Few women in the Bible are more interesting, inspiring and the focus of devotion as Mary, mother of Jesus. With the Advent season upon us, she is receiving even more attention. Tomes of theology and vast collections of art have been created in her honor. When we consider the Christmas story, Mary comes a very close second to Jesus himself as a the leading character — and with good reason. This brave young woman was the human vessel in which the God-made-flesh was conceived. It was from her own strong body that the body of Christ was birthed into the world.
Christmas is coming. We are in the season of Advent, a time of waiting. Advent is the story of women. It is the story of infertility, long awaited hopes, unplanned pregnancy, miracles, labor, birth, redemption, and new life. And this story of women is the story of Christianity, of waiting for the Messiah, and waiting for redemption.
The story of advent begins with Elizabeth, a woman who has been unable to conceive throughout her life, and is beyond her child bearing years. Her experience of infertility, and the disappointment of being unable to conceive is uniquely feminine. She lives the story and struggle that only a woman can know. Then God steps into her world.
Along with Christmas, Advent is the glorious and only time of year when Christians across the theological spectrum can agree on women’s participation in God’s work.
In Advent, we do not exclude women from signaling God’s presence (Isaiah 7:14). Let the day arrive when the whole Church* welcomes women’s ordained service in mediating the Divine!
In Advent, we acknowledge the strong-willed, outsider women who shaped Jesus’ lineage (especially Tamar, Rahab and Ruth in Matthew 1:1-5). Let the day quickly come when the Church heeds women’s voices speaking prophetically from the margins!
Recently, I heard a sermon preached almost entirely on Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew. I was visiting a church I attended in my youth, a place where I learned a lot of what I’ve needed to unlearn about theology of women. I was delighted to see that the pastor immediately picked out the women in the narrative, a little disappointed to realize that he did so only to point out that they were all foreigners, with the exception of Mary. But this got me thinking in another direction, as sermons so often do. I began to think through these five women, to question what else they might have in common.
I really never understood the sister relationship. I grew up as the only daughter and only granddaughter on both sides of my family. But in the past 21 years I have had a crash course in what it means to be a sister through my four girls.
I have learned that sisters can be very similar and still very different. No matter how many times this one may borrow that one’s sweater, she will never know when it was ok to take it without asking. I have learned they may fight with you at home but anyone else will have to deal with them first hand if they speak poorly about you.
I have learned that even the best of sisters try hard not to compare themselves to each other, but often fall into this trap anyway.
Consider the story of Mary and Martha. In the Church we have often compared these sisters to ourselves and others.
I can’t imagine a world in which it would be culturally acceptable for a hostess to walk up to her guest of honor and ask him to have a word with her sister, who was not anticipating the needs of her guests with the same alacrity as the hostess (especially loudly enough for at least one eyewitness to hear and write about it). That is not the world that I live in, and it was certainly not the world that Martha of Bethany inhabited.
I’ve heard quite a number of sermons about “Mary and Martha” over the years, and they have all had the same tenor: Strive to be more like Mary and less like Martha. Martha has come to represent the influence of the world (with her distraction and busyness) and Mary seems to represent the ideal Christian woman, sitting at Jesus’ feet, at least, in the eyes of many Christians I’ve heard speak.
Just over a year ago, I was captured by the story of Martha. It was a season of recovery for me. I was having trouble finding the strength to “do” my faith the way I’d been taught through my formative years. Have you ever had a Biblical person reach out and grab you, asking to be noticed? That is what happened with Martha. I haven’t been able to stop reading her story since, over and over.
I read Matthew 27:55-56 recently and saw something I had not noticed before. There were many female followers at Jesus’ crucifixion – many. I had previously imagined that only a few women had accompanied Jesus and made the trip all the way from Galilee to Jerusalem – usually a journey of several days.
These women had travelled to be with Jesus and to minister to him by taking care of his needs. From this group of many, Matthew identified just three of the women: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the unnamed mother of the sons of Zebedee. Mark, in his parallel account, also lists just three women: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and Salome, but he adds that many other women from Galilee were near the cross with them (Mark 15:40-41 cf Mark 16:1).
Perhaps the most revealing glimpse into Mary’s true character can be found in the Magnificat…a bold and subversive prayer that reveals her own hopes for this special child and the future of Israel.