Embodying Hope, Vision and Empowerment
Luke 1: 46-5
I am currently enrolled in a Roman Catholic institution and one of my courses is Mariology, which obviously is about Mary, the mother of Jesus. From the Protestant perspective, Mary is just that, the mother of Jesus. From the Roman Catholic perspective which is expressed in dogma, Mary is not just the mother of Jesus. She is called the ‘mother of God.’ Since Jesus was the son of God, and Mary gave birth to the Son of God, therefore, Mary is the Mother of God. In our class, we learned that during the period of the Enlightenment, when science began to rise in importance and the teaching of the Church began to be questioned, the Church responded by make grand statements about Mary to defend her and the faith. And so even today, the Roman Catholic Church has dogmas on the perpetual virginity and immaculate conception of Mary, among other things. One of the dogmas we discussed in class was the perpetual virginity of Mary. Perpetual also means ‘everlasting’ and ‘eternal.’ Mary will ALWAYS be a virgin. Some catholic theologians further argue that Mary was not just a virgin during Jesus’ conception, she remained a virgin at Jesus’ birth and even afterwards. So after the class discussion, I turned to my seatmate who is preparing for priesthood and said to him, “Naiintindihan ko yung virgin conception, which means that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, but I don’t see why kailangang sabihin na she remained a virgin during and even after Jesus’ birth. It is physiologically not possible,” and then I said to him, “at ano naman ang kapaki-pakinabang sa virginity ni Mary.” He was so scandalized by what I had said that he slapped my arm. I think, to him, what I said was heretical and even blasphemous. Later, he said to me, Mary’s perpetual virginity is the most concrete expression of her obedience and faithfulness to God. I thought to myself, “Really?”
At this very moment, I am amongst a community of women whom I believe are obedient and faithful to God. But if I asked you what is the most concrete expression of your faithfulness and obedience, I am pretty sure none of you would say that you are a virgin. In fact, I would like to express an opinion that to argue that Mary’s most important virtue is her virginity is to diminish her value and contribution in the life of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. She was a woman of great hope and vision. Someone who understood the essence of empowerment. In the Song of Mary or the Magnificat, we encounter a young woman who understood the history and struggle of her people, who took the side of the poor, and who had a vision God’s true light and peace. Even before she became a mother, Mary was already such a woman. At Jesus’ birth, she shared her humanity with the son of God, and raised Jesus who embodies our full humanity and divinity. Today, I want to speak about a woman who raised a prophet and a saviour. After all, Mary’s virginity and blessedness cannot be replicated but her being a mother is something that we can all imitate.
Before I leave the subject matter of virginity, I would like to share a little about it’s relationship to the ideology called patriarchy. Science tells us that human life began about 2 million years ago. But only 6 to 8 thousand years ago, patriarchy was institutionalized. It comes from the word ‘patriarch.’ Patriarchs are men who are rich and powerful. In the simplest terms, patriarchy is a social, economic, and cultural system that justifies the domination of males over the females and other members of the household. The male is the head and everyone else are properties: the wives,the concubines, the children, the slaves and all the livestock. Before the patriarchs, in many communities, women had more equal relationships with the men. More than virginity, women’s ability to reproduce was given more importance. But when patriarchy was institutionalized, men who had land and property wanted to be sure that those who will inherit their land and property were truly their own children. Thus, virginity became important. Furthermore, since women had become properties, they could now be used as payment for debts, used a gifts for men who had power and could be sold to the highest bidder. In history, the valuing of virginity is an expression of the commodification of women. But we women know that our value as persons does not depend on a very small piece of flesh called the hymen. We are created in the image of God and are co-creators and nurturers with God as grandmothers, wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters.
There are 3 key words in your theme: hope, vision and empowerment.
I will begin with empowerment. About ten years ago, before I went to the seminary, I attended a women’s conference with the title “Women Who Want to Make a Difference.” It was a two-day conference with international speakers who were flown in from the U.S. and from some parts of Asia. They really sounded impressive but the gist of their message was that, to become women who make a difference, we must understand God’s will for our husbands and help them fulfill whatever that was. I did not say anything then but I thought to myself, “Napakamalas ko naman at pinanganak akon’g babae! Wala bang plano ang Diyos para sa akin?” That seminar was disempowering for women. If we want to speak about the empowerment of families, we must speak about ‘partnership.’ The partnership of men and women, of husbands and wives, of parents and children, of the young and the old, of sister and brother. Partnership is the essence of empowerment. There is no empowerment in the family if one spouse, one child or the one who is older dominates over others. In family and in society, there is no justification for domination that controls, abuses and diminishes the value of others. Women must remember that they are co-creators with God and to build an empowered people, we must be equal partners.
