Women of the Bible and Holy Week

Salomon de Bray, Jael, Deborah and Barak (1635)
(If you don’t know what the tent peg is for, read Judges 4-5)

Sarah at A Beaten Copper Lamp of Deplorable Design, has a post on “Girl-Power Bible Movies,” in which she writes reviews of four different films about Old Testament heroines Ruth and Esther. I haven’t seen any of the movies she’s reviewing, but I loved how she tied the topic in with Holy Week:

Women are everywhere in the story of Holy Week. For some reason most are named Mary, and they’re always present. They have a lot of feelings – there’s a lot of crying – but they also get. stuff. done. When they make big displays of foot-anointing emotion, Christ is appreciative, not dismissive. Whether wiping Jesus’ pained face, anointing His body, or learning about the Resurrection while the guys cower in fear, these women serve God in powerful ways. Salvation history would not be the same without them. 
The ladies of the Old Testament are the same way. It’s a shame there aren’t more movies about them, because their stories are laden with peril, drama, romance, and even comedic timing. That’s Hollywood gold, people! I get why there are no R-rated films [with] Judith and Jael slaughtering enemy generals, but there’s a lot of untapped cinematic potential.

This is something that I think gets overlooked too often in debates about the place of women within the Church.  From the Old Testament on down through the ages, Scripture and the Church have venerated holy women, without fear for what society might think about a woman’s place.

But this point cuts both ways.  Too often, there’s an assumption that the all-male clergy of the New Testament is simply a capitulation to the times, and that Jesus just did not want to move precipitously, upsetting the very fabric of Jewish culture.  This assumption is foolish: if you think that Jesus didn’t want to upset the very fabric of Jewish culture, you need to re-read the New Testament (Mt. 10:34-38).  Scripture, both Old and New Testament Scripture, is full of women being praised, often for doing things that were radically counter-cultural.  And the New Testament is clear on the centrality of women to the Gospel.  Pope John Paul II captures this well in Mulieris Dignitatem, his 1988 letter on the dignity and vocation of women:

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres,
Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII (1854)

In calling only men as his Apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner. In doing so, he exercised the same freedom with which, in all his behaviour, he emphasized the dignity and the vocation of women, without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time. Consequently, the assumption that he called men to be apostles in order to conform with the widespread mentality of his times, does not at all correspond to Christ’s way of acting. 

He reiterates this a few years later, in 1994’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the Apostolic Letter explaining that no pope has the power to ordain women, because it’s not part of the design Christ left to the Church. But he adds this:

Furthermore, the fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, received neither the mission proper to the Apostles nor the ministerial priesthood clearly shows that the non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as discrimination against them. Rather, it is to be seen as the faithful observance of a plan to be ascribed to the wisdom of the Lord of the universe.

So, on the one hand, women aren’t called to mimic men. Equality doesn’t mean interchangability. But on the other hand, they play a vital role in the Kingdom of God, a role carved out for them by Jesus Christ Himself, and a role that often goes beyond what society or culture might expect.  And we can see this in a vivid way on Holy Week, when Scripture reminds us that when the Disciples fled in fear (Mt. 26:56), it was the women who followed Christ to the foot of the Cross that we’re called to this week (Jn. 19:25).

1 Comment

  1. From the Old Testament on down through the ages, Scripture and the Church have venerated holy women, without fear for what society might think about a woman’s place.

    This point can’t be emphasized enough. If one were to take the time to read other writings from the Ancient World, one would quickly see how different the Gospels are in regards to women.

    Take Lysias for example, in the work “Against Eratosthenes” his wife, and his maid-servant are only referred to as “the woman” and “the girl”. They aren’t even named, let alone have anything really to say that isn’t said for them by Lysias himself.

    Throughout the Ancient World, with the exception of private letters and other private documents that aren’t meant for a wide audience, women are at most cardboard props to the story: ie Helen of Troy is only a pretty face for the most part that moves the story along, and at worst they are evil creatures like Medusa or the Sirens that can only bring destruction with them.

    The writings of Cicero such as “de Re Publica” or “de Legibus”, both of those involve pretty much 100% men sitting around talking about the republic or about the laws. One could assume that there might be some women in the background that are never mentioned.

    The writings of Livy: Men built up Rome and fought Hannibal.

    * Caesar: Men conquered Gaul and won the Civil War.

    * Lucan, a contemporary of the Gospel authors, in his work “De Bello Civili”: Men won the civil war in that epic poem.

    * Tacitus: Men were the primary movers and shakers of the Early Empire with the glaring exception of the mother of Nero.

    The list goes on and on.

    The fact that women have names in the Gospels, as well as full-blown lines that they speak is Completely out of the ordinary. Add to that that one of those women is a Samaritan is totally mind-blowing when one seriously thinks about it. Not to mention that it was women who first discovered the Empty Tomb and that Jesus spoke to a woman first after His Resurrection.

    When compared to the rest of the Ancient World it would become obvious that the writers would NEVER make those things up.

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