A Reflections on the Passage of Marriage Equality
Marriage Equality was passed by the Australian Parliament on December 7, 2017. The following speech was delivered by Michael Kelly at the Sydney Town Hall on December 24, 2017, as part of the annual Christmas Eve Service presented by the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) in Sydney. For over two decades MCC has offered this service of carols and readings as a gift to the city’s LGBTIQ communities, and to the people of Sydney.
Joy to the world! What a wondrous, grace-filled evening this is, as we gather together on this extraordinary Christmas Eve – a Christmas Eve that is, for us here Australia, one like no other!
It is a great honour and a true delight to be invited to be with you tonight, and to be asked to find some words, some reflections, some hints of insight into all that is stirring in our hearts and minds, in our souls and our bodies – and in the heart of our community – on this unique Christmas Eve.
I am very grateful to the people of MCC Sydney for inviting me to join you tonight – but then, each one of us is here in response to an invitation. Yes, an invitation from MCC, who have faithfully opened their doors and their community for some 22 Christmas Eves – but there is a deeper invitation – often barely glimpsed, deep in our spirits, that draws us here – perhaps in spite of ourselves, in spite of the endless distractions and diversions thrown at us in great cities like this – and in spite of the cynicism that contemporary societies so often evoke and promote.
What is it that has stirred within us tonight, and drawn us out of our homes, away from parties and shopping, from dinner and drinks, and even empowered us to navigate our way around the endless construction on George Street – to gather here and listen to ancient readings, sing old carols, share communion and listen to a gay theologian?
All around the world tonight, at midnight, millions of people of every race and gender and class will hear these words from a long-dead Jewish prophet: ‘The People that walked in darkness has seen a Great Light. On those who walked in a land of deep shadow, a Light has shone!’
All of us, each one of us, is here tonight because somewhere, somehow, sometime, we have, in our lives as LGBTIQ people, seen, however tentatively, Great Light! It is that seeing, that Light, that has drawn us here tonight. We come seeking to share that Light, to celebrate that Light, to be blessed again and again by that Light.
And yet, in the midst of this gathering, it is important to recognize that over these past few months, as we have endured the national debate about Marriage Equality, far too many of us LGBTIQ Australians have found old experiences of walking in darkness coming back to haunt us. There have been times when we felt, once again, that ours was a land where we had to walk in deep shadow – the shadow of oppression, judgment, exclusion, condemnation. For all of us, and especially those of a certain age, like me, this experience evoked visceral memories of darkness – both personal and communal – that we once thought would never give way to light.
I’d invite us all to take a moment, to be still, and to go within. Let’s close our eyes, slow down our breathing, feel our bodies sitting in this room in the heart of Sydney, and allow the noise of the city outside to fall away. Let’s all take a moment of silence together …
In the secrecy of your own heart, I invite you to remember your own experience of walking in darkness: a darkness within, where hope seemed impossible; darkness without, where the communities that claimed to love you demanded, however subtly, the sacrifice of the deepest longings of your heart and your body. Remember how it felt to walk in that darkness. We’ve all had moments of deep darkness – dare to taste yours once again. Remember that people all around the world, tonight, still walk in such darkness.
Now I invite each of us to become deeply present to that moment when you first began to glimpse, however tentatively, the fragile, hint of light – the first dawning of the possibility that being who you are, desiring how you desire, loving how you love – might just, perhaps, be ok – might even, maybe, be good.
Feel again that moment. How did it come? In a conversation? During prayer? While reading a book? While watching a movie? Was it at a time of desperation and hopelessness? Was it during love-making and sexual play? Did it come through someone else – whose kind word or soft touch or tentative kiss somehow brought a gentle, tender light into your land of deep shadow?
Sit with that light for a moment. Feel again the first breath of hope, of freedom, of quiet joy that it brought – that first hint of light in your darkness. Holy Light. Love’s pure light. Light that liberates and heals and empowers. – sometimes very tentative, but ultimately irresistible. Light that has stayed with you all these years – and that has brought you – us – here tonight. The people that walked in darkness have indeed seen Great Light!
Sometimes the Light breaks through with passion and clarity, in one transforming moment – sometimes it is gentle and it grows quietly and steadily stronger and more radiant – often over many years. And yet, however it may have dawned in our individual lives, all of us are here tonight because we, in our own darkness, have seen, and trusted in, Great Light.
