This morning I want to speak about something that some of you might feel inappropriate, although it is natural and healthy and the central image of the passage read to us from the book of Isaiah. I want to speak about the menstrual cycle.
We have heard read these words: ‘We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy rag.’ That sounds like a negative image, telling us that human beings are dirty before a clean God, and condemning those who think they are acceptable through works rather than through faith. But is that really the message Isaiah is conveying?
I don’t think so. Indeed, quite the opposite. And that is why the image needs a second and closer look. It is better translated in this way: ‘We have all become like a woman in her monthly confinement, and all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual cloth.’ To understand this image, we need to understand something of Jewish custom.
In Jewish custom, certain people were considered ‘unclean’ at certain times. This included women during their period, and following childbirth. ‘Unclean’ meant that the person was required to withdraw from public life, to be set apart for a certain duration and then welcomed back into everyday life. Orthodox Jewish women still remove themselves from the world, including their closest family, during their period – and consider it a gift, not a punishment.
To say that a woman in her monthly confinement is ‘unclean’ is not to say that biology is dirty, or that reproduction is dirty, or that simply being a woman is dirty – unless by dirty we mean the honest dirt of rolling up our sleeves and engaging with the world, as God does. The confinement of the ‘unclean’ is, rather, a sign, to themselves and to the wider community; a cause to stop and to be reminded of something. A visible sign pointing to an invisible experience.
Likewise, a menstrual cloth is a sign – and one that reveals what kind of ‘unclean’ person Isaiah refers to. It is evidence of two things: that a woman has the potential to be pregnant; and that she is not pregnant. That a woman has the potential to carry life within her; and that, for now, this remains unrealised potential. Being late is often the clue that a woman might be pregnant. And post the menopause, the potential to bear life draws to an end.
So if our righteous deeds are like a menstrual cloth, that is not to say that our righteous deeds are something negative – how could living in right relationship towards God and our neighbour, the very thing we are called to do, be considered negative? If our righteous deeds are like a menstrual cloth, this is to say that our righteous deeds are a sign that points to something.
To say, ‘We have all become like a woman in her monthly confinement, and all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual cloth’ is to say that Isaiah’s community has become a sign. A sign of the tension between the real potential to experience God’s presence in our midst and the actual experience of God’s absence.
Isaiah is saying that, as we long for God to come to us, we live with the paradox of hope and absence.
But Isaiah is addressing God, and what he is saying to God, around this image, is: please hasten your coming and do not delay; because in the same way that a couple hoping to conceive lose hope that it will ever happen, so people have lost hope; and having lost hope, they have fallen short of the love that contends for the greatest possible good in all circumstances, and have settled for something less.
Which is what is meant by sin.
God, you have hidden yourself from us, and we have settled for less.
Before we move on, I want to say this: that there are times when Scripture employs male pronouns and images to describe God or his people, where only a male image will do; and there are times when Scripture employs female pronouns and images to describe God or her people, where only a female image will do. I know that some people are uncomfortable with one, or the other, but these images are those that are given us by our faith tradition in order to point to deep truths. And they honour male and female, who bear the likeness of God – even if particular individuals we have known do not seem to us to be worthy of honour. Isaiah has given us an image that honours women, and that includes all humanity in a longing that the lived experience of women reveals.
Let us turn from Isaiah to Paul, writing to the church in Corinth. They are waiting for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. And in their waiting, Paul assures them that God will strengthen them to the end, and reminds them that God is faithful.
Paul’s community faces the same tension of hope and absence that Isaiah’s community faced. Isaiah prayed for God to come to his people, and 600 years later, Jesus came into the world. Imagine how much longer it would have taken if God hadn’t listened to Isaiah’s prayer! For the community in Corinth, Jesus had come into the world, but he had ascended to the Father and they were longing for his return.
We experience the same longing, as we look back to the first advent and look towards the second advent of our Lord, of God-with-us.
Let us, then, turn from Paul to Jesus. In our reading from the Gospel According to Mark, Jesus addresses the same theme. The tension of hope and absence, which will become the experience of those who wait. It is, as I hope you will have realised, the theme of the season of Advent, which begins today.
We hope for what we do not yet see, for when we see that which we have put our hope in, hope has served its purpose. Yet hope deferred eventually causes the heart to grow weary, causes us to draw back. Another cycle, another Advent, and Jesus still hasn’t returned.
Jesus says, ‘Keep awake.’ Paul writes, you have been enriched with everything you need, to persevere to the end. Isaiah gives us the poetic image that our being set apart for this period at the start of every new year, along with every act of being in right relationship with our neighbour, is a sign to us and to them that while we do not yet see the one we wait for, hope is still alive. Absence may continue, for now, but hope is renewed.
That is why we need Advent. That is the gift of Advent to us. Let us, then, enter our confinement gladly, and be strengthened by God, so that we may be ready to meet our Lord Jesus Christ on the day when he comes.
Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!