Learning from Mary, Mary, and the other Mary
My daughter was in fourth grade when she came home to tell me about the mass with the conservative bishop at her Catholic grade school. It was the Easter season, and the bishop was talking about the apostles: how they were the group of people that were closer to Jesus than anyone else and they were all men. My daughter turned her blue eyes up to meet mine and asked a question that still makes my heart hurt, “Does that mean I can’t be close to Jesus because I am a girl?” I held her in my arms and assured her that she could be as close to Jesus as she wanted to be, and Jesus loves girls just as much as he loves boys. While my words were calm and comforting, my insides were burning in fury.
As a married woman who worked in professional ministry my entire adult life, I was used to the double standard and dismissively arrogant attitude I experienced. One of three daughters, my father raised us all to be independent, strong, and confident in our relationship with Christ. Throughout my childhood, I never had a doubt that I was just as beloved as any man or boy in my parish. In the face of overt discrimination as an adult, I had grown accustom to reminding myself what the Gospels actually teach about the role of women, the truth of God’s call in my vocation, and the Divine love I experienced in my own spiritual life. I was calloused to the casual, sexist statements made by the Church’s hierarchy. It was my daughter’s desperate plea to be equally loved by God that woke me up and pierced my heart.
By paying attention to Jesus’ relationships to Mary of Nazareth, Mary of Magdala, and Mary of Bethany, it is evident that women do have a place in the Kingdom of God. This is good news for both women and men in the Church. Theologian Elizabeth Johnson says, “Not just Mary’s [of Nazareth] vocation but that of every woman – and man – is to partner Holy Wisdom in bringing about the reign of mercy and peaceful justice” (2001, 14). Johnson also claims that Jesus’ counter-cultural treatment of women added fuel to the call for his crucifixion. “His [Jesus’] inclusion of women coequally in the reign of God was part of the offense he gave” (1990, 110).
The writings on Mary of Nazareth indicate she was a prophet and the model of a faithful disciple. Predating Jesus, she announced with her words and her body the work of the Spirit. Gerald O’Collins writes about Mary’s role in demonstrating Jesus’ oneness with and the Spirit. “Gabriel says to Mary: ‘the Holy Spirit will come upon you.’ In the aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, Christians experienced the outpouring of the Spirit. They came to appreciate how the Spirit, sent them by the risen Christ or in his name, had been actively present in the whole of Christ’s life – not only at the baptism and start of his ministry but also right back to his conception” (2009, 294-295). Alicia Craig Faxon reminds us that Mary’s role is not beyond the reach of a woman today. “Mary was pure, devout, and responsive but she was not superwoman. God’s gift of his son to the world came through an ordinary woman, and untitled member of humanity, a partaker in God’s own creation” (1973, 23). Every woman is called to be a prophet and a disciple.
A different Mary, Mary of Magdala, is a prime example of how women were healed, called and sent during Jesus’ time and how they are healed, called and sent today. Elizabeth Johnson states the obvious. “Women were the first recipients of a resurrection appearance. All four gospels show that the women were commended to ‘Go and tell’ – that is, they received the apostolic commission to preach in witness to the risen Lord. All four gospels show that the women do” (1990, 110). Countless women work long hours in the Catholic Church for a meager salary and little to no prestige. Whether a ministerial call is recognized by the Church or not, it does not make the call less valid. The disciples disbelief of Mary of Magdala’s proclamation that Jesus had risen did not change the truth of the empty tomb that she held in her being.
Yet another ‘Mary,’ Mary of Bethany’s, tender connection with Jesus beautifully answers my daughter’s worried question. Yes, Jesus does desire a close and intimate relationship with every person, regardless of gender. By knowing Jesus, Mary was able to taste the equality all people find in the Kingdom of God. Joanna Collitcutt McGrath states, “The Gospels present us with a picture of the kingdom of God in which people participate through being known by Jesus” (2009, 77). Jesus then, and Christ today, stands up for women – like Mary of Bethany – who dare to be beloved. Satoko Yamaguchi puts Jesus’ response into perspective, “‘Let her be’ is the strongest liberating support a woman could wish to receive in such a milieu. If the historical Jesus spoke such words to support a certain daring action of a woman in the face of male opposition, surely women would not let them be forgotten but would hold on to the words for encouragement and support” (2002, 124). Christ surrounds and enfolds women who question and refuse to comply to norms that separate themselves from the presence of God.
While women are still not allowed to participate in ordained ministry and my daughter and I still must endure limiting teachings from the Church’s hierarchy, Christ’s inclusive message cannot be denied. The Spirit calls for all people to grow into wholeness yet lovingly embraces femininity and the female person. Alicia Craig Faxon states, “Christ didn’t ask women to hide their brains or abilities. He asked them to be fully, honestly themselves” (1973, 80). The women in scripture give us courage and confidence to lean into a counter-cultural way of being. Elizabeth Johnson writes, “He [Jesus] brings salvation through his life and Spirit restoring women to full personal dignity in the reign of God, and inspiring their liberation from structures of domination and subordination” (1990, 112). Living the Kingdom of God demands all people be treated as if they were equally holy, equally blessed, equally beloved – because they are.