Over the past twenty years I have been reflecting on the ways our spiritual and sexual journeys interweave and inform, enrich and transform each other. This has involved some in-depth spiritual interviews with, in particular, gay men. A few years ago, as part of my doctoral research, I interviewed a man I will call David. I would like to read a brief excerpt from that interview for you.
David had grown up in a rigidly repressed Irish Catholic family. He had struggled for years to crush any hint of desire or passion or sexual feeling. One evening, while still a young man, he was gently drawn into love-making by another man. I said to David: So this was the first time you had ever…
David: Ever touched a man. Let alone touched every part of his body!
Me: And he yours
David: And he mine. He loved my body – which was beyond comprehension – how did that happen?
Me: How was that for you? We’ve talked about some pretty dark and deep things and long periods of depression and repression…
David: It’s astounding – I received it so happily and graciously – and as I look back, I didn’t feel guilt or shame about it…
Me: So, what did you feel?
David: I felt – alive! I felt seen and known and desired and free to do exactly carnally what I wanted to do. And I was amazed that I knew everything I wanted to do – it was all there, it was all present, and it was coming out with joy and passion and noise and…. I felt totally alive in it and loved it… I was alive, I felt totally alive, I felt totally integrated – that word is even too intellectual – I felt totally me. I felt totally like a creature of God – there were no little parts on the edges that were feeling unwelcome…
‘The Light shines in the darkness’. ‘The Word was made flesh’. ‘I came that you may have life, and have it to the full!’ So often these words of Scripture are taken to refer only to some sort of inner spiritual realm, some rather ethereal, other-worldly kind of reality, or they are applied to a claim that somehow God saves us in spite of our murkiness and ineradicable sin.
Tonight I want to say that the Light shines, the Word is made flesh within and through and as US – in our flesh and in our concrete, real, sweaty, messy, realities – and that wherever a person is being freed to be themselves, to touch and be touched with reverence and passion, to feel their humanness, to delight in the goodness of their body, to dare to imagine a life that brings joy and freedom into their hearts, there – in that place and person – Christ is being born, Divine Love is becoming flesh, salvation is being made real. This is the Incarnation, this is the message of Christmas.
At the same time, this inner birth, for all its power and wonder, is not simply a personal and private liberation – it also happens in the concrete realities of our time and our culture. There is one Light, one radiance, and it shines in and for everyone. David, whose words I have just quoted, went on to live a long life of dedicated service, through the worst of the AIDS epidemic, and in his late sixties he is still helping others to find health and inner freedom. This dawning of light is transformative in the deepest sense – and it spreads out into the world and into the communities around us – and everyone here tonight, I believe, has sensed this light and tasted this transformation. We LGBTIQ people have known many people in our lives and in communities who have broken through personal and communal darkness and who have then gone on to pour out their lives in shining, radiant service and love.
A great Christian mystic once wrote: ‘What good is it to me that Mary gave birth to the Son of God hundreds of years ago, if I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture? We are all meant to be mothers of God. God is always needing to be born’.
These words can be a bracing corrective to the sentimentality that often saturates Christmas. They are also a corrective to the cynicism we can sometimes feel – another Christmas with endless carols on a music-loop, in every department store and every elevator! Another December with the implicit demand that we get excited – again – about a feast most of us have celebrated for more years than we care to number!
What this mystic – Meister Eckhart – is saying tonight, right here in Sydney, on this Christmas Eve, is this: ‘Tell me about the Holy Birth within YOU! How did YOU first begin to sense the birth of light and freedom and love within your actual life – and – how are you bringing that same light and love and freedom to birth in your community and your society?
This Holy Birth is not only about expanding our individual hearts and bringing us personal freedom and joy and a new and deeper kind of breathing – it is also empowers us to live in the world in such a way that we re-make it. In such a way that we re-make it.
And re-make it we have.
I began this talk by asking us to do some reflection on our personal experience of light shining in the darkness. Our society, too, has walked in darkness and the shadow of death – many of us here tonight have experienced that first hand. And yet, in the space of half a lifetime we have transformed Australia from a place where poofters and perverts were to be bashed or jailed, to a society that overwhelmingly affirms that not only are our relationships to be tolerated, they are to be celebrated and honoured! WE have done this – it didn’t happen through some kind of societal or spiritual osmosis – it happened through us living and loving with courage and passion and freedom and honesty, through our persistent refusal to be consigned to walk in darkness and the shadow of death. It happened through 22 years of Christmas Eve services like this.
