Saturday, March 26, 2022

The Origins of Housework - Part 2

"Home interprets heaven. Home is heaven, for beginners."

- CHARLES HENRY PARKHURST

For a man who described Himself as "the one who has no place to lay his head", Jesus was remarkably familiar with the details of housekeeping. He spoke in parables about houses and householders, about sweeping and lamplighting, about vessels that appeared clean on the outside but were soiled within. He often joined others in their home to share a meal, and after healing a little girl, his first instruction were, "Give her something to eat." (Mark 5:43)

Jesus regarded domesticticity, but did not exhault it as the highest form of service to God. In the story of Mary and Martha, when Mary sits at Jesus' feet listening to His teaching while Martha is busy preparing a meal for Jesus and his followers, Martha complains to Jesus that Mary isn't helping her; "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me."

Jesus response is as notable for what it does not say as for what He does say. He does not hurridly rush Mary into the kitchen. He does not commend Martha for her single-minded focus on domestic matters, instead He treats Martha with the same perplexing seriousness with which He treats other disciples, "Martha, Martha, you are troubled about many things, one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her."

There is a similar story earlier in the Bible in the gospel of Luke in which Jesus invites a man to follow Him and the man asks for permission to first bury his father. to which Jesus replies, "Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." (Luke 9:60). It was unthinkable to believe that a son should neglect to bury his father, and Jesus' instructions posed a startling assumption about what comes first. And with Martha, that it was equally unthinkable that anyone should neglect to feed the hungry stranger at their door.

By Jesus' judgement, even so obviously necessary a task as burying one's parents take second place to following Jesus, and likewise, the moral duty to welcome a stranger, takes second place to listening to Jesus teaching. The first commandment, "To love the Lord your God with all one's heart, and soul and strength and mind" clearly, always takes precedence over the second commandment, "To love one's neighbor as oneself." But in real life, it is not possible to love God without loving your neighbor, and a primary way of loving one's neighbor, is to feed and house and clothe them.

In fact, Jesus says that feeding the hungry and clothing the naked equals feeding and clothing Jesus himself (Matthew 25:40). Jesus is served even as we peform such duties. Jesus speaks of a future hope, that suggests that the activities of making a home are in direct relation to his own redemptive work; "In my Father's house are many rooms,", he assures his disciples (John 14:2), "If someone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him." (John 14:23).

The "homely" character of redemption is one of the overarching themes in scripture. God leads the children of Israel to the promised land whose blessings are envisoned as homes to dwel in, clothes to wear, food to eat and drink to satsify thirst. The prophectic hope in the midst of homes despoiled, which is especially fitting in this time, is of "peaceful habitations, secure dwellings, quiet resting places" (Isaiah 32:18). Paul envisions redemption as finally being clothed (2 Corinthians 5:4), and the book of Revelation offers the hope of a well-ordered and beautiful city in which God dwells with his people (Revelation 21).

The Christian story of redemption is a story that moves from home to home. The journey from Eden to the new Jerusalem is one that is characterized by exile and pilgrimage, but also by shelter on the way. And shelter is necessary for creatures like ourselves. For what child can remember Eden or long for Jerusalem who has never had any temporal home at all? The practicalities of housekeeping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, are the things that ground our existance in the particular time and places in which we live, and in doing so, make it possible for us to keep alive the memory of our first home in paradise. and the hope of our eternal home with God in His new creation.

“The ordinary acts we practice every day at home are of 
more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest.”

- THOMAS MOORE

So what really matters? Well, housework. It is not the only thing that matters, but it does matter. It matters that people have somewhere to come home to, and that there be beds and meals and space and order available there. whether we do a lot of housework, or a little or it. whether we keep house only for ourselves or for other people as well, housework forms part of the basic patterning of our lives, a pattern that we might identify as a kind of "litany of everyday life"

A litany is a form of prayer that includes the announcement of various needs followed by a response like, "Amen", or "Lord have mercy". Litanies have long been popular with lay people who found in their structure and flexibility, a way to speak to their concerns in tangible and accessible ways. Litanies are both repetitive and comprehensive, and in both of these characteristics there is a certain analogy to housework. 

A litany is typically about a lot of different things; it requests assistance and care from God on a variety of matters. In doing so, it draws together our needs and concerns and calms their potentially overwhelming nature. 

Housework, too, is about a lot of different things. There are errands to be run, meals to be planned, clothes to be laundered, messes to be dealt with. It doesn't take very much disorganization before you begin to feel  that you are trying to juggle a dozen balls and they are all coming crashing down around you. But there is a fundamental focus and unity to housework, too. It is about a certain number of basic needs. If over the course of the day and week and year, the members of your house get dressed and fed and bathed and put to bed, then you can know that you have done the things that matter most.

Housework is repetitive, as well. You cannot pick up a room once and be done with it forever. Everytime you cook a meal, it disappears a short time after, and within a few hours, everyone is hungry again. Clothes laundered today will be in the hamper tomorrow. Anyone who keeps house may be tempted to throw up their hands in defeat.

But we would do well to listen to the phisopher, Soren Kierkagaard; "Repitition is the daily bread that satisfies with benediction". The sun comes up every morning, Christians gather every Sunday, to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Every year brings the cycle of the seasons, and of the Christian calendar, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, Pentecost and Ordinary Time. 

Housework is akin to these natural and human rhythms of the day, week, month and year. We fix lunch because it is lunchtime. We wash the clothes or the windows because it is Monday or sunny. We pack away our coats and boots and get our shorts and sleeveless shirts because winter is over and summer is coming. As we engage with the litany of everyday life, we engage with life itself, with our fellow human beings, with the world in which God has set us all, and thus with God himself. 

The particular form this litany takes will look different for different people at different times. There is no right way to keep house, for such depends on who is doing the housework, for whom and under what circumstances. But housekeeping is part of a tradition that takes seriously, the basic homely needs of people for food and clothing and shelter. These are needs that God takes seriously and that Jesus encourages Christians to take seriously. They are not the only important things in the world, but they are important, they have intrinisic significance and worth that is too often lost amidst the busyness and technological background noise of the modern world. 

"Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, 
and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. " 

- ROMANS 12:1 (The Message)


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