A few years ago I bought this small wooden figurine of an elderly woman, kerchiefed and bent, weighed down by a load of firewood. She stands on the window ledge behind my laptop and sometimes I look at her and say, “Me too,” because how she looks is how I feel. It’s not a load of firewood that is bending my back, but the seeming endlessness of this Covid pandemic, or the everyday burdens that come with ageing. More often than I like it’s the backpack of theologically outdated and outgrown beliefs and practices that I still carry around because can’t quite bring myself  to put down and trust what I see when I look up and out.

One Saturday morning a couple of thousand years ago, a bent-over woman shuffled into her local synagogue and sat down in the space set aside for women. Familiar but virtually invisible, she was alienated by a community perception that her condition was just punishment for some hidden sin. Jesus, a visiting preacher there by invitation of the synagogue leaders, noticed her sitting apart on the stone bench that ran the length of the little synagogue.

If you have ever felt how she might have then Jesus’ next move might be confronting, because he invited the woman   to move out of her space and into the ring of watching and listening men. The choreography speaks to me, and I wonder why Jesus didn’t move over to where she was.

 Instead, in spite of her fear, she did as he asked and moved from the edge where custom had placed her and right into the centre where Jesus stood. In one fluid movement he bent down, looked into the woman’s eyes and reached to embrace her. Her head lifted, her back straightened and she found herself looking into Jesus’ eyes.

Jesus and the woman stood united. In the eyes of the surprised and scandalised synagogue president this visiting preacher was aligning the woman with themselves.

Not for the first time Jesus had moved out of recognised religious boundaries and was standing with the disenfranchised and the marginalized. The centre had moved and religious authorities suddenly found themselves standing on the periphery. Outraged, they spat out words that put the blame onto the one who minutes before had been burdened not just by her physical condition but by cultural traditions and expectations.

Until Jesus reached out to her, humiliated for reasons beyond her control, her dignity ignored, nobody else had stopped to see the woman she was inside. It takes courage to hang on to your best self when circumstances beyond your control push you out to the fringe. It takes courage, too, to move into a place at the centre, a place that seems reserved for others.  Maybe her making that move in response to Jesus’ loving invitation was the miracle that enabled the healing.

It seems to me that Gospel stories about Jesus and woman have a great deal to tell us in this time when we are losing touch with religion as we have known it. The interaction between Jesus and this unknown, crippled woman, is a story for our time. You’ll find it in its more familiar wording in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 13, verses 10-17. All of us are in it somewhere, sitting or standing.  Let it talk to you.   

Judith (judith@judithscully.com.au)

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Three Wise Women

It’s a pity that Christmas is over so quickly. Come Epiphany, the feast of the Wise men, and down come the Christmas lights, the tree decorations are packed  away until Advent comes round again and Joseph and Mary, the baby Jesus, the shepherds, three Kings and an angel or two are bubble wrapped for safety- and that’s Christmas done.

Like me, you may have noticed that as the Christmas story unwinds, Mary is surrounded by men. Luke gives no mention of sisters or cousins, no midwife or female helper for a young woman as she gives birth for the first time. Elizabeth and Anna, two women who were an integral part of Jesus’ infancy story, don’t appear in the Church’s Christmas readings. Anna is bundled into a February feast known as Candlemas while Elizabeth doesn’t get a mention until March 25th.

Three women, three wise women. Long before John the Baptizer pointed out Jesus as ‘the one who is to come’, Mary, Elizabeth and Anna recognised that in the new-born Jesus the old covenant was giving way to the new.

Luke presents Mary as a village woman, young, betrothed, pregnant, married, widowed, courageous, an empty-nester, prayerful and ministering, with a circle of women friends. Her initial response to God’s invitation came in the words of a gritty young woman, not afraid to ask a very pointed question, angel or no angel.  Her unwavering Yes to God was lived out under the military rule of a foreign occupying power, underpinned by Jewish male religious domination and, not to be underestimated, a son who she sometimes struggled to understand.

Cousin Elizabeth, no longer a young woman when we meet her in Luke’s Gospel, had suffered the stigma of childlessness, putting up with whispered comments and snide judgments from family and friends who inferred that infertility was a punishment from God for sin – hers, not that of husband Zachariah! He was learned in the Law, able to solve knotty religious problems and faithful to the requirements of his priestly state. Elizabeth was quietly and joyfully attuned to the God within her.

In these days when the place of women in the Church is such a source of pain and conflict we can look to Elizabeth – an older woman, faithful when it seemed hopeless, standing firm as she challenged custom and tradition. It was she who recognised the wonder and mystery of God at work, both in herself and in Mary, her young pregnant cousin.  

Women’s spirituality is often wrapped up in the minutiae of family and relationships, pregnancy and husbands. In reflective moments they are able to acknowledge that the gifts and skills that they bring to daily life bring them closer to God. Maybe this is because they are life-bearers and all new life, physical or spiritual, is carried close to the heart.

Anna was an old lady, a wise woman, tuned into God. To some she was seen as a religious crank, someone who doesn’t seem to have a life outside of religious practices. Over the years she had become a fixture in the Jerusalem Temple, watching families grow, blessing the babies of former babies, a model of prayer -to be wondered at but not copied.

She might have been old but she was fit; scooting around the temple precincts 24/7, greeting people, encouraging them, praying for them.  There was nothing much wrong with her eyesight and hearing either, because she not only saw from a distance her friend Simeon’s interest in one particular new baby, but she heard his words about a sword piercing the heart of the young mother.

 As a woman of God she knew that bringing up children could be heartbreaking, and as a woman with a compassionate heart she knew that it wasn’t something any young mum particularly wanted, or even needed, to hear. She felt, rather than saw, that this baby would be the light that would flood the darkness of a world groping towards God. Anna told everyone she met about the child. Knowing that she had lived to see that day filled her with hope and spilled over into joy.

Still today God’s human touch is woven through the  young, as they move into the future with an enviable energy, the middle aged, like Elizabeth, taking hold of their hard won wisdom and the Annas, longing to lift the darkness that hides hope and  let in God’s clear, clean light.

Judith                 Judith@judithscully.com.au 

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