Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Mary, Woman of Nazareth: Apostle, Liturgical Leader, and Bishop- A Role Model for Women's Empowerment by Bridget Mary Meehan ARCWP


Dr Ally Kateusz’s book, Mary and Early Christian Women : Hidden Leadership presents numerous texts and illustrations of women doing what men did in the early Church preaching, baptizing, and leading worship. She focuses on Mary, mother of Jesus, as a woman with spiritual authority who led the apostles, healed with her hands, exorcised evil spirits, officiated at Eucharist at the Last Supper with Jesus and who was depicted as a bishop. This portrait shatters the submissive woman stereotype and offers  Mary as a role model for women's empowerment that is egalitarian and  perfect for the 21st century. 

A mosaic ca. 650, San Venantius Chapel, Lateran Baptistery, Rome. Mary wears episcopal pallium with red cross, flanked by Paul and Peter. 1890's painting, De Rossi, Musaici cristianni, pl "Abside dell oratorio di S. Venanzio" P. 87, A. Kateusz, Mary and Early Christian Women
The author of the Protevangelium, an early extra canonical gospel, outside the New Testament Canon, twice stated that Mary had been inside the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple. According to Leviticus 16 and Hebrews 9:7, only a high priest was permeated to enter this sacred space. This text identifies Mary with the qualities of a high priest. The Gospel of Bartholomew, which scholars date around the third century, describes  Mary partaking of bread and wine at the Temple altar just before the Annunciation.

The Gospel of Bartholomew also portrayed her spiritual authority over the apostles. The author describes a debate between Mary and the male apostles on who is more qualified to lead them in prayer. In the end, the author concludes that Mary’s liturgical leadership is greater than Peter’s. The text states that Mary standing in front of the male apostles, said, “’let us stand up in prayer’.” Then the apostles stood behind Mary who “spread out her hands to heaven and began to pray.”  (Gospel of Bartholomew, 2:13, Sheneemelcher, New Testament Aprocrypha, 1:54 cited in A. KATEUSZ p. 7)


San Gennaro Catacombs, Naples, Fresco of Cerula
 In the fourth century, Bishop Epiphanius complained about women priests sacrificing bread to the name of Mary on the altar table. (Epiphanius of Salamis, Frank Panarion, 78:23.3-4, 79:1-7, (in Frank Panarion, 618,621, A. Kateusz, p. 8, 195) 



According to the Life of the Virgin, an early biography of Mary, Mary and the women disciples were present at the Last Supper. During the meal, first Mary, and then Jesus, modeled a ritual of female and male co-priesthood. In this source, Mary is portrayed as the teacher of the women and ‘for this reason,’ at the supper, ‘she sacrificed herself as the priest and she was sacrificed, she offered and she was offered.’ Then, Jesus offered his body and blood." Dr. Kateusz, concludes “This supper scene would appear to explain why Mary was widely portrayed as a Eucharistic officiant, for example, wearing the episcopal pallium or holding  the Eucharistic cloth, as well as why she and her son were paired on Eucharistic utensils.” (A. Kateusz,”’She sacrificed herself as the Priest’: Early Christian Female and Male Co-Priests’” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion,33, No. 1 (Spring 2017) 45-67 Feminae Article of the Month, 2018, cited in Mary and the Early Christian Women,  p, 133

 Dr. Kateusz notes that there are five mosaics in three basilicas that show women wearing this pallium. Two mosaics portray male bishops, two portray Mary, and one portrays Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist with an episcopal pallium hanging down in front, from beneath their coats. (The Visitation of Mary,  Mosaic 550, Euphraisana Basilica, Porec, Croatia, Wilpert, Romischen Mosaiken,  figure 313, A. Kateusz, p. 85. )




Other interesting artifacts show women and men in a gender-parallel liturgy inside two of the most prominent churches in Christendom-Old Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. 



This carving on an ivory reliquary box in Rome depicts female and male clergy with parallel roles in celebrating a Eucharistic liturgy.  This ivory reliquary box is dated 425-450 and was discovered near Polo, Croatia, Museo Archeologica, Venice, (cited in A. Kateusz, p. 165)

 A number of prominent scholars believe that a vast array of ancient extra canonical gospels and artifact provide data that support the following conclusions:  1) there were female and male leaders with equivalent authority around the Mediterranean in the early centuries of Christianity, 2)  women performed the same ministries as men did modeled after Mary; 3) they were referred to as "apostles" because they preached, sealed and baptized; and; and 4) women officiants, depending on their location and community, presided at Eucharist in house churches in the New Testament and were referred to as president, bishop, priest, presbyter, deacon and minister.  Additional evidence conclude that women functioned in the role of overseer, or bishop of churches in various communities in the Mediterranean. For example, in the east, Epiphanius of Salamis reported that some Christians ordained women bishops and that they were not under the authority of their husbands. 

