Sunday, December 23, 2012

Was Incarnate of the Virgin Mary and Became Man

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent, 2012

(Well, I did have time to post this, so you get two homilies for one weekend this year!)

Today we have an opportunity to reflect on the Visitation, the beautiful encounter between Mary and Elizabeth that was marked by such joy and anticipation.

What faith these women had!  And what wisdom and generosity of heart!  As we hear in the Gospel today, Mary, though she had just found out that she was pregnant herself, traveled in haste to see her older cousin as soon as she heard that she was pregnant so that she could be of service to her.  At Mary’s arrival, Elizabeth cries out in a loud voice, spurred to speak by the baby John who has recognized Christ’s approach even in the mystery of the womb.  These were courageous and confident women, women of deep faith, women who God chose because he knew he could rely on them.  They were the first Christians, and they are examples to us all of how to live in and walk in union with God.  The Church has always held them in highest regard and earnestly sought their intercession.

This year AnneMarie and I have been guiding the high school youth ministry through a year focused on knowing and living the Sacred Scriptures.  Last week we explored the profound role of women in the Christian scriptures, and in the life of the Church.

A concern that AnneMarie and I share, along with many others, is that increasingly the Christian faith, and the Catholic Church in particular, is being portrayed as male dominated, chauvinistic, and anti-women.  While this theme has existed for some time in certain academic circles, increasingly today we see its widespread popularization in our culture.  Again and again the Da Vinci Code narrative presented as if it were based in reality: that the Church is headed up by a bunch of old men who have been suspicious of women or at least patronized them, and who have done everything in their power to keep them from gaining any authority in the Church.  This is why, many say, the Church still refuses to embrace a contemporary approach to the issues of gender and sexual ethics.  The celibate male clergy is viewed as a medieval weight around the neck of the Church, a hindrance to the spread of the Gospel, and even a sign of hypocrisy.

Now some may say, many Catholic women, in fact – look Father, we know that the Church changes slowly.  We used to believe that slavery was okay, now we don’t.  These things will change.  Women are patient.
But I don’t believe that this line of thinking works.  Especially for young women today.  And you know, it doesn’t work for me.  I wouldn’t want to be a part of an organization that was anti-woman, or scared of women.  No, the idea that the Catholic Church is discriminatory against women is entirely problematic, and it seems to me that one of the critical tasks for the Church today is to correct this false narrative.

And that is because the Church without women is nothing.  We see that in the Gospel today.  Where would we be without Mary and Elizabeth?  We are redeemed together as men and women in a complimentarity that intentional and is part of God’s plan.  Men and women factor equally into our Lord’s plan of redemption, and we must make sure that we continue to proclaim this good news of our faith in the modern world, not allowing the teachings of the Church to be distorted and misconstrued as anti-women.

In particular, we must insist that our male priesthood is not anti-woman or discriminatory.  And this insistence must be based on a correct understanding of the priesthood as an extension of the ministry of Christ among his people, as a continuation of the Incarnation, of God with us.  You see, what we believe about the priest is different than what other religions believe about their religious leaders.

For example, I think it would be sexist to not allow women to be protestant ministers or Jewish rabbis.  What?  Yes, I do.  Because a minister or a rabbi are not called upon to act in the person of Christ, they never speak the words of God become man in the first person like a priest does.  “This is my body.” “This is my blood.” “I absolve you from your sins.”  I know, when I say those words, that I am not speaking on my own behalf or even as myself, that it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me and is speaking through me.  I cannot change bread and wine into his body and blood.  I cannot forgive sins.  These are actions that only Jesus Christ can accomplish, not a mere man.

