In November this year voters in the United States elected a new male president and a new female vice president. Kamala Harris said she would not be the last woman of color to hold that office.
Last week the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago elected a Black woman, the Rev. Paula Clark, as its new bishop. She was not the first woman of color elected to that office and would not be the last.
This week’s gospel (Luke 1:26-38) tells the familiar story about the heavenly herald Gabriel who informed a woman that she was elected to give birth to the savior of the whole wide world.
According to the canonical narratives and the Quran, Miriam, daughter of Anna and Joachim, was a Galilean Jew from Nazareth. Most likely she was a poor unschooled woman who toiled at home. How would this young stunned girl explain this embarrassing situation? What gave her courage to sing that radical Magnificat that we heard last week? Why was Joseph so silent on this matter?
There is a paradox in the imaginative portrayals of this story. On one hand we find a frightened, unknown, confused, betrothed but unwed, teenager skeptical about the angel’s message. On the other hand this same youthful woman accepted the call (her vocation) to deliver the One whom all of Israel was waiting for.
God promised David and Israel that a messiah would descend from the family tree of David and the tribe of Judah. There are different genealogies in the gospels. Luke traces Jesus’s ancestry through Mary. But, in Matthew’s gospel, and according to Jewish law, Jesus’s legal descent came through Joseph’s line. One way or another the story remains vivid for those who commemorate the birth of Jesus every Christmas.
In my mind, and probably many of yours, today’s gospel raises an old but nagging question: If a woman who “found favor with God,” was good enough to give birth to a savior, nurse him, change his diapers, dress him, school him, worry about him, cry for him, protect him from ambitious disciples, and mourn for his ruthless death, why is it that a woman is not good enough to lead worship in so many Christian churches? Consider all the storied experiences and wise counsel we are missing that only women can share.
This is not just a Catholic question. An ongoing project, the National Congregations Study, “captures well just how bleak the picture is for women moving into leadership roles in Christian churches.” In the United States women are imams, rabbis and pastors in Muslim, Jewish and Christian congregations respectively. Further, more women are now members of Congress, lead big corporations, manage banks, administer hospitals, and supervise universities than ever before.
One could claim tradition, custom and doctrine as some of the reasons for an ecclesial aversion to, or prejudice against women. While sundry documents report how important women and their gifts are in the church they are still denied ordination. The overarching culprits are power and patriarchy, the same bureaucracies that Miriam, the mother of Jesus, was born into but resisted. The alternative religious tradition is much more inclusive and interdependent. It is the one that Mary’s son himself endorsed. The Son of God is not prejudiced when it comes to being present in every one created by God.
The first reading from Samuel (7: 1-16) today casts light on where God actually dwells. Israelites experienced the presence of God in the tabernacle (tent) that moved with them on their journey. When King David assumed power he wanted something better, a temple structure to replace the humble tent. God objected.
Historical theologian, Dr. Mary M. McGlone, CSJ, offers this interpretation of the text. God said, “you cannot contain me in a palace or sanctuary, nor keep me under the control of a priesthood.” McGlone argued, “in the history of Israel we won’t find God trapped in anybody’s temple.” Consider here “temple” as Paul the apostle did — “your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor. 6:19)
God’s presence cannot be contained. Mary delivered Jesus, the incarnate God, to the entire world. Powerful authorities could not stifle his wanderings or his teachings. The ongoing presence, the indwelling of the Christ of faith in all peoples, cannot be suppressed, limited, or held in check. That is the same holy Spirit that Jesus’s mother Miriam embodied. Her entire life was changed by the presence of God within her.
Jesus of Nazareth, liberator and wise counselor gave his life to establish a peaceful kindom that would wipe away oppression forever. Here in the 21st century we are still waiting for that day when all woman and men will be treated fairly, equally. What will it take for that Davidic Covenant, that divine promise to become a reality?
The answer may be found in how we respect and bless the goodness that is in every woman, man, and child. These days that compassion may require more patience and effort than usual. A culture that replaced truth with lies, smothered love with hate, deemed demagoguery over democracy has been brewing for generations across the globe. The recent administration set this nation back by fueling feelings of hostility and mistrust. It did little to make every citizen great again. It will take a long time for us to recover.
As we Christians emerge from the 2020 Advent season of waiting we join people of other religions and those who are not religious to move forward with a renewed enthusiasm for living in truth, beauty and goodness. After her election, the new bishop-elect in Chicago wrote: “God is truly calling us to a new day and a new way of being.” A very young and feisty woman birthed forth the Judaic promise of a merciful God. Let us recognize that women today can bear, cradle, and nourish that promise, too.