Mary of Bethany remembers the parable of the bridesmaids

The thing I liked most about him was that he did not make me feel like a woman. He did not make me feel like a man, either. He made me feel like myself. When I took my place among the disciples, the male disciples, sitting there to learn from him, he treated me just like them. Hopeful of me, exasperated with me. But never by a look or a word did he suggest I was – well I was just another disciple.

In a way, that was odd, because he told so many stories that were about women, or where his Father was like a woman, or his Kingdom was like a woman. Like the bridesmaids story, where the only thing that mattered was having oil.

We got his mother back, somehow. Between us. We got her to drink a little water. We got her to bed. I made some food, and some of them pretended to eat some of it.

Now they are in bed, and are pretending to sleep. And I am sitting here, alone. Grief is not a stranger to me. I have buried both my parents, and my brother. Remembering that, remembering how – I am shaking as I sit here, now that I can be alone, and nobody is depending on me any more. This is beyond normal grief, because this is not just his death but the death of every hope, every expectation for my life and the lives of us all.

I run through the bridesmaids story again. I think I have it word perfect. Once he has worked his stories up, he did not change them much. I am filled with fury. Against the Jewish establishment, against the Romans, against him. There is a little lamp burning. I put out the light. I drain the lamp. I take the week’s supply of oil, needed for al sorts of things, and I drain it in the corner of the courtyard. Then, I pick up the lamp and smash it.

Despite all of this, there is a great aching desire to see his dear face just once more. On Sunday, in the first light of morning, I will go and anoint his body – again. He will smell by then, but I do not care. I must see him just once again, and say good-bye properly. although the world is dark, and I will not do a single thing he ever suggested, although I am furious that he raised and dashed so many hopes, I must see him just once more.

Learning to judge

The flocks were headed back to the fold for the night, straggling though they followed their leader, quite a young lad. It was rather different to the eager way they bounced out in the morning, after having been milked. All of them lop eared, with pronounced noses.

We were sitting out in the cool of evening, catching our breath after a hard day of it. I loved these quiet evenings when it was just us best, though the days were more exciting. But in the evenings, when it was cool, and Jesus was unwinding – that was when he would teach us most, I thought.

‘The sheep and goats know which is which,’ said Jesus lazily, watching them peel off into the right fold. The shepherds separated the lambs out, keeping them apart so they could milk the adults in the mornings. They knew the routine and went with few protests. The adults plodded into their folds. At a distance, it was no always obvious to us which the goats were, which the sheep, but they all knew.

‘There you go,’ said Jesus, the lashes once again sweeping down, ‘the judgement you have always wanted. Sheep and goats divided. It seems they judge themselves.’

We shot each other glances. Jesus had been having a bash at ‘not judging others’ and ‘being forgiving’ that day and we were not as convinced as we might have been. We said little but he knew of course. He always knew.

‘So do we judge ourselves?’ asked Andrew, ‘Because I think the shepherd is really the one who decides.’

‘Um,’ said Jesus, ‘Right, you lot, all jump up. Go on, go on!’

Somewhat reluctantly we heaved ourselves up and stood there looking, well looking sheepish.

‘Right,’ he said, ‘All of you who have ever given a thirsty friend, or a beggar, a cup of water, go to the right. You are, lets see, you are the sheep.’

That was easy, we all straggled off to the right. ‘O.K.,’ said Jesus, ‘All of you who ever at any time passed by a beggar who looked thirsty and did not buy a drink, go to the left. You are goats.’ We eyed each other. Of course we had all, at some time, gone past a beggar and given nothing. We all straggled embarrassed to the left.

‘OK,’ says Jesus, ‘Now let us try with the sick. Who has gone to help a sick friend? Who has avoided helping.’ He kept us at it for ages, straggling right, straggling left. Remarkable, Judas once made it as simply a good sheep. He had had friends banged up on suspicion of insurrection, and never failed to visit despite the risk to himself. Every other category we always found ourselves both sheep and goats.

In the end he let us sink down and rest. By now the flocks were settling down for the night safe in pens.

‘People are not quite so easily categorised,’ said Jesus, ‘I do believe in judgement, but you have to learn to judge yourselves. Really, what matters is not simply getting it right (well done Judas, by the way! The only one to be just a sheep in any category).’ Judas gave an ironic little bow. ‘No, what matters is – learning what matters. Seeing clearly what needs to be done, and trying to do it. Keeping your priorities. Because, really sheep and goats are very alike. But what to do, how to live, that is where the difference is.’

