of discipleship to which the conversion calls.

The “whistle blowers” in this case are Chloe’s people. The church, gathered at her house, did what was needed to set things straight. Paul’s response reminded the Corinthians of the work they are called to do and that are baptized onto one body in Christ’s name, and not into the kind of worship and work which insists that one’s particular version of the truth is the only one.

How grateful I am for “Chloe’s people. Perhaps things changed in Corinth. At least we have the record of Paul’s continued relationship with them as a vital community. And we have the story to remind us.
But history does repeat itself. And the current polarized political and ecclesiastical circumstances are a stark contrast to the vision of unity. And Paul’s words are a continued reminder that the work of the whole body is necessary for the healing of the world. This is true whether it is in those places where so called religious violence is tearing us apart or that of tribal factions claiming one turf and truth over another. We need, metaphorically speaking, Chloe’s people!

The good news is that there are signs that even in the midst of so much division in church and society, there are those who refuse to engage in the fight and who are insisting that the crisis in our world today requires a new way of working—one which includes all God’s people, women and men alike. No doubt, there are many examples you could name. Even some in the current political campaign!

My own most heartening word came from the women of the Anglican Communion who gathered last March at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Their statement to the Primates and to the Communion, amid today’s divisive controversy went in part, “ Given the global tensions so evident in our Church today, we do not accept that there is any one issue of difference or contention which can , or indeed would ever cause us to break our unity as represented by our common baptism. Neither would we ever consider severing the deep abiding bonds of affection which characterize our relationships as Anglican women. This sister hood of suffering is at the heart of our theology and of our commitment to transforming the whole world through peace with justice. Rebuilding and reconciling the world is central to our faith.”

In the days to come, may it be so.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Reflection for Epiphany II

A reflection on Epiphany II John 1:29-42 by The Very Rev. Terri C. Pilarski, M.Div., MSW

I spent most of my sixteenth summer in Michigan with a friend and her family. Every year this family rented a spacious cottage in a resort community. All summer various family members would come from around the region and find respite for a few days or weeks. This community rested on a small private inlet lake which connected to a beach on Lake Michigan.

One day we all went to the beach on Lake Michigan. It was a beautiful warm day, with small but vigorous waves. The usual freezing lake water had warmed over the summer to a perfect temperature for swimming. After lounging in the sun, on the pristine white sand, I decided to go for a dip in the lake. The water was a clear blue. I waded out into the deeper water and then, after awhile, walked back toward the shore. I was standing in water, about waist high, when something knocked me off balance and I fell into the water. I felt myself being pulled under the water by a force stronger than myself. I managed to stand up, only to be knocked over again and pulled under. It took me a few minutes to understand that I had been caught by an undertow; each time I surfaced I was further from shore.

After several rounds of falling, standing, pulling under, and falling again, one of our companions noticed my distress. He waded into the water and was able to pull me to shore. It was only when we were finally sitting on our towels in the sand that I fully realized how helpless I had been, and the power of that undercurrent.

There are many occasions in life when I cause my own undertow. It happens whenever I feel vulnerable. It also happens whenever I feel like I have been less than I should have been. Less compassionate than I think I should have been. Less intelligent. Less organized. Less prepared. Whatever the situation, it occasions a time for those “tapes” in my head to play out. “Not good enough!” they shout. Or, “just wait until they know the real you, the flawed one…” These occasions require me to do some internal work in order to get past the impression that I need to be perfect.

First I have to recognize that these old tapes are playing again. These are recorded impressions of myself gleamed from childhood struggles to integrate who am with a complex world. It takes time to unpack what is true about the tape in each situation, for there is often a glimmer of truth. It’s the hint of truth that gives the tape its potential power over me. To retrieve myself from the pull of the message I also need to recognize what is not true. If I succumb to that part I will end up compromised to self-doubt and insecurity.

It seems to me that women are particularly subject to interior messages about our worthiness. Serving on discernment weekends, listening to men and women articulate their sense of call to Holy Orders, I have found that women struggle with a sense of “unworthiness” in a way men do not. No doubt that men have their own tapes and issues, but generally they are not about “worthiness.”

The reflections offered on this blog over these few weeks have taken us into some wonderful discussions on the power and impact of narrative theology and our sense of identity. We have reflected on what it means to have no control over certain aspects of our being, for example: when and where we were born, the color of our skin, our gender, or our sexual orientation. We have little control over the social constructs of our identity that are built up around those aspects of our birth. What we can have control over is how we “remember” the story of who we are and then how we tell that story.

