I like carol services. They are enjoyable occasions that set the mood for Christmas. This year on the vigil of 3rd Sunday of Advent – Gaudete Sunday, the day we are given the imperative “rejoice!” – I attended a carol service in the Unitarian Church on St. Stephen’s Green. There was a gentle anticipation of a pleasant evening so I was totally unprepared for the experience that followed. The 18th Annual LGBT Christmas Carol Service, with music by The Dublin Gay Men’s Chorus, turned out to be the spiritual event of the year for me.
I attended the service as a gesture of solidarity with my LGBT sisters and brothers in Christ. In my own small way, I wish to disown the utterances of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in Rome when they insult and demean these daughters and sons of the living God. This solidarity is part of my profound sense of respect for those in the LGBT community. People who have managed to remain decent people and live decent lives, despite the burden of insult laid heavily upon their shoulders by a church which ignores the gospel message of Jesus, that God’s love is for all – without boundary and without measure.
Before he uttered his first words the facilitator, Brian Glennon, beamed a smile of delight as he looked around at those present. The words of welcome that followed glowed with this radiance. The words of Peter to Jesus at the Transfiguration sprung to mind – “Lord, it is good to be here.” Not only were the LGBT community welcomed first and welcomed with great joy but those of us who were ‘straight,’ and were the outsiders, were also welcomed generously and with great warmth: “we welcome you precisely as you are, a manifestation of the image and likeness of God…” A true Christian welcome that had no caveats, no scale on which we had to be measured to see if we were good enough to belong.
Brian then contexualised our gathering by quoting the writer Paula D’arcy: “God comes to us disguised as our life.” This is true. Our God is not the distant unmoved mover of Aristotle’s philosophy, but the passionate God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. And as such meets us in the messiness, complexity and confusion of everyday life. In our joy, in our fun and in our moments of heart-wrenching sorrow or anxiety. Then Brian stated: “Surely God comes to us disguised as our LGBT selves too… in all our rightness, in all our celebration, in all our loving and love-making, in all our confusion and denial, in all our wondering and our wandering. If God comes to us disguised as our life, is it not true that in our life we can make manifest those elements of God that correspond to our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender natures, revealing the silent mystery of God and grace?” As I sat there I thought: ‘Surely, this is all part of the meaning and mystery of the Incarnation? That God became human unconditionally. To be LGBT is also to be wholly graced by God who became incarnate for all humanity, not just a select few, to show us by words and example how to be properly human.’
The God of the gospel is a God of unconditional, prodigal love. I think part of our sinfulness as humanity is not knowing how to accept and share this unconditional, overflowing, prodigal love. The temptation to limit God’s love is one of the greatest sins of the institutional Church. This is especially so, when directed at our LGBT brothers and sisters and encoded in such appalling language as “intrinsically disordered” and “inclined towards a moral evil.” There is a severe emotional deficit at the heart of the Church when the mechanics of sexual plumbing trumps the core value of the gospel. This is symptomatic of an inability to cope with love. As the Dominican theologian Edward Schillebeeckx said:
“A religion which damages and destroys human beings and human dignity is a religion which denies itself. A religion which humiliates human beings is, by definition, a mistaken way of believing in God and at least a religion which has lost any sense of its own interpretation and contact with its authentic roots.” (I am a happy theologian, p.59)
I felt both graced and humbled to be present. I felt a deep sense of peace and a prayerful joy to be in this place of sanctuary. I felt the truth of Karl Rahner’s words: “the very commonness of everyday things harbours the silent mystery of God and grace.”
With this serenity as the stage and backdrop, the guest speaker, Ursula Halligan, took her place to speak truth to power. In a short but deeply moving address, she told us that it took a long time for her to find her voice, but she was so glad when she did. She found a whole new family who has enveloped her in love and care; people with whom she has shared a common journey. A journey in which they had to find their voice and find their inner truth. And then to find the courage to speak this truth. The courage to throw away the masks, to be real, to be true to themselves. The Unitarian Church is a small church, but the power of her simple honesty seemed to make the space grow. She said: “Love is love. There is no inequality in love.” Amen! Gaudete! There are those who try to make it unequal, but that is to attempt to subvert love. A deeply committed Catholic, Ursula said: “It is important for our flourishing as human beings that we have a vibrant faith community that welcomes and loves us; a place where we can be ourselves without fear or constraint. A place where we are affirmed; where we’re told we’re ok. We need to hear the good news of the Gospel in a place that totally respects us for who we are, exactly as we are.”
As I listened to this simple, but deeply moving entreaty, I recalled another Advent Sunday about 12 years ago, one that is hard to forget, unfortunately.
In his homily on that 4th Sunday of Advent, the priest, without embarrassment or blush, boldly proclaimed that those people who do not go to mass do not have God in their lives. Immediately I began to think of those people I know, a growing number I might add, who do not go to mass, but who most definitely have God in their lives. The list I came up with then was impressive in its length, range and the integrity of those on it, and included our own adult children. And it has grown significantly since.
The rant continued with the statement that people who do not go to mass should not erect cribs in their houses as it would have no meaning. And what horrified me most of all he said that those who do not go to mass regularly need not bother to come to mass at Christmas. I thought of our grown-up children and how happy I would have been if they came to midnight mass with us and how important that connection would be if even for one day in the year. The gospel message of compassion and inclusion was grievously distorted in tones of smug self-righteousness. It was a stunning display of clerical arrogance, not to mention a deeply disturbing ignorance of the heart of the gospel.
As I sat in the Unitarian Church among people who were mostly strangers, I experienced everything that was the complete opposite of that Catholic rant. I felt warmth, welcome, acceptance, joy, a deep sense of the presence of God and the powerful sense of community – not a gathering of individuals who happen to be in the same place because of a common belief – but a real, joyful sense of community. In other words, it truly was ekklesia in its fullest sense. This was particularly expressed in the sign of peace – we were encouraged to get out of our seats and greet people and bless them with peace and receive their blessing in return. This was no formulaic handshake – it was a joyful recognition of Christ in the other person.
Another thread that ran through the carol service was Martin Luther King’s memorable phrase: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Tragically, the powers within the Catholic Church have turned this truth on its head and have made a travesty of its wisdom. For many Catholic theologians, particularly those who challenge the current teaching regarding LGBT issues, especially same-sex marriage/unions, have found that the day they refuse to be silent about things that matter, is the day their lives begin to end. My theological mentor and friend, Sean Fagan, SM, suffered the truth of this to his dying breath earlier this year.
The final blessing was given by a woman who is Catholic by culture and conviction. Marianne McGiffin is an interfaith minister because there is no room for her deep Christian commitment within Catholicism. As with the sign of peace, this was no perfunctory action. We were asked to place our left hand on our heart and our right hand on our neighbour’s shoulder with the exhortation “that our blessing may bind us together and [bind] us with our brothers and sisters everywhere….” Even in the blessing, the communitarian aspect was central. This was not something “bestowed” on us by the person standing in a privileged place ordained to do so. It was the community calling on the blessing of God, through the leadership of this woman.
“May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you.
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
AMEN! GAUDETE! REJOICE!