Shut Your Whole Face

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Photo by Stephen Paris on


Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
–Luke 1:18-22

When my oldest began college at Rochester Institute of Technology, she quickly picked up some sign language. RIT is home for NTID, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and boasts a large deaf and hard-of-hearing population. All students are encouraged to learn as much sign language as possible, so when my daughter came home for Thanksgiving she taught us some of what she learned. Her little brothers were eager to learn how to say “scarf,” “cornucopia,” “dinosaur,” “please,” “thank you,” and “more.”

My favorite sign is likely colloquial to RIT. You take the sign for “no”—sort of snapping your first two fingers down onto your thumb, almost like an aggressive bird beak. But for this sign, you draw a circle in the air around the face of someone you’re signing to, and then snap your fingers down in the “no.” It means, roughly, “shut your whole face.”

Whenever I read this scripture about Zechariah and the angel, I picture the angel making this sign around Zechariah’s face. And, because Gabriel is an angel and not just a feisty old mama crone, it actually had power behind it. Zechariah shut his whole face, for roughly nine months. When Mary came to greet Elizabeth, and John leapt in Elizabeth’s womb for joy, and they embraced and cried and exclaimed and got all magnificatty in their saintly holy chatty wisdom, Zechariah could just stand there (or maybe lie there in the other room trying to sleep—I always picture Mary’s arrival in the dead of night), mute. Quiet.

All shut up.

Kristen invited me—and you—to find the bits of light that come this season and pay attention to what they illuminate. We talk about these challenges ahead of time, and when she suggested it to me it seemed like a good and fitting idea for Advent. But I admit that since December began, those bits of light feel distant and blurry. The holidays are always challenging in a family like ours that relies heavily on routine, and this year we have had a good deal of loss weighing us down as well. Add to that my current feelings of religious homelessness, and I’m not feeling saintly, holy, chatty, or  wise.

In previous sessions of Lectio Divina I’ve enjoyed picturing myself as Elizabeth, or Mary, or the old family hound lying by the fire when Mary enters. Women are rarely the center of positive attention in the Bible, so I like to linger on the scene when I can. This year, though? This year I’m feeling very Zechariah. I think if I’m going to find those points of light in the dark, if I’m going to be able to find wonder in new life, in revelations spoken by angels, in stars in the sky, I’m first going to have to shut my whole face–and listen.



The Value of Irreverence

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Kristen and I met Jean Kelly, new friend and colleague and fellow woman-of-a-certain-age, at the Convivium conference in Pittsburgh. We’re delighted to have her guest blog for us today on intemperate older women.

Monday’s daily reading, Titus 2:1-8, 11-14, put me in mind of a presentation Marybeth and Kristen gave last week at a conference sponsored by Convivium journal. In “Women-of-a-Certain-Age Discuss What it is to be Crones Who Read and Write” we discussed how the wisdom of older woman is seriously undervalued in contemporary American culture and our church.

But here was Paul, admonishing his followers in Crete “to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age,” going on to specifically instruct older men and women to be role models for the next generation.

“Older men should be temperate, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, love, and endurance,” Paul wrote in his epistle to Titus.  Check.

Then it was our turn: “Older women should be reverent in their behavior, not slanderers, not addicted to drink, teaching what is good.”

Okay, I do need to be reminded it is too easy to slander my soon-to-be-ex husband. And a second glass of wine often makes that first temptation even more difficult to resist.

But as I kept reading, Paul’s enlightened advice derailed. I ran smack up against the sexism so common in the Bible: it devalues women and restricts them to the role of suffering wife and mother, something I lived for more than twenty years. I squirm in my seat every time my Church chooses to read passages like this out loud at Mass:

“…teaching what is good, so that they may train younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, chaste, good homemakers, and under the control of their husbands.”

Uh, no.  I was with you, Paul, until that last line.

In fact, I only fault Paul to a point for his traditionalist views circa 66 AD.  But what excuse does the Church have for choosing these verses, while excluding the two that follow right after? The reading specified verses 1-8 and 11-14, leaving out 9-10.

So of course I read Titus 2:9-10: “Slaves must be obedient to their masters in everything, and do what is wanted without argument; and there must be no pilfering — they must show complete honesty at all times, so that they are in every way a credit to the teaching of God our Saviour.”

So the commission that created the Roman Catholic Mass lectionary in 1970 decided a reference to slaves was out of date or irrelevant, but a passage dictating women be controlled like slaves and kept in the home was okey-dokey?

The church’s daily readings for Mass come from a lectionary created just after Vatican II and only slightly updated since. In a 3-year cycle, labeled A-C, it covers much of the Bible. Almost.

As David Philippart observed in U.S. Catholic, “An inherent problem in any lectionary is what’s left out. Scriptures about women—the Books of Ruth, Esther, and Judith for example—are infrequent.” No kidding.

In my daily lectio divina, I am annoyed to think a committee of men from a time when I thought I looked good in bell bottoms still decides what I read or hear at Mass.  And now that my vision has progressed ineffectively into my cronehood, I resent having to hold my Bible closer to the lamp just to see the tiny verse numbers to be skipped. That is why I always make a point of reading what is left out of the daily readings. What goes unsaid and untaught.

So perhaps Paul is right. I am not reverent enough.  Or maybe as a “woman-of-a-certain age” I have earned the right to be a little irreverent. So, younger women, please love your families and have self-control. But when necessary, be irreverent, too.

Jean P. Kelly is embracing her cronehood in Columbus, Ohio, where she is currently writing a book chronicling her literary-spiritual pilgrimages. In 2019 she will launch a podcast about lectio divina.