Now, some might say, well why can’t a woman speak in the person of Christ in the same way?  But think about that for a moment.  The fundamental reality about Jesus Christ that we celebrate on Christmas is that he is God in the flesh, in human flesh, which is by its nature, gendered flesh.  How can we remove gender from the equation, without undermining the incarnate reality of Christ who ministers among us as one who is fully human?  Gender is not like hair color or ethnicity or any other superficial attribute.  It is at the core of what defines the human person, as we know both biologically and theologically from Genesis: God made us male and female.  Human beings are created in a complimentarity.  Gender is not arbitrary.  It is laden with meaning and purpose.  When God became fully human in Christ he entered into a body that was fully gendered because it was and is fully human.  That’s not to say that the triune God is male: obviously not.  But the body of Christ, the body given to us in the sacraments, the body that speaks to us and heals us and forgives us and redeems us each day in the ministry of priests can be no other than the body of Jesus Christ, God become man.  To say that is not to be sexist.  It is just to acknowledge what happened, to be profoundly aware of just how enfleshed God became in Christ.  It was not some asexual spiritual being that Mary carried in her womb.  It was a little boy.

I don’t know why a boy and not a girl.  That’s what God chose.  And no, it was not because we would not have accepted him if he was a woman, because he could have made it so that we would: after all he spent over 2000 years preparing his people to receive his Son.  Surely he could have prepared a people to receive the Word become woman.  But he didn’t.  And we don’t know why.  He had to pick one of the two.  It was certainly not because men are better: women and men are equal before him.

And if the Word had become a woman we would have priestesses...  because we have a sacramental faith and a sacramental priesthood that continues to truly and really perpetuate in persona Christi capitis the life and ministry of not only the divinity but also the humanity of Jesus Christ.

Sometimes I wonder why the Word didn’t become a woman.  Women would probably be much better at running the Church.  Women are certainly more religious.  This is not just mere speculation: across all cultures and all religions it has been clearly demonstrated in numerous studies that women hold their beliefs more firmly, practice their faith more consistently, and give more of their time to their church, temple, mosque or synagogue.  I have speculated that if we didn’t have a male priesthood you’d never see men in Church.

Look at Mary and Elizabeth today.  How beautiful their faith is, how noble their virtue.  How much they inspire us.  We need them.  The Church has always been profoundly aware that God’s plan of salvation is equally at work in men and women.  A male priesthood does not contradict this knowledge, any more than Christ’s being a man contradicts it.  Every priest, every Christian, is carried for 9 months in his or her mother’s womb, just like St. John  the Baptist and our Lord.  How could we think that God did not smile upon women?  How could we not see him at work in them, and their profound dignity and equality before him?  Our Church insists that we always treasure and reverence and follow the women of faith, like Mary and Elizabeth, who animate and uphold the her.  As we prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth, let us make sure that we tell the world of our respect and love for his mother and for so many other women who God has chosen to be integral to his loving plan of salvation.


  1. As a husband of 22 years and a father of four children, two of whom are daughters, I certainly appreciate the tribute to women provided by Fr. Seamus. He’s quite right the Church would be nothing without them. I’m less that certain, however, regarding his explanation of the male priesthood. Part of my uncertainty results from his uncertainty regarding why God chose a man as Savior.
    Man’s exercise of God given freewill resulted in a male dominated Jewish society at the time of Christ. Women had no identity apart from the man. They were property. Widows were outcasts who had no means to support themselves. Such male domination could understandably flow from the account of Genesis. The woman is formed from the rib of a man and it is Eve who causes the downfall of humanity by succumbing to the devil’s temptation and then tempting Adam to sin. Also, at the time of Christ, the Jews were expecting a leader who would bring physical freedom from Roman oppression. In this way, by God choosing a man as Christ, He was simply working with the context of a Judaic society shaped by the exercise of free will.
    In his homily, Fr. Seamus asks us to conclude that since God chose Jesus as a man and priests act in persona Christi capitis, then priests must naturally be men. The underlying justification for this reasoning is that gender cannot be ignored. This reasoning seems circular to me. Although I’m sure there is a theological explanation imbedded somewhere in the Church’s doctrine, the reasoning doesn’t appear to be based in scripture. While it is consistent with God’s choice of a man and that the disciples were men, we can readily understand why that practice would have existed at the time.
    The explanation of the male priesthood advanced by Fr. Seamus necessarily puts women in an unequal position within the Church because they cannot partake of the sacrament of holy orders simply because of their gender. I really don’t think gender dictates spiritual capacity and Fr. Seamus seems to agree. God has given us gender for procreation; our spirits for loving.
    Given the apparent uncertainty as to why God chose Christ to be a man, I can’t help but be equally uncertain as to why only men are priests. Though I accept the Church’s traditions, I wonder if the inability to see beyond gender is not an issue for God, but rather an issue for man. We’ve come a long way since the male dominated Judaic society at the time of Christ, yet despite Jesus’ progressive perspective regarding Gentiles, prostitutes, tax collectors, widows, and orphans, transformation in the Church appears decidedly slow. The Church’s history is filled with challenges and errors with regard to gender and sexuality. We have no way of knowing whether 100 or 1,000 years from now the Church’s position regarding the male priesthood will change. So, for the time being, all of us, saints and sinners, priests and those struggling with the faith, are called to humbly follow the teachings of the Church.

