Op-ed: The Spirit of the Season
I love Christmas. It’s my favorite holiday. I love everything about it–the music, the lights, the food, the gatherings, the conviviality. Most of all I love the giving. My favorite part of Christmas is that: giving.
That and midnight Mass, the gospel of Luke and the contemplation of Christ.
Yes, I said it: contemplation of Christ. Words rarely heard from lesbian feminists.
I’m a Catholic. Not lapsed, not former, not agnostic, but a practicing Catholic. I don’t apologize for it. I don’t talk about my faith that much, but I go to Mass every Sunday, I pray, I strive to be a better Christian. I try to turn the other cheek, do good works and random acts of kindness. I try to live my faith. I try to emulate Christ–as a revolutionary, as a reformer, as a friend and lover of all people.
We don’t talk much about religion in the lesbian community. Just writing those words “contemplation of Christ” feels raw and stark. Organized religion and women have never gone well together. There are no religions in which women are equal to men, even Wicce. There are just religions where it’s slightly less awful to be a woman than others.
Yet faith is always the variable and I have faith. I chose not to walk away from my church and the God I believe in. There are those who have faith and those who don’t. I judge neither. Most of my friends are agnostics or atheists. Some get angry with me about religion, others just ignore that aspect of me because they really don’t understand it and you cannot explain faith to someone who doesn’t share it.
Also, having been oppressed as a woman and a lesbian by the distorted faith of others, I don’t want to push my beliefs on anyone. I could proselytize for Jesus, but I don’t. My faith is comprised of good works and contemplation. I leave evangelism for those who are good at it and feel no qualms about it.
It’s not easy being a lesbian of faith, however. I’m always excited when I meet another women who is religious, although I admit that the majority of lesbians of faith I have met in recent years have been Muslims, not Christians.
My partner was raised by a Catholic mother and Jewish father, but neither was practicing so their household was wholly secular. My partner and I don’t talk about religion much because we don’t understand each other very well on the subject: I can’t imagine not believing in God, she can’t imagine believing. She admires my faith, she just doesn’t share it.
But it’s not minor, my faith. As a Christian, I not only believe in Jesus, I follow Jesus. And by Jesus I mean the real Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount and the Gospel of Matthew–not the freakish Republican Armani suit Jesus of the right-wing ideologues like the Westboro Baptists and Duck Dynasty. I believe in the Jesus who was a socialist reformer, who wanted separation of church and state, who taught women and men, who reviled the rich and embraced the poor and said to love each other as ourselves and as he loved us and who was murdered for it.
I’ve been heartened by the new pope. Francis clearly follows the same Jesus I do–the one who cares for the poor, the sick, the downtrodden, the needy. Pope Francis takes poverty seriously–he knows the Church has gotten very far away from what Jesus taught. Francis has foregone the Prada shoes, Papal castle and pope mobile for a vow of poverty. He embraces the disabled and sick, he’s got the Vatican accountants in a tizzy and he’s always smiling. He shrugs at gay priests.
I wrote about Francis when he was first elected pope.
I thought he would augur the kind of change in the Church that would make me less angry, after the horrors of the priest sex abuse scandal and make it easier for me to embrace my church, not just my faith.
And he has. Francis has reinforced for me that it’s possible to live in the world and live your faith, to let spirituality guide you in your daily life, no matter what your status.
When I was in college, I became a devotee of liberation theology and some of its proponents, notably feminist theologians like Rosemary Ruether, Sheila Collins and lesbian feminist Mary Daly. Catholic social justice worker Dorothy Day also compelled me–I could see how she balanced her life with God and her life of political agitation and striving for equality.
I sought out these women because I wanted validation for the entirety of my life. I was trying to link up my politically radical lesbianism with my deep faith–I wanted no gaps in between.
Those women then and African-American lesbian theologian Rev. Irene Monroe in recent years helped me to situate my lesbianism comfortably within my faith. Those who try to beat me with the cudgel of an appropriated and twisted Jesus will get the evangelism that I don’t proffer to non-Christians. Be they Duck Dynasty or Westboro Baptist, what they preach is antithetical to what Jesus said and I won’t be silent about that.
For me, faith is action. It’s acting in the name of God, it’s absorbing all the magnificence around us, from that perfect sunset to that perfect meal with friends. It’s feeling gratitude for all we have, most especially the intangibles like love and friendship and yes, faith.
But faith demands reciprocity–we have to give back for all that we have been given. For me there’s a cycle to faith and it is in constant revolution: what can we do, what can we give, how can we open ourselves to others who have less?
Mary Daly said, “Why indeed must ‘God’ be a noun? Why not a verb–the most active and dynamic of all?”
I think about this during the Christmas season–Advent, Christmas, the New Year, Epiphany. How do I incorporate God into everything I do? How do I live my faith the best way possible?
Two years ago during Holy Week I was on my way to Mass on Holy Thursday and I was running late. As I was coming down the street I saw a young woman on the steps of my church. She was holding a cardboard sign that said she was hungry and homeless.
Ahead of me were three men in expensive suits. One pointed to the young woman and made a remark at which the others laughed, but none of them gave her money.
As I gave her what money I had and hoped that members of my parish hadn’t walked past her on their way into Mass, I said to her, “I see you, I just want you to know I see you.” Because the men hadn’t seen her and whatever they said had stripped a little more from her.
She grabbed at my hand, asked me to pray for her.
It was the most compelling moment. I thought of her throughout the Mass.
When I came out of church, she was gone. But I always see her now, in my mind’s eye, as I approach the steps to my church. She’s emblematic of how much more I have to do in my life as a Christian. Yes, I gave her money–I always give homeless people money and/or food if I have it.
But what’s our obligation as people who profess to faith to take care of those who are lost and alone and suffering? As we hand out gifts to people who probably already have too much over the holidays, do we stop to ask ourselves if this is what giving is, or is there more, much more, to giving than sharing stuff with friends and family?
The spirit of the season is an elusive thing. So many people have nothing, so many others have too much. Shouldn’t those who don’t have religious faith and those who do strive for the same thing? Giving without getting, giving because it’s right and just and necessary? Giving because when we give it renews our faith if we have it, it bolsters our humanity if we are secular.
The key to the season isn’t whether we walk through the doors of a church, but whether we see others who need our help. Not with an iPhone upgrade, but with sheer acknowledgment of their existence.
The story of Christmas is one of joy out of misery: Mary and Joseph were homeless. Alone. In a foreign place. She was in labor. But there was no room for them at the inn, just like there was no room for that young woman on the steps of my church in that upscale neighborhood. Wealthy men could laugh at her, completely ignoring her humanity. But that story is a metaphor: the spirit of the season is in seeing others, acknowledging them and recognizing them as ourselves, reaching out across that divide between not caring and the space where humanity should be.
I love Christmas. I love the giving. It reminds me always of how little we have to offer one another, but how much that little can be to so many. I may believe in God and you may not, but surely we can all believe in the power of giving and how without it, we would be a world full of monsters, instead of people of good will.
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and an contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review. Her novella, Ordinary Mayhem, won Honorable Mention in Best Horror 2012. Her collection of vampire stories, Night Bites, has been published in several languages. Her novel, After It Happened will be published in fall 2014. @VABVOX