Here is a short, yet important, essay from Sr. Joan Chittister on the role of women in society, both in the time of Jesus and today.
Of all the segments of the Creed that touch the lives of people, the integrity of the Church, and the nature of society yet today, “born of the Virgin Mary,” may be among the most complex. Behind this simple statement lie allusions that have frozen society into interpretations of Scripture, models of Church, and notions of sexuality that affect us to this day. The question of the place of Mary in the history of salvation has ebbed and flowed throughout the centuries. It is still a concept in process of development. And painfully so.
Indeed there is pain aplenty. What does God really want from women? What kind of sign is Mary to us all? I remember that as a young child, despite the efforts of the nuns who taught me, the parish that formed me, and the example of other girls my own age, Mary simply did not appeal to me. She was, they taught me, docile and passive, submissive and unquestioning. What could we possibly find in Mary to respect, to imitate?
We say we respect Mary; but when it comes to dealing with other women in the Church, we make no association between the role of Mary in the plan of salvation and the role of women in general. We ask women to cook the church dinners, but we do not ask them to be diocesan consultants; we make women Sunday School teachers, but not church theologians. And in the end, we deal with only one dimension of Mary’s life as well. We concentrate on the virginity of Mary, ignoring the fact that even here there are issues to be resolved.
In our determination to make the virginity of Mary our focus, we have obsessed about sex, categorized people on the basis of their sexuality, and managed to divide women over the issue. We distinguished between virgins and non-virgins in ways that made one kind of woman better than the other, something we never did with men. We never, never made male virginity the measure of a man’s character and spiritual value as we did for women, though Joseph’s virginity is part of the tradition too.
Limiting the role of Mary to a biological one alone completely ignores the other messages of her life and presence. It confines her meaning to one moment of her life and disdains the rest of it. We ignore the Mary who carried the good news to Elizabeth and opened herself to the strong support, the wisdom, the guidance, the direction of another woman. We ignore the Mary who did not take the message of the incarnation to the priests, to the rabbis, not even to Joseph, for approval or for legitimation, but who received it herself and acted on it herself. We ignore the woman Mary who bore the burden of criticism, fear, and rejection, but full of the consciousness of God’s call in her, never wavered in the faith that God was leading her to something new. We ignore the first model of strength, faith, conviction, and equality. Mary, in a culture given to the total control of women, makes a personal decision and replies to the angel, takes responsibility for the act, and bears the consequences. Mary is a strong woman who changes the course of human history, even reverses the nature of spirituality, as well as immerses herself in the Divine.
Mary and the virgin birth are indeed the very proof we have that women are not simply sexual instruments in a sex-hungry world whose interests are more biological than spiritual. The Creed says that women do marvelous things, all of them far beyond the physical. It shows us woman: loving, giving, holy, in communion with God, and filled with the spirit of Jesus. It says that God does not see sex as what birth is all about and not what women are all about, either. “Birthing” is about bringing the Divine to life in us, however that needs to be done.
Joan Chittister, OSB