The undercurrent of our identity, the way we remember our self-story, can limit or expand how we live. The tapes that play through our minds, consciously or unconsciously, can influence how we feel about ourselves and the decisions we make. Like the undertow that caught me in the relatively shallow waters of Lake Michigan, the undercurrents of our story can catch us off guard and deceive us.

For some, even connecting their identity in the imago Dei can be conflicted. Told through the lens of a judgmental God we can affirm our unworthiness. But told another way we are invited into the light, into the love of God. Told one way we hear a white Anglo-Saxon Christian story that changes the tone and texture of the characters in the story. We hear a story where women are often silent or unnamed. Told another way we hear that the longest conversation Jesus has about faith is with the “enemy,” a Samaritan woman at the well. This fabulous story in the fourth chapter of John hints at the significance of women in early church leadership, even as she is unnamed. Thankfully our tradition invites us into the story, invites to see where we are in the plot.

So, that’s where we land in our readings for Epiphany II, in the place where we are invited into the story. Our Christian faith grounds our identity as a people of God, as God’s beloved. This identity is given to us in and through the incarnation, an assurance that God loves us in our full humanity. This identity is given to us in our baptism when we are marked as Christ’s own forever. Of course it begs the question: what does it mean to be “marked” as Christ’s own forever?

The synoptic Gospels tell the story of Jesus grounded in his humanity. We hear about his birth, and who he is related too, we hear about his ministry of healing, how he frees people from the demons that possess them. But the Gospel of John begins the story of Jesus from a different place. In this Gospel the identity of Jesus begins with who he was before the incarnation. In John, Jesus is the Word.

The Gospel of John tells us that the Word has been around with God since before creation itself. In fact the Word is God. The Word is the source of all creation. The Word brings light into the world. In this mysterious pre-creation realm with God the Word is a non-gendered non-personal being. Then, in the course of human history God decides to come into the world in a new way, as a human. The Word is made flesh in the person, the man, the human, Jesus. He is born, he lives a faithful life, he dies a horrible death, and he is born again. Eventually he ascends to heaven, where once again the Word and God are restored to the relationship that has existed since before time. Our salvation history story tells us that Word becomes a gendered being. But this time as a human is just a chapter in a longer narrative. For most of history the Word is with God in that realm of mystery where God resides. And, it is from this realm of unified Being, God and Word, that the Holy Spirit proceeds to lead and guide us.

Time and again in human history Christians have struggled to understand the nature of Christ and the balance between Christ’s humanity and divinity. The battles over the Nicene Creed did not settle this issue once and for all. This is true even as many of our churches proclaim our faith in this creed every Sunday.

Who is this Jesus? Who is he to us? And how does the identity of Jesus inform us of our identity? The readings for Epiphany II are pointed, they both direct us and they ask for a response. Jesus asks the people, “What are you looking for?” This seemingly simple question is really a spiritual question meant to prod us at the deepest level of our being.

What is the story we know about ourselves? How is that story fleshed out when told through the reality of the incarnate Word? And, how might that story help us find new meaning and value to our lives? How are we beloved and worthy of God’s love? How might the reality of God’s love reframe the tapes in our heads, reminding us that we good enough? Again the gospel offers a connection.

The disciples ask Jesus, “Where are you staying.” This is another spiritual question. John Shea, in his book, “On Earth As It Is In Heaven” suggests that this is code for “who are we really? What is the structure of our being?”

The gospel suggests that we find our selves, and the meaning of our lives, in and through the Word made flesh. In taking on human form the Word enters the world of human relationships in a new, real, physical sense. That the Word becomes gendered makes the Word personal, real, human. But we need to be careful not to presume that this also defines the full identity of the incarnate One. This is true even as we believe that the incarnate Word expresses the fullest sense of God’s love into the world. True because, as a human, Jesus shows us how to live in relationship with one another, with God, and with ourselves. When the Word becomes flesh we are shown how to love. This love that God offers is not bound by the limitations we humans might impose. It is a boundless love able to love us just as we are. But it is also a relational love, it requires a response.

In calling the disciples, and in their response, we learn that it is not enough to have an individual personal sense of faith; we need a community with whom to be in relationship. We need others who will help us tell our stories and help us remember details we have forgotten or misunderstood. We need others to prod us along when we feel stuck. And sometimes we need others to pull us out of the undertow and save us from ourselves.