We have brought this holy light to birth in our world, in our time and in our culture.
This is the Incarnation! This is Divine Love becoming flesh in us and in our society. This is the radiance of Love’s pure light – as the carol so beautifully puts it. This love not only re-creates individual hearts, it critiques, challenges, and changes social, cultural and political structures. As this love is born, again, in our time, the concrete realities of our world become permeable to the transforming possibility of justice, freedom, compassion, and radical inclusion. And this love always gathers with particular intensity around those who have been, in any age, consigned to the shadows and the margins. For, ultimately, no one and no situation, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, is excluded from the embrace of the One whose name is Love.
And here, we encounter Mystery. For yes, the birth of the Light is about each of us and our human communities and the path towards freedom, love and transformation – and yet, none of this can begin to exhaust the wonder, the grace, the inexpressible immensity of the embrace we celebrate tonight. Heaven and earth meet here and kiss – God embraces matter, flesh, creation, the entire cosmos, in the heart of that little baby.
In the wonder of Christmas we are caught up in something that reaches into the deepest parts of ourselves – and that is also beyond us and our individual and communal struggles. This is of God. This is the Love that moves the sun and the stars. What can we say of it?
All of our words are only stammering responses to the mystery of God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, breathing in the tiny body of the Babe of Bethlehem – and, in a very real sense, in every baby.
If we cannot find words for the mystery itself, can we say something of what the Christmas message might mean for human living and loving? The Babe of Bethlehem, after all, was not just divine, cosmic love become human, he was born into a very real community and into a very troubled century. One theologian who has attempted to offer an example of what it means when divine love becomes human is James Alison, who is a gay theologian from the UK.
Alison says that in the Mystery of the Incarnation, in Christmas, it’s as if God’s love became a pebble of light, which was dropped into the vast dark pond of human experience. This little pebble of light, of liberation, of love without limit, without containment, without exclusion, sends out ripples of love and light all across the waters and over the centuries, embracing everything and everyone. In every age and in every culture these ripples of love wash up against a barrier, a boundary, a border, which was constructed by us humans to keep some people in and some people out. So often we call these barriers ‘sacred’ – and yet the ripples of love gently, inexorably wash them away.
As the ripples of love and light continue to spread out, embracing more and more of the human experience, they reach, in every age, a new barrier. There is, again and again, a pitched battle as some people proclaim, ‘this is the do or die moment – this is the last battle for all that is holy!’ and they frantically strive to shore up the sad little barriers that they think protect themselves and all that is sacred.
We have endured just such a battle in these past few months, as the protectors of the sacred barriers have sought to beat back the waves of equality and love and inclusion. How hard they struggled!
And yet, the waves of God’s irresistible love gently but surely ripple outwards like ever-embracing arms, and they erode and dissolve and wash away all the ‘sacred barriers’, including our own, and we discover that love is more wondrously vast, more gently powerful, and more utterly inclusive than we could ever have imagined.
Of course, all this does not happen by magic – but it does happen through grace, the grace embodied in our own lives and in our longing to live with integrity and freedom and to empower others to do the same.
Our celebrations this month, and here tonight, are all about the rippling out of this eternal, uncontainable love. We see this, we embrace this, and we rejoice! However, even in the midst of our joy, our relief and our delight, these celebrations will be ultimately empty if we are not aware of the barriers, exclusions and borders still waiting to be dissolved by love.
We are called, as ever, to be aware of all those who are still forced to walk in darkness and deep shadow, in the many ways this continues to happen in our society and around the world. This is the never-ending work of the Incarnation and the true meaning of Christmas – the call to welcome the stranger, to feed the hungry, to free the captives, to shelter the homeless, to care for the earth and her creatures.
We know – you and I – what it is to walk in a land of deep shadow. We know what it is to see Great Light. May our living, our loving, our divine incarnations, ever more freely and more passionately, bring light and radiance to every last corner of our world.
Michael Bernard Kelly PhD is an educator, activist and theologian. He is the author of Seduced by Grace: Contemporary Spirituality, Gay Experience and Christian Faith (Clouds of Magellan, 2007) and the forthcoming Christian Mysticism’s Queer Flame: Spirituality in the Lives of Contemporary Gay Men (Routledge, 2018). He is an Adjunct Research Associate in the Centre for Religious Studies at Monash University.