Challenged and transformed: with thanks for rainbow people, this Lent

The following reflection was written by John Squires and Elizabeth Raine, and shared with the Rainbow Christian Alliance at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 13 March 2022.

In many churches, including the Uniting Church, today is called the Second Sunday in Lent. Our church follows the calendar of seasons that is held by many churches around the world; instead of spring, summer, autumn, winter, we have Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.

The season of Lent lasts for just six weeks, and it leads into the three day celebration of Easter. It’s called Lent, incidentally, not because it is tilted or skew-whiff, but because in the northern hemisphere, where such seasons were first given their names, the days are starting to lengthen (the name was Lencten in Old English).

In the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, Lent is a period of fasting. The day before, Mardi Gras, which is French for Fat Tuesday, was a day to use up all the fatty goods in the kitchen — eggs, flour, milk — so they were out of the way for Lent. The day is also known as Pancake Tuesday. In South America, in countries where Roman Catholicism was the dominant religion, Mardi Gras became a public festival, a day not only to feast, but a day for street parades, for big banquets to celebrate, with colourful costumes and extravagant public exhibitions of joy.

And that has surely been the inspiration for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, both in recent years with colourful and extravagant floats, and in the decades before, with lots of rainbow groups marching, and even in the early days of protest and attempting to “claim the streets” and “go public” about gays and lesbians and more.

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Immediately after Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, comes Ash Wednesday — a solemn day of penitence; and the fasting continued right through Lent, until Easter Sunday. We don’t actually do full-on fasting in the Uniting Church, but in recent times it has become customary to decide to “give up something for Lent” — chocolate and alcohol being the most common, but also more significant things like not driving your car and catching public transport; or not eating meat. In this way, Lent becomes a time of challenge, as we try to remind ourselves each day of the importance of being faithful to God. We “give up” so that we can focus in more clearly on God, if you like.

So there is already a connection between the season of Lent and rainbow people; because Lent starts immediately after Mardi Gras. And the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, now an institution in our annual public events; the extravagantly colourful celebrations of that event mark, if you like, the climax of joy as rainbow people celebrate that they are each made exactly as they are, and they can be happy about that.

We both enjoyed watching (on TV) the parade of organisations and people that were out and proud, out and loud, a week ago, walking unhindered around the SCG — a striking contrast to the first Mardi Gras, when police barricaded the road and people were arrested. It is truly wonderful to see that the rainbow colours can be flown in society, that people can acknowledge and declare who they are, and not be under threat of arrest.

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So in the cycle of seasons for Christians, after Mardi Gras comes Lent. And Lent is about giving up; or, at least, focussing intently on Jesus, the one in whom we see most clearly see God. How else might Lent relate to the experience of rainbow people?

There are a collection of stories that the church retells each year, in association with Lent. In preparation for Lent, the story is told of the day that Jesus was baptised: in the river Jordan, to the east of Jerusalem, fully submerged into the water by his crazy cousin John, baptising people as they repented of their sins.

John was crying out to the people who came to him, to repent; to change their way of being and living; to be transformed, completely, by being baptised. That’s what is meant by the single Greek word that John used, calling people to metanoia—to a complete transformation of who they are and how they love. Jesus came to that moment, willing to submit to that call, willing to experience metanoia in his own life.

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And yet for Jesus, this baptism became more than just the moment of call, or the moment of change; it was the moment when God publicly acknowledged him, when God declared, “this is my son, my beloved child; listen to him”. In that voice, booming from the clouds, a central affirmation is made: look at him, this is who he is; can you see that this is really who he is? And from that moment, Jesus began his mission of challenging people and transforming society.

The story of the baptism of Jesus tells us that, when God looks at us, God sees us exactly as we are; and we may well also hear God saying to use, and to those around us, “this is my child, my beloved one; I can see exactly who they are, and I am well pleased that this is who they are”. God sees me, a straight white male, and is well pleased; God sees a lesbian woman, and is equally well pleased; a trans man, and God is pleased; an intersex person, and is well pleased; an enbie, a gay, a pan sexual—God is just well pleased with each of us, as we are, and declares us to be beloved. And that means that we can get on with the kind of life that we each want to live, and are called to live.

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There’s another story about Jesus that is associated with Lent. It’s a story that, from our rather privileged, straight, perspective, sounds a great challenge to us. It’s a story about being changed; about being transformed. It’s a story that shows that being transformed means you are able to stand and challenge others to be transformed. It’s the story of when Jesus took his three closest friends to a mountain, and they had a shared experience of seeing Jesus standing between two of the greats of their people: Moses, to whom God had given the Law to govern the people of Israel, and Elijah, through whom God had established a long line of prophets in Israel.

The Gospel writers say that Jesus was transformed at that moment. But in this story, also, there is the indication that the friends of Jesus were transformed. That moment on the mountain was a challenge to each of them; the response that Peter wanted to make was seen to be inadequate. Jesus challenged him to respond differently. It was another moment when metanoia, complete transformation, took place. And these disciples did change; yes, it took some time, but these friends of Jesus ultimately became leaders amongst the followers of Jesus, and spearheaded the movement that became the church.

The change, the metanoia, that occurred within Peter, James, and John, spread widely. They faced the challenge head on, and responded with their own metanoia. That is mirrored, today, in changes that are taking place in society. As we watched the Mardi Gras last weekend, it soon became evident that this was no longer a side carnival, an event that was important to a minority group in society, and that’s all.

For the Mardi Gras—commercialised, mainstreamed, headlined and noticed—now reflects the way that society has been challenged—by you, by rainbow people—and how it has responded in metanoia, by being transformed. Banks, unions, police, sports teams, churches, golfing clubs, and more—all marched in the Mardi Gras, all affirming that there is a place in their ranks for rainbow people, no matter what letter an individual identifies with. And that reflects a very significant change in society, in which public acknowledgement and public discussion of gender and sexuality can take place.

Sure, there is still work to be done—much work to be done; many changes still to occur, deeper acceptance still to take place. But the changes are clear and evident; and it has been because those who themselves have been able to meet challenges by holding firm and calling for change, have then effected transformation, thoroughgoing change, in society. Rainbow people are changing our society. Last week’s Mardi Gras demonstrated that.

And for that, we are grateful, and say: thanks be to God.

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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