    1. Some thoughts:

      First of all, I think that your characterization of the role of women in Hebrew society is a bit skewed. You really give no evidence to back up the claim that women were considered property, that widows were outcasts, or that women had no identity apart from men. Actually, I think an accurate reading of the Old Testament and an accurate study of Hebrew culture show a much more nuanced reality. Again and again in the scriptures, the prophets spoke about caring for the widow and orphan, not casting them away. Furthermore, in the mosaic law there were precise provisions as to how a man was supposed to take in the wife of a brother who had died. Additionally, there are many books of the Hebrew scriptures that show women taking independent and critical roles in salvation history, which would seem to show that they had a very clear and distinct identity apart from men before God. Lastly, I'm not sure where you came up with the idea that women were considered property, because I have never heard of that, and do not know of any scriptural evidence for that idea.

      So the claim that the Hebrew culture was so horribly oppressive toward women seems to me a bit out of line, particularly when you consider the way that women were treated in other cultures at that time. In fact, the Genesis account of creation speaks of men and women being created together in God's image and likeness and being of equal dignity before him. God speaks to both Adam and Eve, and they both choose to disobey him and both suffer the consequences. This account of creation and the fall is far more balanced than many of the creation accounts of that time, which often associated the female with the creation of chaos and matter as opposed to a pure, masculine celestial realm. Or women were objectified and purely sexual objects or a means of procreation for men. The Hebrew scriptures, on the contrary, speak from the beginning about the dignity of women and condemn actions that victimize or instrumentalize women.

      It is true that the Hebrew culture was a patriarchal culture and that men did exercise more or less absolute control over their households. But men were clearly also expected to treat women with dignity and respect, and God was seen to be powerfully at work in the lives of many Hebrew women. Wisdom is personified in the Hebrew Scriptures as a woman. The Song of Songs speaks of the beautiful love shared by a husband and wife as equal partners, not of a man dominating a woman. The books of Ruth and Judith and Esther show women who are intimate with God and who he works through in order to carry out his will.

      You wrote that “At the time of Christ, the Jews were expecting a leader who would bring physical freedom from Roman oppression. In this way, by God choosing a man as Christ, He was simply working with the context of a Judaic society shaped by the exercise of free will.”
      That is a theory, but you give no evidence to back it up.

      First of all, much of the messianic yearning in the Hebrew people was not tied to Rome in the least, because it clearly pre-dates Roman occupation. It speaks of a more universal and existential salvation and fulfillment. We need only think of Isaiah speaking of the lion laying down with the lamb and spears being turned into pruning hooks. These words were written down centuries before Roman occupation.

  2. Secondly, I’m not sure on what grounds you would claim that God was limited to conform his plan to the distorted free will of the people in the case of a male messiah, when he so clearly did not conform his plan to their distorted free will during the entire life of Christ, such that Christ was crucified precisely because he did not. Both Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II have directly opposed the view that you express. In Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope John Paul II wrote: "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 behavior, 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."

    And not only, to my mind, is there no reason that Christ could not have called women to be apostles if he had wanted to, but there is absolutely no reason whatsoever that I can think of that the Word could not have become flesh as a woman. God is not limited by us. He knew from the beginning of time about the plan that he would accomplish through Christ. Christ could very well have been a woman.

