There was something different about the Lionesses’ goal celebrations at the European Championships this summer. Not only different from men’s football, but also different from other women’s football teams.
Note the way players like Beth Mead and Georgia Stanway walked away after scoring: smiling, not grunting, hands up but open. Not the ubiquitous clenched fists of typical sportsmen. They are fierce competitors, but the emotion is extremely cheerful rather than aggressive.
Then there was Chloe Kelly’s extra time winner in the final at Wembley. The pure joy of the swirling shirt. The author, Lucy Ward, nailed it with her tweet which went viral:
This image of a shirtless woman in a sports bra – extremely meaningful. It’s a woman’s body – not for sex or show – just for the sheer joy of what she can do and the power and skills she has. Tremendous. #lionesses pic.twitter.com/Bjrpozf6kj
— Lucy Ward 🇺🇦 (@lucymirandaward) July 31, 2022
There’s that word – joy – again. If you take a look at some of the pictures taken by fans, which shows more of the pitch, you’ll see two players just and quietly hugging each other in midfield. Another deals with her teammate’s cramp – knowing they are minutes away from triumph, but still looking out for each other.
Much, if not all, of that mental attitude must be due to their coach, Sarina Wiegman. It’s really quite unusual in the sport – and its women’s football which seems to have brought it to the fore. Each player showed unbridled joy in the other’s ability and power; the equal of anyone, not just in sport, but in the world.
Come the revolution
Apart from Wiegman, where does he come from? Funnily enough, I remember a rock-gospel anthem by Carly Simon, “Let the river run”, the soundtrack to the 1989 film A hard worker: “Let the river flow / May all dreamers / Awaken the nation / Come, New Jerusalem.”
The idea of New Jerusalem goes back to the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, through the New Testament book of Revelation, to William Blake’s 1804 poem, which provided the lyrics for the hymn Well known as “Jerusalem”. The idea, throughout history, is that there is a new kind of city of God, built on joy and love rather than aggression and subjugation.
It’s the girls we’re celebrating right now, thanks to the Lionesses
Ward’s tweet (I respectfully presume) had no such intent, but in the ancient world in which New Jerusalem was first asserted, a woman’s body was very exclusively for “sex or show” . It’s all too easy to ignore the social and sexual revolution unleashed by the early Christian movement — largely because the Church it spawned did its best to eradicate it for centuries.
When the first disciples of Christ are locked in their refuge in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, we are told the story of Mary and Martha. Martha complains about doing all the work, while Mary listens to the Nazarene. Jesus tells Martha to leave Mary alone. (see Luke 10:38-42).
This is still widely held as proof that Bible study is more important than housework. Well, duh. The biggest problem is that Mary is in the room with men, which would have been unheard of when there was a man’s job, like theology, to do.
The gender equality of joy is present in all the gospels for those who seek it – from the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4) to the woman caught “in adultery” (most likely a euphemism for prostitution, see John 7:53 – 8:11); from the Syrophoenician woman at the table of men who begged Jesus for a miracle (Mark 7:24-30) to Mary Magdalene as the first witness to the risen Christ (John 20:11-16). And that’s before we get to the liberated and powerful women of the epistles and Acts, like Lydia (Acts 16:11-15) and Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2).
It’s a woman’s body – not for sex or show – just for the sheer joy of what she can do
These are stories of women that bring tears to your eyes, especially because they were buried under the stones of the temple of patriarchy. And it’s this depth of story that perhaps (albeit unknowingly) contributed in part to the sheer emotion that accompanied the Lionesses’ victory, which was surely much more than just a game of football. The tears were abundant and their source is perhaps not so mysterious.
Play our part
England veteran Jill Scott said with emotion that all the hands that came before in the women’s game would be on their trophy. I suggest that by sharing their joy, there are even more hands on it. Christian history does not have this, but it is a recognizable source.
There are other, more recent sources of the emotion that accompanied the Lionesses’ feat. After two years ravaged by Covid and the harrowing horrors of violence against women, including the kidnapping, rape and murder of Sarah Everard, the well of tears is all too easily pierced by such images of female joy.
Once again we return to our old and recurring sources of joy in Christ. Let’s go back to the Carly Simon song: “We come to the edge / Run on the water / Through the fog / Your sons and your daughters”.
These are the girls we are celebrating right now, thanks to the Lionesses. So let the river flow – it’s a river of tears of pure joy.