Ave Maria

As I prepare the blog for Sunday, it’s Saturday evening and I’m putting the finishing touches to the Mothering Sunday sermon; I say sermon, but it’s become affectionately known as ‘the talky bit’ at our all-age Eucharists. And, once again, I’m faced with the fact that, for some, this day of refreshment on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, is a day of joy, celebrating mothering, our mothers, being a mother, whilst for others this is a day of hurt, feelings of loss, grief. It might even be a time of both joy and pain – bitter-sweet memories, hard to hold in check in the wide-eyed happiness of others.

With the help of the church warden and some of our young people, at the start of ‘the talky bit’ I’m going to be presented with a Simnel cake from which I shall take a slice (I now have a reputation for getting food – cake, chocolate, even bacon and eggs – into my sermons, talks and assemblies). The idea is that this will remind us of a time when domestic servants were given a ‘day off’ to visit ‘Mother Church’ with their families, visiting their mothers too, perhaps picking some wild flowers along the way and, in some instances, taking a Simnel cake too. I think that’s a good enough reason to scoff cake in front of the vicar (I’m the Assistant-Curate at Bourne Abbey, Lincolnshire). The hope is – and this ‘talky bit’ has been prepared by others as well as myself – that we will realise that the celebration of mothers on this day is a joyful, sumptuous slice of cake, but it is one slice of a much bigger cake, or, rather, a much bigger story. Wherever we’ve come from – whether we’re directly rejoicing in the gift of motherhood, or grieving at the loss of a mother or bearing the pain of not being able to be a mother (there are so many different scenarios), we all get to be a part of that bigger story, and we all have the example of devoted motherhood set before us in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary who said ‘yes’ to God and his call on her life and, giving birth to Jesus, points us to our Lord and Saviour.

Are we, likewise, going to say ‘yes’ to God and the bigger story of his love seen in Jesus Christ, child of Mary, Son of God. Because, amazingly, no matter our own personal pages and chapters in the story of life, when it comes to the huge story of God’s love, which has global proportions, we all can have our cake and eat it!

And as I finish and head off to bed soon (since the clocks go forward tonight!), I just have time to listen to a rendition of A Maiden Most Gentle and Tender; more directly suited, of course, to Christmas and Epiphany, but, then again, those festivals are also part of that bigger story aren’t they?

Rejoice and be glad at this Christmas [or Mothering Sunday] we pray,

Sing praise to the Saviour sing end-lessly.

Ave, Ave, Ave Maria.

Ave, Ave, Ave, Ave Maria.

Keeping it safe

‘So you do not blame them for sleeping?’ asked John. Jesus had worked the Ten Bridesmaids up into a good story and had been telling it during the day.

Those days, with the crowds, the only time we really got to talk was the night. I looked at Jesus. He looked fit to drop. Here, in private, and in the house with just the little light flickering he let himself look worn out. I knew that in the day, with the crowds, he would sparkle as bright as ever.

‘I do not blame anybody for yearning for sleep, no. But the point is, they have forgotten what they are there to do. Like the bridesmaids who have forgotten to get oil, or just not bothered to get it, I see people every day who have simply forgotten what this people of God are actually supposed to be doing. They have totally lost track of what they are here to do. It is such a waste.

‘Let me try it another way. There were three slaves, all belonging to a rather rich, grand master. He was pushing off to visit some estates and these slaves were to be left alone. So he gave them all money, silver. He told them he wanted them to do something with it. Big sums of money, you realise. One got over a million pounds, and another half a million. The third chap only got a quarter of a million.’

‘Only!’ said Matthew.

‘Only,’ said Jesus, ‘Well off went the rich man, and the slaves considered their course of action. The man with the million went into business and in a year, doubled it. So did the bloke with half a million.’

Matthew, who understood the currents and swirls and eddies of money, frowned. ‘It is pretty good going to do that. My reckoning is you would be lucky to put say twenty per cent on to your money. If you were being at all honest.’

Jesus lowered his eyes, and looked out under his lashes. ‘Whoever said anything about honest?’ he replied, almost flirtatiously ‘Because the slave owner comes back, and he summons his possessions, and asks for an account. He gets back two million, and a million, and then the third chap comes in. Grubby. He hands his master back the same quarter million he started with. He did not want to trade dishonestly, and he was afraid to trade honestly. He dug a hole and buried it. Now he has dug it up. His master told him he should at least have lent it to the money lenders at a good rate of interest’

‘But that is against the law,’ protested Judas, horrified.

‘Oh yes,’ said Jesus, happily, ‘But burying it? He had not made a penny. He was afraid. Afraid of loss, and wanting to keep himself pure. Of course the master took the whole sum off him, demoted him. Poor guy went back to ploughing the fields.’

