|Salomon de Bray, Jael, Deborah and Barak (1635)|
(If you don't know what the tent peg is for, read Judges 4-5)
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.
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.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.
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:
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:
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.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres,
Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII (1854)
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).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.