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The Rise of the Phoenix and the Priestess

“The Rise of the Phoenix” is an unlikely theme for a church or for the consecration of a pastor. But then Metropolitan Community Church is no ordinary church. And undoubtedly, Kakay Pamaran is no ordinary pastor. Let me tell you a little bit about the early native priestesses called babaylan. Before the male Spanish priests and the American missionaries came, the babaylan was the cultural and spiritual leader of the community. She stood shoulder to shoulder with the political leader called ‘datu’ and the economic leader called ‘panday,’ who were both male. Unlike the foreign priests, the babaylan was female. It was believed that women had a mysterious connection with the divine. The woman embodied the creativity not unlike the creative cycles evident in Creation. She bled every month as the moon’s cycle; birthed life from her womb and nurtured from her own breasts. More than that, she was immersed in the realities of her community and performed multiple roles as midwife, match-maker, peacemaker, healer, teacher and the performer of all spiritual practices which connected the community with each other and with the divine. Unlike the priests, she played drums and sang loudly; danced with fervor and moved with evident purpose; in the performance of rituals, she dressed in the brightest colors and wore her beautifully oiled hair down. She embodied the fullness of a human being and sought fullness of life for all. However, when the Roman Catholic faith was introduced to the Filipino natives, there was a strong resistance. Carolyn Brewer, a historian who has book on the early mission work of the Spanish Church in the Philippines, describes this as a ‘holy confrontation.’ The Spanish Church realized that the only way the natives could accept Roman Catholicism is if they could demonize the babaylan. They circulated stories about the manananggal or shape-shifter and inverted all the roles and qualities of the babaylan. The babaylan was a mid-wife but they said that as a manananggal she sucked babies from women’s bellies with her long tongue. The babaylan strengthened and empowered the community but as manananggal, they said she was a cannibal whose power grew when she ate human flesh. Babaylans were persecuted as witches and they were forced to hide and keep their spiritual practices a secret. With the seeming eradication of the babaylan priestesses, the native spirituality was lost and sadly, women’s position in family, community and society was diminished. She and the people who followed her were silenced. I did not know about the babaylan until about 10 years ago, when I studied at Union Theological Seminary. Today, I see the babaylan around me. Her spirit lives on in women who embody the aspirations of her community. Thus, there is no more appropriate theme for this evening’s celebration than Phoenix Rising. It is the rebirth and the resurrection of MCC QC. More importantly, after I have had the privilege of encountering Kakay at UTS in the past year, I know this is also the Rising of the Phoenix, the Rising of the Phoenix Priestess. And I truly believe in my heart that this is the Rise of a new babaylan.

Now, let me go to the scripture text although I admit a fascination for mythical creatures like phoenixes, unicorns, Lilith, the first wife of Adam, and, of course, the goddesses like Aphrodite and Athena.

Today, I wish to reflect on the Book of Ruth. First, I have to say that it is about marriage, husbands and wives, their children and their wives. They are enumerated in the text: Elimelech is the husband of Naomi, their sons Mahlon and Chillon had wives named Orpah and Ruth. But it is not about love. It is about family and property. It is about how wives are left nothing when their husbands die and they have no sons. It is about how patriarchy denies women life and dignity. The land belonged only to the males. Without husbands and sons, Naomi, Orpah and Ruth cannot inherit anything. Without husbands and sons, women were nothing.

Like the three women, the mythical Phoenix bird is stunningly beautiful with an entrancing song, so captivating that even the Sun stops to listen. Orpah and Ruth captivate Mahlon and Chillon even if they were Moabites and not Israelites, even if they were forbidden to marry women of other faiths. But like the three women, the Phoenix bird is burned and destroyed before it can rise and be born again. There is nothing romantic about being burned and destroyed. In myths and in our many realities, there is something that burns us and destroys us. Some Christians will argue and call these God’s tests. But that kind of God is schizophrenic, don’t you think? If we analyze texts and present realities, we will find that there are people and hierarchies that deny us life. The Phoenix Bird is burned to keep it from soaring high; the women, Naomi, Orpah and Ruth, are denied property because it is monopolized by the males in that culture. Even Jesus did not just die on the cross because he willed it upon himself. Jesus was killed by the Roman Empire. In our own lives, what hurts us is not God’s testing. What hurts us are beliefs, traditions, laws and relationships that seek to burn and destroy our very beings. Like the Phoenix bird, we may be burned and destroyed for a moment, but we will rise again and again.

Going back to the text, three women respond differently to their burning. Orpah, after the death of her husband, leaves Ruth and Naomi to return to her own people. Nothing more is said about her and very few even remember her name. Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth and Orpah, calls herself Mara, which means ‘bitter,’ after her husband and two sons die. She says, “I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty… the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me.” (1, 20-21) Ruth remains with Naomi and makes a vow. Ruth’s vow is spoken in many heterosexual weddings where they forget that it is given by a woman to another woman. These are Ruth’s words to Naomi, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” (1, 16-17) Three women respond in three ways to the misfortune in their shared lives: Orpah leaves, Naomi loses hope, and Ruth expresses faithfulness. Ruth’s vow has been read by many traditional interpreters as a conversion story. She changes her residence, she changes her citizenship, and most important of all, she changes her religion. But her faithfulness is not expressed to a god. Her commitment is to Naomi – “where YOU go… where YOU lodge… YOUR people… YOUR God.”

What does faithfulness mean? Does it mean that we look to a divine being? Does it mean that we believe in the future despite of the present realities? Does it mean that we remain committed to our community especially in a time of need? I believe it is all that. Ruth committed even more deeply to Naomi at the time of her greatest need. Ruth believed in the future despite their present realities. And Ruth reminded Naomi of the God she followed by saying “Your God will be my God.” It is very important to me to speak about faith in people and not just in God. Some people speak about faith in God and hearing God’s voice but turn a deaf ear to the cries of the world. Nathan Soderblom, the late Archbishop of Sweden said and I quote, “Let no one imagine that they hear the voice of God clearer when they turn a deaf ear to the cries of the world.” I think that in the succeeding chapters, Naomi regained faith in herself because Ruth had faith in her. Because of this renewed faith in each other, the two women were able to survive. More than that, they were able to assess the realities of their situation and were able to create a plan that will ensure life and dignity for them as women. I will no longer expound on how Naomi and Ruth conspired so that Boaz would be Ruth’s husband.

In Biblical times and too often today, women have been constructed and conditioned to find their salvation in men. But in the Book of Ruth, at the birth of Obed, Ruth is honored for what she has done for Naomi. The women say to Naomi, “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a kinsman-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel. He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law who loves you, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.” (4, 14-15) Ruth’s son was described by women as “Naomi’s son.”

If the Phoenix is injured, it can heal itself. When the Phoenix reaches the end of its life, it rises again and begins its life anew. In some traditions, the new Phoenix gathers up the ashes of the old and takes them to Heliopolis to offer them to the Sun God. Ruth’s rising is greater than the Phoenix rising. For in her resurrection and rebirth, she shares it with Naomi and offers a son to a now barren and childless woman. Today, you at MCC have proclaimed the rising of the Phoenix. From what I have heard, it about the rising of MCC QC and the raising of a priestess. But more than that, Phoenix Rising is about the immortality of a community that offers its life to God by concretely offering their lives to those who need God the most. May these all be so today and always. Amen.

Lizette Galima Tapia-Raquel
For The Rise of the Phoenix
Metropolitan Community Church, Q. C.
June 16, 2013

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