Monday, March 25, 2013

Divine Visitations

I am reminded that today (March 25th) is the Feast of the Annunciation in the Church. For those who have forgotten their Sunday School training, this celebrates the announcement by the angel Gabriel (Gabe, as we like to call him) to Mary that she was just about to experience a little inconvenience, namely, that she was about to conceive a child, without any of the accompanying fun. God did not even take her out to dinner first. So, girls, this just goes to show that even the most reliable form of contraception, total abstinence, is not 100% reliable when a deity wants to have his way with you. It’s also a reminder, kids, that it is exactly nine months to Christmas.

This feast brings to mind two things. First, band-wagon jumping is not a new phenomenon. We see this today all the time. Once Fifty Shades of Gray became a hit, we began to see fifty shades of everything; and probably forty-nine and a half shades of other things. One successful vampire novel, and everyone’s aunt and uncle is writing vampire novels. The Church has been no different throughout the ages. March 25th happens to coincide approximately with the vernal equinox (in the northern hemisphere). The vernal equinox marks the point on the calendar when days start to become longer than nights (again, in the north), so in pagan belief it is regarded as a time of rebirth and fertility. So why not, if you are the Church, jump on this particular bandwagon and begin to identify this with a significant moment in the life of Jesus? It is particularly fortuitous (or clever planning) that this also generally occurs at a time when the Church is preparing to remember the death of Jesus. (Good Friday usually falls after this date, but does occasionally fall before March 25th, and occasionally even on March 25th). This is all very sensible on the part of the Church: don’t fight it, co-opt it.

The Church continues to jump on bandwagons even today, and who can blame it? It’s not surprising that, once the Green movement was well under way, the Church suddenly realised that Jesus was green all along; or, with the feminist movement in full swing, that Jesus was, in fact, a proto-feminist. When life is finally discovered on other planets in this galaxy, the Church will realise that… that Jesus was from Proxima Centauri?

The identification of Jesus with the feminist movement brings me to the second point. Goddesses have been rather popular throughout the history of religion. Judaism, Christianity and Islam, unfortunately, were rather boringly masculine and monotheistic. Some parts of Judaism overcame this by introducing a feminine element into the divine via the Shekinah, a feminine concept denoting the divine presence. Feminine elements of the divine re-enter Islam via the mystical Sufi movement. Christianity had a virgin handy. I am not meaning to be cynical here. There is a strong drive within religion and spirituality for there to be some feminine expression of the divine in people’s lives. After all, motherhood is a very powerful image. The Church could probably have done nothing to prevent this feminine element from creeping back into the Christian tradition; so, rather than fight it, why not use Mary to co-opt it?

All of this goes to show that there are certain things related to human life in the world that give rise in us to a sense of awe and/or fear. Motherhood and birth – these things can still send a shiver down our spine. The change of the seasons – what better to remind us of the fragility of our life on this planet, of how dependent we are on this planet for our survival? And what better time to remind ourselves how we are busy screwing all that up? It’s not difficult to see how religion can take hold. But I make the point again, that none of this has anything to do with a God or gods. These provide a mythical framework with which to understand and deal with these issues. But they are like the stake that holds the young tree upright: once the tree has the strength to stand alone, the stake is no longer necessary.

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