Two days ago, a close friend of mine sent me a quote which stopped me dead in my tracks.
“I find delight and beauty in the silence of the men in the Advent story. Zechariah can’t speak. Joseph doesn’t speak. While the words and emotions of Mary and Elizabeth are centred. The sound of Advent is the voice of women.” [Quote attributed @BlackLiturgies]
This is, in fact, totally true. But how many of us have completely and totally missed this fact? Certainly I had. And yes, as a woman, this made me stop and ask why? Why had I not seen this? Having studied Classics and ancient history for years, the silence of women is normal to me. Living in a fairly patriarchal society and working in a (still) patriarchal institution, it is something that is simply an accepted (though not entirely liked) part of my daily life.
So why, knowing and believing as I do that God and Jesus are total experts in subverting the human way of doing things, had I not seen this?
It’s fascinating. Advent is all about waiting and preparing. Those are two tasks which, by and large, are associated with home, with the domestic sphere, and thus with women. Yes, we do have the voice of John the Baptist booming in the wilderness (note, some 33 years after the original Christmas), and the comforting words of the prophet Isaiah: they prepare the way of the Lord in the public sphere, so to speak.
But in the most intimate relationships, in the places where God first makes an appearance, that first Christmas, the voices we hear are those of the women, Elizabeth and Mary. Both of whose pregnancies are, in their different ways, shocking in their own culture. Elizabeth, because she has been married for a very long time and is now “old” (likely late 20s!) and this is her first pregnancy. And Mary, because she is not married yet.
These two women, both of whom are bucking the cultural norms of their day, are the two women who are prepared to wait, patiently, for God to be seen in and through them.
Quiet patience and trust, preparing the inner self and the inner place, are probably more associated with women and the monastic life, than with the public sphere which men have traditionally inhabited. This is an old cultural norm, and such norms and images die very hard indeed, and are easily resurrected.
In this year of 2020, we have all been thrust into the domestic sphere in a new way. The public has been closed off to us all because of the pandemic. Suddenly, we have all been operating out of the home, out of our inner spaces, not just those whose roles and work have been home-based for a long time. And this has been a most unpleasant shock to many. And many more have discovered anew the joy of home.
Women have inhabited the home – with its hard labour, its frequent isolation, and its joy – for aeons. For some this has been an active choice. For others, this was forced upon them. And for women collectively, the journey to have influence beyond the domestic sphere was, and still is, a hard and challenging one.
The old joke is that behind every strong man is a stronger woman cleaning up after him. In that is a grain of truth. In a sense, Mary is right there behind Jesus. She was the one who tended his childhood bruises, and wiped his tears. She was also the one who prompted him into his first recorded public miracle, at the wedding at Cana, where Jesus sorted out the wine shortage as his mother told him.
For behind every public action is a private arena. Behind every public face, there is a real person. Behind the picture-perfect images of Christmas and the Christ-child in the manger are many months of quiet waiting, preparation, openness to the coming of something new. An openness to allowing the unexpected and uncontrollable, thoroughly unpredictable and unorthodox into our lives, often in uncomfortable ways.
Before I end, I would like to draw your attention to those four words: unexpected, uncontrollable, unpredictable, and unorthodox. Those words are not positive ones when uttered in the public sphere, which is traditionally dominated by men. But they are words which are very familiar to those in the domestic sphere (both women and men), especially when surrounded by children! And, most of all, they are words which can describe God in action.
With light and peace,
(Photo by SutherlandRowe Images)