Sunday, February 7, 2010

Mary and sacrifice

My child Joshua, full of wonder at today's Candlemass

Today, the church celebrates the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It's an odd business, really, involving a celebration of Jewish purification rituals which take place after childbirth, otherwise called "Candlemass" in the Catholic tradition. So, because Joseph and Mary were poor, they could not afford the required lamb for sacrifice, and offered, as the Law required, two doves, instead. Mary would have handed over the doves to the priests in the Temple, and would have then had the blood of the sacrifice sprinkled over her, to make her clean. It's fairly strange to those of us who don't slaughter things anymore and certainly sounds fairly distasteful.

Blood obtained through sacrifice. Armies are inspired by it. I see virtually every day on Sky News, soldiers in Iraq dying and the newsreader dropping his or her voice appropriately at the announcement of the news of yet more deaths there. In our own country, there are many people, some of them practising Christians, who will also sacrifice for big events, such as births, deaths etc because that is what tradition requires. (I am very glad indeed, that my tradition doesn't require anything of the sort from me!)

And the Christian tradition itself, a theological breath away from Judaism, is one which is also full of blood, as it relates to sacrifice. The crucifixes in our churches, the pictures and celebrations of Saints and Martyrs often depict in very graphic detail, the suffering and sacrifice of forbears in the faith. And the honour we give to them, and the veneration we show, is very often in direct relation to the amount of blood spilt. That is not the way it is put. It is put in the language of suffering, sometimes vicarious, and sometimes direct. And most of the time it is fairly raw and meaningless, as well.

So, today we remember a mother who fulfills the fairly bloodthirsty requirements of a Law book, to purify herself - presumably in the eyes of God - but particularly in the eyes of the patriarchy, after childbirth.

And that got me remembering the encounter we had with Social Welfare, when we were finding a child to adopt, 9 or 10 years ago now. We were told to go to the Adoption home, because there was a child there which they thought was suitable. He was a lovely little boy, and, of course, Leon (my partner) fell instantaneously in love with him. His name was, let's say, "Grant". We played with "Grant", picked him up, and hugged him. He gooed back at us. And after half an hour or so, we went back home, thinking we had met our son.

On the way back, we got a phonecall from the social worker. "Sorry!", she said, she had just had another look at the file and the birth mother had said that the child could not be adopted by gay or lesbian couples. So, that was the end of that!

Some time later, when we were still up in the air, waiting for a child, the social worker was discussing what had gone wrong with "Grant", before. Basically, she hadn't bothered to read the file before sending us to meet "Grant". Then she said something else, apropos nothing at all: "Oh yes,", she said, " If I remember correctly, Grant was the product of rape".

My mind went into a whirl. I tried to imagine how one would talk to that child, who could have been my child, about that fact. And sure as nuts, if one didn't talk to him about it, he would eventually find out about it - and which would be worse?

I thought about that story today, during the reading of the Gospel. Jesus was the product of some really quite fishy circumstances. Yes, I know that the Church holds that the conception was not caused by Joseph, but rather by the Holy Spirit, but it clearly was something which was (and remained) fishy, throughout his life. John's Gospel (8:37 - 47)has a wonderful discussion recorded in it between Jesus and the Pharisees, basically on who is a true Jew. The discussion revolves around paternity and being "children of Abraham". Jesus casts some aspersions on the character of their Jewishness by saying that "You claim to be descendents of Abraham, yet you are trying to eliminate me". They answer basically in this way : "We, at least, know who our father is! We are not born of fornication!" - with the tacit - "Like you were" implied. Jesus gets extremely angry at this and tells them that their father is really the devil.

In a context where our President, Jacob Zuma has fathered 20 children (at least!), some born inside and a good deal born outside of marriage, the kind of argument between Jesus and the Pharisees seems a little archaic, to say the least. But the essential patriarchy of the narrative, and the assumptions of patriarchy, remains deeply embedded in it.(As it does, incidently, in the national debate which is taking place at the moment about Zuma!)

Mary sees her son go out on his mad mission. She watches him gather the crowds and dazzle them. She watches his serious political mistakes and clear misjudgements, his betrayal and his death. She watches as he is soon put to death and she is utterly powerless to stop it.

That is why Christians in the Catholic tradition venerate her, because she is much more than what she appears to be at face value. She represents the whole spectrum of motherhood, from the violated to those gracefully accepting the patriarchal plan. She represents mothers who are powerless to stop their children destroy themselves, before their eyes, and against their best advice. She represents them all. She represents the legitimate and the illigitimate. She represents the victims of rape and those mothers who simply cannot cope anymore and are forced to give their children up.She represents the mothers who sacrifice throughout their lives for the wellbeing of their children.

Our son Joshua's birth-mother was HIV+ when she gave up her third child for this adoption. She simply could not support any more children. Chances are, she might be dead now.

Gabriel's bother was a vegetable seller in Johannesburg. His father had done nothing to support her and was not likely to support her now that she was pregnant. She decided that her alternatives were either, to keep the child herself, (which would mean that she would have to bring him up on the steet and which she felt would be unsustainable), or to give up her job, which she could not do, if her family was to survive. The other alternative was to give him up for adoption.

Her choice was to sacrifice her child in an act, I suppose, not unlike Mary, with Jesus. She also gave up her child to his religious extremism, which ended up with him dead.

I think I understand the essence of the sacrificial, which is something Christianity thrusts upon us, as a thing we should all strive for. Sacrifice is good, we are told. Sacrifice makes things better, somehow. The question we need to ask, though, is, whether or not that is actually true? A Hindu friend of mine once rounded on me saying that the perspective of sacrifice for others was just plain madness. The only person you could sacrifice for was yourself, she said.

Sacrifice is a concept which is deeply embedded at the heart of Western Christianity. However, you don't see much evidence of it in the way the religion itself is practised. You don't see it in the well-preserved buildings; you don't see it in the lives of the priests, to any real extent; in the processions; in the meticulous ritual; in the daily praxis. Suffering is acknowledged, but it is very seldom actually experienced. And when it is experienced, it is often simple abuse, more than anything else

It seems to me, though, that it is women who experience it in our society, far more than men. They spend a great deal of time surviving the patriarchy and playing by rules they have not themselves created. I do not want to speak for them, but that is something I cannot fail to observe. How else, for instance, can one understand 20 births being caused by the same man, in an age of HIV and Aids?

That is the kind of thing, it seems to me, to which Mary points. That is her present-day sacrifice.

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