The Very Rev. Terri C. Pilarski is currently the rector of St. Hilary's Episcopal Church in Prospect Heights, IL. She holds a dual degree: Masters of Social Work from Loyola University in Chicago and an M.Div. from Seabury-Western. She also serves as regional dean for the Elgin Deanery in the Diocese of Chicago and she is the Episcopal Migration Ministry Refugee Program Diocesan Liaison for the Diocese of Chicago working with the local affiliate, Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministries in resettling refugee families.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

I Epiphany

A reflection on Mt. 3: 13-17, the Baptism of Jesus by The Rev. Dr. Katherine Godby

In Matthew’s story of the baptism of Jesus, just as Jesus came up from the water, a voice from heaven announces his identity: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

How often I have wished that some heavenly pronouncement of me, or of many of my pastoral counseling clients or parishioners, would happen just that way. “Katherine! You are my Daughter, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased!” With that, we would know, without doubt, who we are, and all self-image and interpersonal relationship problems would be presto! change-o!--solved, right?

As the saying goes, if wishes were pennies, we’d all be millionaires.

The issue of identity, how we come to know who we are, is an area of inquiry that has interested me for many years. The notion that the image of God, the imago Dei, resides within us as human beings is especially intriguing. A couple of points:

First, in traditional Christian theology, the imago Dei includes the idea that our original human nature was damaged in the Fall and is seen in its fullness only in the person—that is, the man—Jesus Christ. That Jesus was male has been the foundation for the tradition’s view that women are, by definition, the first rung in the ladder of humanity’s damaged nature. I remember how stunned I was when I first read St. Thomas Aquinas’ statement, following Aristotle, that women are “misbegotten males.”

Second, obviously in this case the tradition got it wrong. That all human beings are created in the image of God means, at a minimum, that we have a basic worthiness and goodness at the center of who we are and that we have the potential for other attributes of God within us as well — beauty, freedom, creativity, etc. As a person of faith I believe that all human beings, without exception, are born with the image of God within us, and that we are all beloved children of God. That is our basic identity.

Along with this basic identity, however, our identities are also, at the same time, socially constructed—formed throughout our childhood and into adulthood. Although the imago Dei is given as a kind of foundation for our identity and is, in some nebulous sense, permanent and unchanging, it is also accurate that our identities are fluid, always changing, and constructed from our social environments.

Part of the social construction (see below, Advent 4 Reflection by The Rev. Kate Hennessy, for a clear and concise description of social construction as narrative) of our identities includes the construction of gender. We tend to strictly categorize people: either someone is male or female. But according to Allan Johnson in The Gender Knot “an estimated 2 to 3 percent of babies are born with physical characteristics that don’t fall clearly into one sex category or another. A baby might be born genetically female, for example, with a “normal” vagina and clitoris that has developed as a penis. In cultures that admit only two sexes, there’s little tolerance for such ambiguity. . . . [T]he idea that everyone must have a clear and fixed identity as male or female is relatively new in human societies, and contrasts with societies that provide other alternatives. The Native American Navahos allow those born with sexual ‘ambiguities’ to occupy a third sex category (called nadle) with its own legitimate social standing. In some other cultures, people have been allowed to choose their gender regardless of what it appears to be ‘objectively.’”

Johnson also says that “our intensely personal experience of ourselves as sexual beings is profoundly shaped by the society we live in and ways of thinking about sex that are part of its culture,” noting that “when people say ‘sexual’ they typically mean ‘heterosexual’ and exclude all other forms of sexual expression as possible meanings. In ancient Greece, however, ‘sexual’ included a much broader range of human potential and experience which, in turn, shaped people’s perceptions. . . . And only a century or so ago in Europe and the United States, ‘homosexual’ was a term that described behavior but not people . . . . The word ‘homosexuality’ first appeared in print in Germany in 1869 and was first used in the New York Times in 1926. Today, by contrast, being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered is treated as an aberration at the core of people’s social identities and an oppressive system of heterosexual privilege that excludes and persecutes them.”

My point so far is that part of our identity is our sexual identity, and our sexual identity—although we think of it as fixed and unchanging—is actually quite ambiguous. Johnson makes this clear, and we can all think of smaller examples. Remember the uproar “Women’s Lib” caused in the 1960’s? What it meant to be a woman was no longer quite so clear. Should the man open the door for the woman or not? Recall the anger some men felt at how “confusing” it all suddenly was. In the church I served previously some people felt that for a woman to wear a pantsuit wasn’t proper. Of course, others disagreed. The meaning of “woman” depends on the culture (micro or macro) in which the word is used. It is an issue because the social construction of gender is awash in patriarchal assumptions that resist ambiguity. We are profoundly uncomfortable when it is unclear how someone fits into our constructed “male” or “female” categories.

