Where do you come from?
Judith 13.18-20, 15.10
Those of you who had nothing better to do on Saturday nights in the '90s will remember that epitome of vacuous entertainment, Blind Date, presented by Our Lady of Liverpool, Cilla Black. Since I assume you had better taste, or better things to do, let me explain it to you.
In each round of the show, three cringey and evidently slightly desperate people agree to sit awkwardly on stools behind a screen. On the other side of the screen, a contestant, predictably of the opposite sex, fires out inane questions apparently intended to whittle out unsuitable dating material.
They wait to hear the scripted and unrevealing replies of their potential suitors, while the audience boo and coo. To this pantomime, Cilla unfailingly adds her unswerving showbiz optimism, masking the unlikely prospect of anything satisfyingly romantic occurring from all this.
But the otherwise forgettable attempt at romantic introductions always began with Cilla’s two immortal opening questions to the contestants –
What’s your name, and Where do you come from?
Two things that tell us everything and nothing about a person. They are strange indicators of identity.
They are the questions, though, with which Matthew begins his Gospel; the questions that matter if we want to begin to understand this human who is about to interrupt history, fulfil it, and transform it for ever in every direction.
What’s your name, and Where do you come from?
Matthew trudges through a list of names: the long line of men that is history at its worst. Matthew places Jesus in this remarkable line of the most momentous characters since the Patriarchs. And in the gaps in the testosterone we find the names of several women. Women, who, unlike the vast majority of the men, receive their memory not from having been born into the right family with the right gonads, but from having lived with pluck, with daring, with intuition and with an insistence not to be relegated to the silence of their circumstances and ultimately the silence of history. They are frequently women who live in sexually creative ways, women who get the better of the men around them, and – so we see – pave the way for the Saviour to come.
The pattern of names establishes that Jesus comes from good stock, yes, but also from a tradition that is, at moments, surprising, shocking, and beyond the tidy boundaries of good breeding. Matthew’s clever little list gives us no uncertain clues about how we are to understand where Jesus comes from – from scandal as much as from secure lineage – and in particular this should shape how we get our heads around the confusing figure of Mary.
Mary joins the line of these unexpected and unorthodox women:
- Tamar, Our Lady of Conception by Deception. Tamar’s first naughty husband was smote by the Lord, and his brother, her second husband, was also, unfortunately, smote by the Lord, and then her father-in-law, Judah, delayed providing a third son to be her replacement husband. Childless and fobbed-off, Tamar dresses up as a whore to trick and seduce her father-in-law and conceive a child – and it works.
- There’s Rahab, the prostitute in enemy ranks, Our Lady of Spies and Smugglers. Rahab from her window on the city walls covertly aids the Israelite reconnaissance mission in the Promised Land, and negotiates a deal for her and her family to stay alive when the invaders arrive.
- And we hear of Ruth, Our Lady of Flirting in the Hedgerow. Ruth is Naomi’s companion in a foreign land, a wandering migrant, and these days a lesbian icon. Ruth knows how to win the man she wants, loitering with intent at the edges of his field.
- And Bathsheba, only named here as the wife of Uriah – perhaps we might call her Our Lady of #MeToo. Bathsheba is seduced by King David – raped I think we would now say – before her husband is murdered. She later plays her cards right to secure her son Solomon as heir to the kingdom.
There is zero chance – zero chance – that Matthew wants us to think of Mary as we see her too often – sitting around fidgeting with her knitting in some tidy little alcove, being read her preordained schedule of life by a buff archangel, and taking it on the chin, before a luminous pigeon drops by to give her a warm belly glow.
No – Jesus is born of a line where the best contributions come from those whose faith and fervour leads them into uncharted and unorthodox territories. Jesus is birthed out of the daring vision of the powerless and abused who refused to be silent victims, and crafted bold futures for themselves, sticking two fingers up at those who think the script is already written a certain way.
Jesus is born of Mary, a scandal-ridden young woman whose vision and courage was greater than the suspicion and gossip that surrounded her. Mary steps into a life in which there is no precedent, and no honour, and makes it her own for God, and from that willingness to be a renegade disrupting the long line of sensible but corruptible men, she brings to birth salvation.
What could happen if we did the same?
I suspect it’s not just me, but the perennial temptation, even subconsciously, is to measure the success of our lives – even our religious lives, whatever that means – by a set of inherited and unimaginative criteria: stability, security, success, acclaim, money, career, legacy.
We forget that often the most important and impactful way we could live is by inhabiting honestly our various experiences of powerlessness – our vulnerabilities, our wounds, our weaknesses and failings – and learning to live creatively and riskily with them, in a way that disarms others, and alerts others to the fact that our security is elsewhere, no longer in our own ability to muster strength but in a Love that will not let us go. That is the route to salvation being born in us.
When people ask me, Cilla-style, where I come from I rarely know what to say. I come from Derbyshire, and from Kent, and more briefly from Cambridge, and Nottingham and Dartford and Oxford. The question more broadly, though, is about how you can know who I am by knowing what has birthed me and brought me to life. And each of those places has done that, in their own way; though the most valuable ways that people and places have done that is not by giving me a good line on the CV or an opportunity to prove myself, but by teaching me the grace to bear with myself, to craft something out of my honesty and fear, and to discover that that is the kernel of faith, the gift, that is all any of us has to truly offer.
So that’s enough about me – what about you? One of St Mary’s’ main gifts, it seems to me, is very much birthed out of the honesty and anxiety of doubt and disillusionment about the Church and the modern world. It is the gift of being insistent and energised about the fact that the Church has major questions to be asking of itself if it is to be part of the future, and major questions to be asking of the world around if it is to be a place whose progress is not only technological and economical but also moral and kind, imaginative and meaningful.
That is no small task. The Church at large is too often guilty of thinking that it knows what it is by looking back at its equivalent of that relentless and tedious list of male progeny. Therein, though, lies only a future of keeping the same old thing going, of stale reruns where all the laughter and the life has long blown out.
What seems to me to be at the heart here at St Mary’s – and this is both a commendation and a commission for you – is a Church reinvigorated by the faith and fervour that hides in all the wrong places. To see through the institutional power and ecclesial self-trust that is fast fading, and seek wisdom in the corners of the world around us, in secular insight and moral dialogue, in fractured lives and broken hearts, in doubters and agnostics, in activists and artists, in the unorthodox and the misunderstood.
And from this ramshackle search for redemption, for the Love that will not let us, any of us, go, we begin to see beauty being shaped out of our honesty and our fear and our doubt, and we begin to know that that glimmer of beauty is the gift that, wherever life takes us, is all that any of us has to truly offer.