( See 1 Corinthians1:11 for Chloe's house; Colossians 4;15 for Nympha; Philemon, 1;2 for Apphia's ; Romans 16:3 for Priscilla 1 Cor. 16:9 for the church in her house; Act 16:40 for Lydia’s hospitality; Acts 12:12 for Mary, the mother of John Mark and 2 John 1:1 for the unnamed lady.(See A Kateusz, p. 154, Madigan, Woman Officeholders, 193, Eisen ,Women Officeholders 199-200.)

Dr. Kateusz’ striking images of Mary and other courageous women leaders in our early Christian tradition  are a rich treasure chest for reflection. The evidence that women were leaders in the early centuries of the Jesus movement is a clarion reminder that patriarchy has no place in today's Church and an inspiration for all who are working for the full equality of women. ARCWP is walking in the footsteps of our sisters as we use equal rites to achieve equal rights by ordaining women and men in a renewed model of priestly ministry in the Roman Catholic Church.

Mary: Woman of Nazareth edited by Doris Donnelly is an outstanding resource on biblical and theological perspectives that redefine Mary by scholars for the 21st century. The contributors include: Ann Carr, Elizabeth Johnson, Donald Senior, Pheme Perkins, Richard J. Sklba, Carol Frances Jegen, Virgil Elizondo and John R. Shinners, Jr. This book provides what will be for some-  a revolutionary theological reflection- on Mary as a human being and woman of faith who inspires and challenges us to live the Gospel in our world today.  

Here are a few gems from "Gospel Portrait of Mary" written by Donald Senior  that include an unconventional look at Mary that I believe will both inspire and even shake-up believers today. 

Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark , appears as a estranged son of Mary who deliberately distances himself from his blood family and emphasizes that genuine relationship with Jesus is rooted in discipleship. "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother" (3:34-25). His hometown neighbors are not impressed by his preaching or mighty works. "Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works re wrought by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon and are not his sisters here with us?" (6:1) (93)

Apparently, Mary had other children, which contradicts what many Roman Catholics were taught about Mary's perpetual virginity. The biblical texts offer no historical basis for belief in the perpetual virginity or sinlessness of Mary. For some Catholics, the scholarship is jarring. In my view, Mary is more relevant than ever because she is more real, more human, and more powerful as a companion on the journey leading the way to justice and liberation for women in every area of life including the Roman Catholic Church!

In the Gospel of Matthew, " a shroud of scandal covers the circumstances of Jesus' conception.  Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Mt 1:20-21).  The four women, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus are  sinners, foreigners, share irregular marriage unions, and are "vehicles of God's messianic plan. Matthew's theology asserts that the Holy One sides with the outcast and oppressed. "God works in history through the abused Tamar, who suffers injustice from Judah and his sons; through Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute who becomes a heroine of Jewish liberation; through Ruth, vulnerable Moabite who enters the messianic line; through Bathsheba who is violated by the king; whose husband is murdered, whose life is appropriated to the royal purposes with negotiation or discussion, and yet who becomes a vital link in the Davidic history. The same is true of Mary...She is vulnerable to the sanctions of the law and liable to rigorous punishments. " These women portrayed as illegitimate, insignificant, defenseless are "agents of God's action in history in a mix of tragedy and grace that follows Jesus as they experience threat, exile and displacement."  Matthew's message is that the God revealed in Israel and in Jesus "sides with the outcast, the endangered, the tabooed, the illegitimate." (pp. 102-103)

In the Gospel of Luke, Mary is the model of discipleship. In 11:27-28, a listener calls us out to Jesus: Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that you sucked. Jesus replied: Blessed rather are those who bear the word of God and keep it. "Mary's ties to Jesus as mother are not rejected but the ties of discipleship are the more important source of blessing." Luke portrays Mary in the Annunciation story as hearer and doer of the word. (1:37 "Behold I am the handmaid of the God, let it be done to me according to your word. " In the Pentecost story, (Acts 1:4) Mary remains with the other disciples for the promised Spirit.


Luke  links Mary to his theme of promises unexpectedly fulfilled. In her situation, the issue is not old age Like her cousin, Elizabeth, but virginity. " How shall this be, since I have no husband?" she says to the Angel." (1:34). The Angel assures Mary, that like Elizabeth who conceived a son in her old age, nothing is impossible with God. (1:36)" The Gospel of Luke presents Mary as one of the lowly who has experienced the poverty of unfulfilled hopes of promises destined not to be made true. But the God of Jesus breaks into this barrenness and fulfills the promise, bringing new life where it was judged impossible by every standard. '(p. 106)

Donald Senior concludes that Matthew and Luke's presentations of  Mary are: as a "scandalous woman with whom God identifies , a vessel of poverty whom God enriches; Mary judged powerless yet crafting history's most explosive transformation." Her wide appeal will continue to grow in a world where injustice is the experience of millions around the globe. The Holy One continues to work today through women and men who are oppressed,  single mothers with no support, refugee families with no resources, and through all of us.

I believe nothing is impossible as the Spirit moves through us, loves through us, works through us for justice and equality for all. Mary is with us and shows us how to develop a more inclusive community where all are welcome. 


Bridget Mary Meehan ARCWP, https://arcwp.org, sofiabmm@aol.com

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