I think it’s crucial that we understand what patriarchy really is. Johnson says that it’s “organized around an obsession with control and involves as one of its key aspects the oppression of women.” Part of patriarchy’s obsession with control is its neat categorizations—male/female, heterosexual/homosexual, black/white, American/not-American, etc. Patriarchy is so pervasive that most people, like fish living inside water, aren’t aware of it. And if they get a glimmer of it, they resist a fuller awareness because that would mean facing ambiguity, facing their own sinful participation in its sexism, racism, etc., and most importantly facing their fear, for patriarchy is a system arising out of nothing but fear.

Human existence is fundamentally contingent. We have no say in when or how we are born or, for the most part, when or how we die. There is a fundamental terror at the heart of our existence. To deal with that terror, we try to control, that is, have power over, what we can. Patriarchy is an “obsession with control.”

Because boys are more often (but, importantly, not always) socialized to be strong and stay in control, to not become “girlie-men,” they often grow up defending against fear at every turn. Women certainly participate in patriarchy, but I sense that Johnson is correct when he stresses that “patriarchy is organized around male-identified control.” So, for many men, the “path of least resistance is to protect themselves by increasing their own sense of control… For some, it’s keeping their feelings to themselves rather than being vulnerable at the wrong moment to someone looking for an advantage. Or learning to win an argument, always having an answer, and never admitting they’re wrong. They may go out of their way to avoid the appearance that women can control them.” Patriarchy encourages men “to feel afraid of being ridiculed…afraid [that other men] will wage war, destroy communities and homes, beat, torture, rape and kill those [they] love.” In an effort to beat down that fear, men (and women who participate in patriarchy) are tempted to ridicule others—or even to wage war against others—first.

But there is another way to deal with the fundamental terror at the heart of our existence. We forget that although our identities are socially constructed inside a pervasive system of patriarchy, who we are is also a given. We are also beloved children of God who, as we become true adults—that is, as we seek to live authentically within the truth of the imago Dei within us—can choose to trust in God’s ultimate care and in our own belovedness.

When we choose to live our lives with a determination to more fully develop the image of God within us, we are choosing to allow the attributes of God to form our identities. We become more free, peaceful, creative, trusting, alive!, beautiful, forgiving, graceful, and kind. Justice becomes crucial to us, we live grateful for absolutely everything, and prayer is unending. As we choose to construct our identities on the foundation of our authentic and given belovedness, then that amazing love will cast out our temptations toward fear.

May it be so.

Bio: Katherine Godby is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and is currently serving a United Church of Christ congregation in north Texas. Her Ph.D. in pastoral theology and pastoral counseling focused on issues of authenticity in a postmodern world. Married late, she is enjoying the plunge into life with a husband and three children-by-marriage—oh, and, of course, the cat!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Feast of the Epiphany

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of our God has risen upon you...Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Isaiah 60: 1-3

A reflection on Mt. 2:1-12 by Laura M. Grimes

It may come as no surprise that I have plenty of sharp theological disagreements with the late Pope John Paul II. However, I personally consider one of his greatest achievements to be adding the “Luminous Mysteries” to the traditional Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious Mysteries of the rosary.

This new set of scriptural meditation themes treats key episodes of Jesus’ adult life and ministry, previously neglected in the leap from the Finding in the Temple to the Agony in the Garden. The visit of the Magi celebrated on Epiphany is not one of the luminous mysteries, but two of them have traditionally been associated with it. All five fulfill and unfold the promise of Epiphany: the shining forth of God’s love in the world through Christ, for us, and through us. The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan; his turning water into wine at the Wedding Feast at Cana; the Proclamation of the Reign of God; the Transfiguration; and the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Each of these stories adds another facet to our understanding of the epiphany, the manifestation, of divine love in the world—and of the varying human responses to that profoundly challenging radiance.

One answer to God’s self-revelation in the newborn Christ comes from the Magi who endure arduous travel to a strange land to worship and offer gifts to the holy child. Another comes from Herod, massacring uncounted children in his determination to wipe out the one who threatened the power rooted in his corrupt bargain with the Roman invaders. We who hold power and privilege in this suffering, unjust world are always poised on the knife edge between the Magi and the Herod within as we face the growing demands for justice from the majority of the world, to whom it is denied. We too often take the path of Herod by engaging in violence of one sort or another to keep from handing over some of what we unjustly possess. And we often outsource the violence as he did to his troops, making it possible to lie to ourselves and others about the consequences of our choices.

