St. John’s Convent, December 29, 2016
Sr. Constance Joanna
“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”
These are the theme words that are spoken in the beautiful 2011 film The Help. It takes place at the height of the American Civil Rights Movement in 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi – ostensibly the worst of all the states for its mistreatment and persecution of African Americans.
Aibileen, the black housemaid for a prominent and wealthy Jackson family, says to the toddler she looks after, in her southern black Creole dialect: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” She makes the child repeat the words. And when Aibileen is later fired because she has spoken out against the injustices to African Americans, she speaks these words to the child again, and again makes her repeat them. “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” As she leaves the house, the toddler screams after her, “Aibileen, don’t leave.” Aibileen is the only person in her life who has made her feel special, who has taught her that she is loved.
The words are in strong contrast to the institutionalized racism of the south. Somehow Aibileen must have grown up hearing these words from her own mother – how else could she possibly have survived the verbal abuse she received from her white employers? Particularly the “you is kind” part.
But would this white toddler that she looks after grow up to teach her children that they were special and loved? Or would she simply interpret the words as an expression of her own sense of entitlement? Would she be kind as well as smart and important? That is an issue at the heart of today’s readings.
In the gospel, Mary and Joseph bring their child to be presented to God in the temple, and they make the customary offering required of a poor family – a couple of small birds. They did what many young couples did at the time. But there was something special about this child and this event. Simeon, known to the people in Jerusalem as a holy man who prayed for the coming of the Messiah, took the child in his arms and praised God in the words we have come to know as the Song of Simeon and which we sing at Compline every night:
He could now die rejoicing because his hope had been fulfilled:
Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)
How that song must have warmed the hearts of Mary and Joseph – and most likely the child as well. Even at 40 days old, a child knows when he or she is loved; a child can feel the meaning of the words “you are special, you are kind, you are smart.” Even if they can’t yet process the words intellectually, they know they mean “you are loved.”
And Simeon’s song was not the first time that Mary and Joseph had heard words about their special child. Mary heard them from the angel Gabriel. Joseph heard the message when an angel spoke to him in a dream. Mary heard it again when she visited her cousin Elizabeth and the child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy, Elizabeth responding with the words “blessed are you and blessed is the child in your womb.” They both heard it on the night of Jesus’ birth, from angels and from shepherds. This child is special, holy, loved. He will also be kind, and smart, and important – not self-important but important because he is God’s beloved and important to salvation history.
And – Simeon now adds when he blesses Mary and Joseph – “he is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34)
This holy and special child has come to teach that every human being is holy and special, and that message is going to threaten the establishment – as it did 2,000 years later in Jackson, Mississippi. And as it is doing now in Europe and North America.
Writing nearly 100 years after Jesus’ birth, and with the hindsight of the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, someone in the community of St. John wrote:
Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness. (1 John 2:9-11)
This is a really strong reminder that while God has created each of us to be unique, special, holy – to be God’s beloved – we have also been created to share that love, to love others as God loves us.
The toddler’s mother in the movie declares “I am a Christian woman” and yet she has no respect for either the lower classes of white people she calls “white trash” or for black people. But Aibileen demonstrates a love for her own children and her own people as well as for the rich white children she looks after and for the ostracized “white trash.” Her love is universal, and like Jesus it drives her to work for justice.
Aibileen is clearly a follower of Jesus, and she lives out Jesus’ teachings. She is also a kind of Simeon who can raise up a child and say “you are special.”
May you be kind, sharing Jesus’ love with all.
May you be smart – smart enough to know how desperately others need your love.
And may you know you’re important – not with the self-importance that can cause us to treat each other unkindly, but with the importance that comes from knowing we are God’s beloved and are meant to share God’s love in every way we can.