(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.