Matthew’s story is familiar to us—probably too familiar, since we tend to read it through the lens of “We Three Kings” and the Nativity scenes that many churches and families have set up during this Christmas season. Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar: three gold-crowned kings and their accompanying camels, lending an exotic touch to the more mundane sheep and shepherds, ox and donkey. But none of the details usually taken for granted is actually present in the scriptural text. The Greek word Magi, often translated “Wise Men,” more accurately means astrologers or astronomers, likely from Persia, who observed the star and calculated its trajectory. (I am writing this from my college best friend’s house; a brilliant teacher of high school science and math, she just remarked that her favorite part of this feast is God revealing Godself to people who paid close and reverent attention to nature and to numbers).

The identification as kings probably came from the themes of the competing kingship of Herod and the child Jesus in the passage, as well as from Isaiah 60, the prophetic background text from which today’s Hebrew Bible lesson is taken. There is no mention of how many Magi were on the trip. Western Christians hypothesized three to correspond with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; but the Eastern Orthodox have traditionally assumed the popular scriptural number of twelve. And there is no reason to believe that all the Magi, any more than all the shepherds, were necessarily male, though Nativity scenes overwhelmingly make both assumptions. A moving portrayal of the whole world to which Christ came, shown in the racial diversity of the kings who represent the Gentiles in balance to the Israelite shepherds…until you notice that the world’s female population has only one representative.

A thin, blonde woman, garbed in immaculate blue to match her eyes, kneeling and gazing down worshipfully at the serene child in the manger. These artistic portrayals reflect misogynistic medieval visions—most of them, sadly, by female mystics—portraying the sacred and courageous labor of birth for every woman except Mary as a shameful punishment inherited from Eve and the locus of transmission of the sin of the world. The kneeling Barbie in the Nativity scene reflects those visions of Jesus painlessly teleporting out of his mother’s intact body, as he later materialized through locked doors after his resurrection. No more contrary picture could be found to the reality of birth, as anyone who has given birth or assisted another to do so will readily recall. An accurate portrayal would show the dark-skinned, dark-haired, dark-eyed, Jewish Mother of God lying sweaty and exhausted on the hay, her stomach still distended to appear four or five months pregnant and her loins dripping with precious blood. She would simultaneously delight in her child’s embrace and sigh with frustration as she missed her mother and tried to figure out how to wrestle her milk-swollen teenaged breast into his tiny squalling mouth.

Our seemingly harmless Nativity scenes obliterate the true identity of the woman of color whose love and courage made possible the Incarnation. And Christians, even those who pride ourselves on being progressive and committed to justice, likewise obliterate too often the shining reality of God’s image manifested in so much of the humanity that Jesus embraced. Men grudgingly share scraps of leadership in church and society with women. Whites continue our hegemonic assertion of normative humanity, verbally opposing injustice while enjoying its results and doing little to counter it. Straights sacrilegiously hog the rights, duties, and graces of both civil and sacramental marriage. The temporarily abled build an infrastructure which hurls roadblocks in the path of the disabled, then attribute these to physical or mental differences in the other rather than failure of creativity and courage in themselves. And we in the tiny percentage of the world that controls most of its wealth close our eyes to daily massacres of children through war, famine, and preventable disease which far outstrip Herod’s.

We who celebrate the luminous mysteries of Christ--the wise strangers who recognize his chosen status, the voice of God calling him beloved in the river and on the mountain, his proclaiming the overturning of the world’s structures and using his transforming power to begin that, and his self-gift in the humblest elements of his people’s ritual meal—are called to live those out in the world. To recognize the beauty and sacredness within ourselves and those who are different; to hear the voice of God naming all people as beloved; to overturn the unjust rule of the powers and principalities, beginning in ourselves; and to pour ourselves out for the world’s physical and spiritual hunger and thirst. And so our light will shine, and God’s glory will shine forth through and for us all.

Bio: Laura Grimes, who holds the M.A. and Ph.D. in theology from the University of Notre Dame, specializes in medieval women’s and modern feminist theology. She has worked as a crisis pregnancy counselor, a resident staff member at the South Bend Catholic Worker house, and a postdoctoral research associate at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto. She has taught theology, women’s studies, and history at Rosemont College, the University of Portland, and California State University at Fullerton. Laura is also a spiritual director and creator of expansive liturgical materials; a wife and mother of four; and the founding bishop of Sophia Catholic Communion, an independent Catholic jurisdiction.