I was standing in front of the communion table in my cold musty sanctuary. Even in the midwinter, the air never lost the dampness and smell of the swamp. It was an ideal country church, a white structure with a tall steeple. Although, it sloped a bit and there was no insulation. The cracks in the floorboards allowed you peak at the ground and there were places where the corners of the building did not quite meet each other. In fact, on really frigid mornings, I would come into the office, and the water in the toilets would be frozen.
I was the pastor of this congregation in Abbeville, Louisiana. I had been there for a couple of years, but I didn’t feel like a pastor. I was only twenty-six when I received the call. The church was considered by our local governing body to be a “maintenance church.” Basically, they were waiting until the doors closed. Then they would sell the land, collect the assets, and use the money to develop a congregation in a growing city.
Abbeville was declining on all accounts. The oil boom had been over for more than ten years. The Fruit of the Loom factory, their main source of employment, had closed three years ago, leaving a ghostly industrial wasteland on the outskirts of town. And the people who were left worked as fishermen or on oilrigs. Retired people lived in their family homes. And the very poor resided there, because they could not afford to move anywhere else.
In front of that table, I felt like a very young woman. I was short. I swam in my preaching robe and the tassels on the end of my stole would drag on the ground. The women of the church began to hem up the bottom of my clergy shirts because even though I bought the smallest size, when the shirt was not tucked in, it looked like a dress. I had to have the pulpit modified because it was too big for me. Before the adjustment, the members of the church could only see the top of my forehead when I preached.
The area was so stringently Roman Catholic that when I wore my clergy shirt, people looked at me with visceral disgust. When I ate at a restaurant after the service, the reaction to my clerical wear was so intense, I became worried that the kitchen staff was spitting in my food. I learned to remove my collar before I left the church.
Although the community’s reaction to a female pastor was difficult, it didn’t shock me. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church and went to a very conservative Christian college, and in both places I was told that women could not be ministers. Only a man could be the head of a church. They cited biblical reasons, and they also pointed to the communion table. I was reminded frequently that only a man could stand where Jesus stood and preside over communion. Only a man could deliver the body and blood of Jesus.
So, I struggled, yet somehow the tiny church grew. People began to join the congregation. For the first time in decades, the service filled with the sounds of children singing, talking, and disrupting my sermon. It was wonderful.
After a couple of years, I became pregnant and I was terrified to tell the congregation. I, personally, had never seen a pregnant pastor. I had only read about one in a John Irving novel. There was a Canadian minister, who was pregnant a lot, and for some strange reason that very minor character gave me comfort. At least until I began to identify another, very major character.
Mary’s story is told in the first chapter of Luke. She is a poor young woman who finds herself pregnant. A messenger comes and tells her two important pieces of information: she would bear the son of God and her cousin, Elizabeth, is also pregnant, even though she’s old. Nothing’s too wonderful for God. And Mary responds, “Let it be done according to your word.”
Meister Eckhart, a medieval philosopher and mystic, sees this as a crucial moment. He writes that we flow out of God our Creator. God is perpetually creating us; we are living in the mind of God and always being stretched and formed and molded. At this point in time, Mary, in her determination, first gives spiritual birth to God, and now God is eternally borne. Every good soul that longs for God bears God and gives birth to God.
Mary travels to the countryside to catch up with her cousin. Mary, who’s far too young to have a baby, and Elizabeth, who’s far too old, meet each other. Elizabeth prepares the way for Mary. When the two had their reunion, Elizabeth was beginning her third trimester, just gaining back some of her strength and energetically nesting, while Mary was in her first three months, nauseous, weak and needing a lot of rest.
They met with their swollen bellies and their hopeful eyes, and their babies leapt inside of them. The Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth.
And imagine Mary, this poor young woman, with God knocking about inside of her. Such great joy overwhelmed her that she sang out a song, echoing the prophets and the words of Hannah, proclaiming social justice, she shouts out the soaring poetry of the Magnificat.
That must have been some kind of kick.
I remember those wonderful pains. At first, I thought it was gas. That’s what it feels like: a sharp tiny ache. Then, as my belly grew larger, I realized that particular sensation was a little boot. And when I got enormous, I would lie down to go to sleep, just as my tummy would wake up and begin morphing into all kinds of shapes. I would call for my husband, and we would sit in bed late into the night, feeling that strange flesh and trying to figure out her head from her bottom.
And then there was that morning I will never forget, when I stood in the sweet sanctuary in Abbeville with its moss green aisle and its simple stained glass. I was at the table before the bread and the wine, and the church was miraculously two-thirds full. I lifted up the loaf up in the air and tore it in half as I repeated Jesus:â€¨
“This is my body, broken for you.
Take, eat, do this in remembrance of me.”
I was in my third trimester, saying those ancient words of institution, when my belly began shifting around with those smooth oceanic movements. I looked down and even under that giant black robe, I could see it moving, transforming into those alien shapes. My baby was just waking up and stretching, and I smiled and thought, Oh no. Not now. Please, go back to sleep.
I continued to look down, but this time, my eyes searched for the lines in my prayer book, and I began reading the liturgy. I was afraid that I would become so distracted that I would lose my place if I said the words from memory, and so I lifted up the cup and resumed,
“This is my blood,
sealed in the new covenant,
shed for you,
for the forgiveness of sins.
Do this in remembrance of me.”
It was no longer a gentle rolling. I felt jabs, right under my rib cage. As I held the cup up, I gasped as she began to play soccer with my internal organs. My eyes widened and I almost spilled the wine as she kicked me, hard. And I could barely contain my laughter as I continued:
“As often as you eat this bread
and drink this cup,
You are proclaiming the saving death
of our risen Lord.”
I stood there breathing deeply, while this great and wonderful pain stretched me and transformed me, and with each jolt, a tremendous sense of creative power flooded me. For the first time, I felt at home in my body and behind that table.
As I delivered the bread and the wine to the elders, I remembered Mary’s kick and those mysterious words of Eckhart. I was blessed. I was bearing God.
In this Advent season, may God create something new within us, may God form within us, so that we might sense anticipation and hope as God kicks us, waiting to be born.
photo’s entitled “Annunciation” by tonibird