Mention Pentecost and up pops a picture straight out of my primary school bible history book.
In words and images the Acts of the Apostles painted a more dramatic picture – wind that howled and swirled like a cyclone hitting land, fire that threatened to burn but warmed and excited instead, multi-lingual crowds that caught that excitement and felt hope rise within them.
Whatever happened to it?
Jesus commissioned his followers, women and men, to cast that fire upon the earth, and they did. But in little more than a hundred years the dominant male culture gradually took over and a women’s role in the Christian community was whittled back to cooking, children and the sick. And that’s how it has stayed.
I was born into a generation whose faith education was pre Vatican 2. As a young adult I realized that I wanted my church to keep pace with the world that was opening out around me, but I had no words to explain the hunger I was experiencing and nowhere to take it. Then Vatican 2 happened and I knew that this was what I had been waiting for.
Vatican 2 was a Pentecost happening. Like the first Pentecost, the Spirit of God blew through it with the power of a cool change on a baking hot Melbourne summer day, a babble of excited words that made no distinction between genders, a flame that could no longer be contained.
There were flexible liturgies, music that sometimes set my feet tapping, at other times touched my heart. Small discussion groups opened me out to the recognition that scripture was something of a Tardis. It not only told the Jesus story but contained all our stories. New ministries opened up to lay people, women and men – pastoral associates, hospital chaplains and spiritual directors. Ordinary people discovered that contemplative prayer didn’t only belong in monasteries and Carmelite convents. We began haltingly to drop the he when we spoke about God.
Somewhere during those years I was invited to speak at a World Day of Prayer in a suburban Uniting Church and I was comfortable saying yes. In the way that these things happen, that afternoon led to an invitation to occasionally ‘share a message’ with a Uniting Church community that had no permanent pastor and relied on a roster of retired ministers to lead their Sunday service.
Every time I stood at the lectern ready to share whatever Scriptural reflections and insights I may have gathered from my personal reading of the Sunday Gospel, I was conscious that what I was doing was counter-cultural for Catholics. For close on two thousand years it has been seen as inappropriate for catholic women to be preachers of the Word in their own church. This not only saddens me but it irritates me because for these two millennium the Good News has been skewered to male terminology and experience.
Jesus told stories that appealed to both men and women. He used images that often were peculiar to his women listeners. He never meant his words to apply to men only. He had women friends and ignored the cultural taboos that restricted them. He knew that most men approach just about everything from a structured kind of thinking, unlike women who dance around topics and let their hearts dictate responses that just don’t fit those structures.
I want to hear homilies that open up the Word of God from that untidy female perspective, shared by women who have experienced the push and pull of relationships and the joy and chaos that often accompanies them. I want to know how the Gospel echoes through their lives. I want to be asked again, this time by my baptism church, to retell the Jesus story in the light of my own.
I’ve had to pull back my expectations in the more than fifty years since the Second Vatican Council. But maybe in a generation or two women will be welcome to open up the Word of the Lord at the Sunday Eucharist in Catholic churches around the world.
My neighbour’s small Japanese maple gave me heart as I wrote these words. Its fiery autumn glow stood out in the sea of eucalypts and native shrubs that surround the houses in our little street. It reminded me that the Pentecost flame can never be extinguished.