We looked back, horrified. ‘But he was the only honest one!’

‘He was the only one who forgot what he was supposed to be doing,’ said Jesus.

Salvation’s Song

Miriam led Mosheh to the edge of the Reed Sea. ‘Are you sure, sister? Can you do this?’

Once, once before she had tried to turn the tide of a river, to change the flow of the reed bed to make a bit of dry ground. It was nothing more than a dare to herself — to see how much she had learned of how the current was shaped. And then, it was a tiny flow, and small inlet. She surveyed the mass of water ahead of them. ‘Yes, if God is with us. And who knows, brother, there may be time for your wonder working too.’ She sounded calm, poised, but in her head, she prayed: ‘God, if you would give him frogs and gnats and plagues, give me this: wisdom, wit and a few well placed sand bars.’

God smiled at her daring.

She watched the wind bend the reeds, and said, ‘Quick, follow me.  And say to them: “walk where I walk, step where I step.  Do not hesitate, or change the path.’ Moses spoke to the Israelites, and Aaron did the same.  Miriam set out into the waters, ‘And brother? Remember: walk where I walk…’

Mosheh realised he was the weak point in her plan.

Miriam crept and leapt and ran through the reeds as the currents demanded. As they followed, the waters shifted: responding to their presence, adapting to the new disturbance in the flow. Miriam led them out into ever deeper waters, and then found them a resting place where the reeds grew thick.

‘Wait here!’ she cried. ‘Mosheh! Aaron! Tell them to wait here and you come with me.’

Miriam ran not across the sea, not towards their goal, but straight into the river’s source. To the top of the sandbank, where the water split around the raised bed of the sea. The people could see them — if she was lucky, they would be able to hear them too. ‘Mosheh, tell the people: “I am going to strike the sea with my rod. When the dry land appears, run. Run to the shore.’

This rod that brought vipers, Miriam whispered, let it bring life. 

Mosheh called to the people. ‘It is time. God will save us. I will strike the sea and you must run. Run as fast as you can. I will see you on the other side.’ The people looked out at the still pools of water ahead of them — the deep pools of water, that they knew they couldn’t cross, and wondered where Mosheh had taken them. But the Egyptians were closing in, and a rumour began: better to die than to go back! They prepared to run.

Mosheh was fearful.  ‘Miriam?  Will this work?  Am I really going to strike the sea?’ He liked it better when God spoke through burning bushes, than when God spoke through his eldest and bossiest sibling. ‘Yes, Mosheh. You will. But Aaron and I will be with you, and we must stand firm and spread our cloaks wide. Angled, there… like this!’  Miriam got them into position.

Mosheh raised his staff and prayed to God. He felt the winds stirring as he spoke. Miriam watched the current, and judged the angle of the flow. She leaned far out to catch the edge of the current. ‘Now, Mosheh, now! Strike the water.’

Moses brought down his staff, and the people prepared to run. Miriam watched as the current bent around them — not parting over the sandbank as it usually did, but curling around towards the Egyptian shore. Miriam knew they didn’t have long before the waters swirled back and the whole sand bar would be undermined.

‘Tell them, Mosheh. Tell them to run!’

And the Israelites saw the dry land appear. At first, they were too shocked to move, but then one of them understood what was happening and shouted, ‘This way! Follow me! Run!’ The Israelites fled across the sudden sandbanks, the ever changing reed bed, finding dry ground.

Quickly! Miriam prayed. She could feel the water swirling behind them. The sandbar was beginning to give way

As the last of the Israelites approached the shore, Miriam said to Mosheh ‘Lift your rod and flee. Get to dry land!”  And she followed behind them, pausing only to thank the water.

As she turned, she could see the Egyptians approaching. They horses swam out towards the river’s swirl.

‘Turn back!’ she cried to them. ‘You will never make it.’ But they rode on and the water hooked around the horses hooves. Miriam would never forget the scream of the first horse as it fell. Remember, little one: she whispered arks are not the only way.

Miriam reached the shore where the Israelites watched as the sea swallowed their oppressors.  Miriam hated the devastation they had caused — but she didn’t want the people burdened by the weight of it.  So she did the only thing she could: she re-told the story.

Miriam took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’

The people joined in the song, and cried out their relief to God. They had escaped the Egyptians. They were free.

But God saw the tears that Miriam wept as she danced. God joined in the counterpoint: There is salvation, Miriam. The ark is not the only way.

She heard God’s whisper and laughed as she cried and danced.