Jochebed is the mother of Moses, and she and Mary have parallel lives. Both their sons were born at a time when rulers ordered the massacre of infants. Both resisted the orders of the most powerful by protecting the life of their newborn. Both raised children who became prophets who were agents of liberation: Moses led in the escape of Egypt and Jesus set people free through healing and the forgiveness of sin. Both their sons sought to establish alternative societies: Moses saw to the creation of the twelve tribes of Israel and Jesus preached about the ‘Kingdom of God.’ Mary and Jochebed are not just two women. They are many. They are in you and me. As a mother, there are two things I want my children to learn from me: to love the Filipino people and serve them and to serve God by serving those who need God the most. As women who have the special gift of raising children, even those not our own, we have the opportunity to empower not just our families but the next generation. Seeking and struggling to create partnerships instead of allowing domination is the first step towards empowerment. It is like lighting another candle and letting it shine. By lighting another candle, our light does not become less. And the more light we set afire from our own light, we make the world a brighter place. We empower our families and our communities when we resist domination and seek genuine partnerships.
The second word is ‘vision.’ The word has at least two meanings: seeing concrete and present reality and seeing what is possible beyond that reality. There are personal and collective visions. One of my favorite movies is ‘Dekada 70,’ set during the martial law years, starring Vilma Santos and Christopher de Leon, based on a book written by Lualhati Bautista, In the movie, Vilma is a mother of five boys. One becomes an NPA leader, one joins the U.S. Air Force, one becomes a writer for the Philippine Collegian. All of them were birthed by one mother but each one was unique and chose different lives. One of them writes, quoting a poem by Kahlil Gibran:
“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”
In the movie, Vilma’s character, Amanda, devoted almost 20 years of her life to raising her children. And so when she hears the poem, she feels bitter at the beginning, saying, ”Ah ganon, hindi ko pala siya anak…” In the course of the story, she realizes that while she must keep watch over her children, she must also see the world beyond. While she has dreams and visions for them, she must also have visions and dreams for herself. Their lives are theirs, because they will not live their lives for her, even if they loved her. She must have visions for herself and must make her own mark in the world.
In the Magnificat, Mary has visions. They are visions of her community and are, therefore, collective. She speaks of pulling down the mighty from their thrones and sending them away empty. She speaks of the lowly being lifted up and the hungry being filled. She does not speak of a fairy tale world or cruel scenes of avenging what one has suffered. Rather, it is a vision which combines reality and imaginings towards a transformation of the current reality. I would like to quote the former president of Union Theological Seminary, Rev. Dr. Everett L. Mendoza, who said, “The rich must become poor so that the poor of this world may live.” This is from his sermon entitled “Radical Generosity.” Sometimes, in church, we talk about sharing and stewardship but we do not talk about justice. If we truly use our vision, we will know that there is something very wrong when 40 of the richest families in the Philippines have amassed wealth amounting to $47 Billion while there are 5 million child laborers, aged 5 to 12 years old, working in hazardous conditions. To have vision, more importantly, is not just about seeking transformation, it is about a transformation especially for those who need God the most. Like Mary, we must have visions for ourselves and for our society so that our children’s children can inherit a better world.
The third word is ‘hope.’ One of my favorite books is for children and it is entitled “Hope for the Flowers,” by Trina Paulus. It is about a caterpillar named ‘Stripe’ who spends his moments eating leaves until he finds a pillar of caterpillars who were all climbing upon each other to get to the top. When he sees what is happening, he joins the climb even if he did not know what was at the top and does not hesitate to step on others until he met another caterpillar named ‘Yellow.’ Eventually, Stripe and Yellow decide that they had enough of stepping on others and being stepped on and both go down from the pillar. They Were happy for a while but Stripe felt that there was something more. And so even if he did not want to leave Yellow behind, he knew there was something he needed to do. He followed his inner voice and went on to weave a cocoon. Of course, we know that to be the process of metamorphosis where a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. And Stripe transforms from a caterpillar to a butterfly. Whenever I tell this story to children, they tell me that if the story is about a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, why is the title of the story, “Hope for the Flowers?” This is what I say to them, as a butterfly, Stripe did not complete his transformation for himself alone. As a caterpillar, he could do nothing for the flowers. When he transformed into a butterfly, not only did he become more beautiful and not only did he fly, he could also pollinate the flowers and make them bloom. Like Stripe, we seek our transformation not for our individual selves alone but for a world that needs beauty and continuity. Because when we change, the world also changes.
Our Christian faith is grounded in the belief that God made the biggest change when Jesus, was born of a woman as a human. Mary shared her humanity to bring hope into the world. To Jesus, her son, she was the embodiment of hope. As women, when we truly seek to give hope, we are hope.
Today, I share with you three important affirmations which many of you already know.
First, when we seek hope, we must not look to others but we must begin with ourselves. We are hope. Second, we must have visions for ourselves and for our society so that our children’s children can inherit a better world. Third, we must resist domination and seek genuine partnerships to empower our families and our communities. Amen.