    I think this is an absolutely essential thing for the Church to insist upon. Why? Because in insisting that the word could have become flesh as a woman, I am insisting on the fundamental equality of the genders before God. There is nothing about men that is closer to God or that God pre-ordained to be more open to receiving his Word. There is nothing holier or more sacred about men. Whatever the reason that God became man, it was not because men are better. And the fact that God became man in Christ does not make men holier either, or in any way privilege men above women.

    This can be seen from the very earliest teachings of the Church, where it is Mary who is held up as the greatest of saints. She surpasses all the men who responded to Christ in her holiness and she is the queen of heaven. There is no other saint, no other human being who is understood by the Church to be closer to God than Mary.

    You claim that my reasoning is circular, but then do not explain how. I state the Church’s teaching: that the priest acts in persona Christi capitis, and then I argue that since Christ is fully God and fully man, those who act in his person make present this hypostatic union of Christ’s divinity and humanity, and that this means that gender cannot be ignored, since humanity makes no sense without gender, which is a defining characteristic of corporality. I do not see where there is any circularity in this argument. Jesus continues his ministry among us in the ministry of the ordained priesthood in a way that allows him to be present to us not only in spirit but also in body, which must be gendered, and in his case therefore male.

    As I state in the homily: a protestant minister or any other Christian does not act in persona Christi, but in the spirit of Christ, which does not require this correspondence of gender since spirit is not gendered. But bodies are gendered, and so where Christ acts in the fullness of his person in the ordained priest, gender must factor in. If it does not, the reality of Christ’s continued incarnate, or sacramental, presence within the Church is seriously, if not entirely compromised.

    The above argument, I should note, is not one that has been put forward in a definitive way by the Church. However, it is alluded to in an apostolic letter by John Paul II in 1994, in which he made what is considered by many Catholic theologians to be a definitive teaching on the matter. The entire document can be read here:

  3. The pope concludes the document by stating the following:
    “Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church's judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force. Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.”

    You state that my explanation of the male priesthood “necessarily puts women in an unequal position within the Church because they cannot partake of the sacrament of holy orders simply because of their gender.” Why? How does one’s inability to do something necessarily put them in an unequal position? I cannot give birth or nurse. Am I necessarily put in an unequal position to women because of that? Equality in dignity is not derived from absolute equivalence. There can be equality in complementarity, and in fact this is what the Church has insisted from the beginning. One need only think about St. Paul’s teaching on the parts of the body in his letter to the Corinthians.

    You also state that “God has given us gender for procreation; our spirits for loving.” I’m not sure from where you have derived this principle, but it is clearly very much at variance with the Christian world view, since it expresses a dualism that has always been repugnant to Christians. One of the most important convictions of our faith is that in Christ God has chosen to love us with his spirit and body. Indeed, the Eucharist is just that: Christ’s offering of his body to us in love. While many other faiths in the ancient world looked down on the body as merely mortal and earthly and for procreation alone, Christians have argued from the beginning that in Christ who took on flesh, the body is made holy and at the end of life is raised from the dead with the soul by Christ and made immortal.

    The Church has a profoundly positive vision of women and, as I said in my homily, cannot understand herself without them. I do not see how you have shown in the least that a male priesthood discriminates against women. One is only discriminated against when one is deprived of something that one ought to have or should be able to do. And I do not think you have shown any evidence, either in scripture or tradition, that women should be able to be ordained priests.

    Some things do change in the Church: various disciplines and customs, some of the application of moral teachings, liturgical structures and forms… But some things do not change because they constitute the core teaching and practice of the Church. Paul VI and John Paul II have indicated that, unlike the question of married clergy or other liturgical considerations of our time that are subject to change, the Church’s reservation of the ordained priesthood to men constitutes an unchangeable practice and teaching because it is based on theological principles that are central to her identity and ministry. The effort in my homily is to make clear this precise point: that a male priesthood is not a holdover of a male-dominated world and a sign of discrimination against women, but is a theological necessity that is inseparably tied to the person of Jesus Christ, true God and true man.

    I would encourage you to read the pastoral letter about the dignity and vocation women by Pope John Paul II called Mulieris Dignitatem. You can find it here: