Monday, March 26, 2012

God Uses Women

Musings Occasioned by the Feast of the Annunciation

God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David. His name was Joseph, and the virgin’s name, Mary. Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her: “Good morning! You’re beautiful with God’s beauty, beautiful inside and out! God be with you.” (Luke 1.26-28; The Message)

I would be dishonest to pretend I have any idea where what follows is going. Usually the posts begin with a destination in mind and get built in reverse. But this one starts with a calendar entry and a question, “What can we say about this?”

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Roman Church and many mainstream Protestant denominations observe Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she will bring the Living God into the world. And, for reasons I trust will become clearer as we go, that sets my mind spinning.

So, as I said, I have no idea where this is headed, how long it will go, and what will surface along the way. For all of these reasons, it feels best to ditch the usual format and proceed in free form. I beg your indulgence for what may turn out to be stream-of-consciousness ramblings that may, but just as well may not, hang together as all of a piece.


Opening observation: the Feast’s date on the liturgical calendar slights the Annunciation’s magnitude. For obvious reasons, it’s set nine months to the day ahead of Christmas. This year we mark it on March 26, as the 25th fell on a Sunday, which puts it at cross-purposes with Lent’s progress to Calvary and the empty tomb. And that’s my point. At this stage in our Lenten pilgrimage, our heads are so tightly wrapped around Jesus’s last days on earth that it jars us to reflect on the mystery surrounding His entrance into our story. Just when we’re primed for next Sunday’s palms, and Holy Week’s dirges, and Easter’s anthems, the calendar grabs us by the collar and says, “Look!” We’re bolted out of Jerusalem’s aborning madness to land in Nazareth’s uneventful calm—which is about to be shattered in the wee hours of a non-descript morning, when an angel will surprise a teenaged maiden with the best news ever to fall on human ears.

And yet… Yes, the Annunciation’s intrusion on Lent’s sacrificial season—its dogged determination to dig hope out of the desert’s fallow ground—seems ineffably right. It rounds out the circle of God’s redemptive narrative: life-death-life; faith-despair-faith; miracle-mourning-miracle. With the Annunciation, the whole story falls into place. God’s promise of a Savior comes to fruition and Christ’s promise of resurrection meld into one sweeping movement of divine grace that changes the course of history and opens the door for every human to access the transformative power of true life. And whom does God choose to usher in both of these staggering realizations? God uses women.


God uses women. All of these centuries later, despite the progress we’ve made to rectify gender inequality, many of us are still taken aback that God ordains two women—two Marys—one a country girl of no notable means or education, the other a city woman whose battle with unholy spirits brought her to Jesus—to witness the greatest moments in human history. Where are the men—the prophets and priests, politicians and militarists, teachers and historians, power brokers and intellectuals, the fathers and sons, brothers and uncles—at the Annunciation and Resurrection? They’re nowhere to be found. Gabriel visits Mary of Nazareth in her solitude. When Mary Magdalene learns that Jesus is alive, depending on which Gospel we read, she’s either alone or in the company of other women. When we account for the lowly estate of women in first-century Palestine, that God entrusts God’s plan to two women should shake us to the core. It is a revolutionary decision of unparalleled proportions—a revelation we can’t possibly ignore—a proclamation about gender that cannot go unheeded.


There’s no disputing that Mary of Nazareth is Christianity’s first believer. When Gabriel tells her that God has chosen her to bear the Christ Child, she first confesses her doubts: “How can this be?” (Luke 1.34) Once the angel explains God’s plan—a design that contravenes every law of nature—Mary, blessed with childlike faith and humility, believes. “Here am I,” she says, “the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (v38) In that moment, she epitomizes the believer’s experience. First she doubts. Then she believes. And finally, she agrees to fulfill God’s purpose for her life.

There’s no disputing that Mary Magdalene is Christianity’s first messenger. It is she who delivers the promise of the Risen Christ to the disciples. And her experience in many ways replicates Mary of Nazareth’s. She comes to the tomb, discovers Jesus isn’t there, and immediately questions how this can be. “They have taken away my Lord,” she weeps, “and I do not know where they have laid Him.” (John 20.14) Unaware that she’s speaking to Jesus at first, she believes, despite its utter impossibility, when He tells her He’s alive. Then she agrees to do as Jesus asks. She declares His Resurrection to the others.


So we must ask ourselves, what does this mean? Does God’s decision to favor two women with carrying out the most significant events in our faith indicate God prefers women to men? Can it be that God places greater trust in one sex over another? And if this is so, does that get us any closer to eradicating gender inequality and the harms it precipitates? How does reversing the scheme—assigning women the dominant role—change anything?

It doesn’t. But I don’t think God’s decision to use women was ever meant as a statement about the superiority of either gender. Instead, I believe it was the exact opposite. God’s insistence that women undertake key roles in the redemption narrative underscores God’s belief that gender is irrelevant. One’s ability to question, believe in, and agree to honor God’s purpose is the deciding factor. God uses women. God uses men. But the incontrovertible proof that God uses women at the Annunciation and Resurrection opens our understanding that God uses all of us, as God wills, according to our willingness to say yes to God.


And so we ask ourselves again, what does this mean? What does this say to us today?

Of late, I’ve grown increasingly troubled about recent turns our culture has taken regarding women. In the US, political and religious discourse has become perilously misogynistic—and we’ll get to that momentarily. Of equal alarm to me, however, are the not-so-subtle demeaning images and messaging that are starting to resurface in advertising and entertainment. Take a look at these two commercials currently in heavy rotation:

Both show no shame in depicting women as “the other”—in one case, explicitly touting Dr. Pepper Ten as “not for women” and the other confining bikini-clad women to the sidelines, while the “hero” drives the car. The Kia ad positions itself as a “dream”—a coy defense against charges of chauvinism—but both are crafted to feed the fantasy of male superiority. Without turning this into a Master’s thesis on sexism in advertising, I’d encourage us to watch carefully for how many TV commercials give little thought to reassigning women to “little lady” status. With increasing regularity, we see women sitting by while their husbands do all the talking. And when women do speak up, they’re often abrasive and mistrusting—shrews, basically, who belittle their men.

While The Hunger Games recently opened to much praise for “empowering” its teenaged heroine, it isn’t fully absolved of sexist leanings, as Katniss triumphs in a masculine-skewed arena. The whole point is that she’s tougher, and tougher minded, than her male adversaries, as well as her male ally. She doesn’t find a better way that defeats a hateful system; she’s just better at beating the system. Inasmuch as we can find her reflection in Scripture, she’s not modeled on the two Marys; she’s closer to the David who defeats Goliath and the Samson who summons his last ounce of strength to destroy the Philistine temple. Katniss is the exception that proves the rule: men are stronger, more resourceful, and entitled to dominate. The sad truth beneath her story is she’s a fluke—a mystical figure on par with Joan of Arc, a young woman inexplicably endowed with the courage and ingenuity to beat men at their own game.

And not for a minute do I believe that that’s God’s intention in using Mary of Nazareth or Mary Magdalene. The point in casting them in lead roles isn’t to prove they’re better than men. It’s to teach us God sees them no differently than men. They’re availability to God is what vaults them to—for lack of a better word—stardom. They rise to prominence on the same faith that raises their male counterparts in Scripture.


In this, the two Marys are not alone. The Bible places them in a long line of women whom God uses to stunning effect. And in every case, the woman is empowered to act through her own agency. The “Marion model” applies across the board: she questions, believes, and agrees to be used by God. Sarah laughs, trusts, and honors God’s plan to birth a people through her. Moses’s mother fears, releases her anxieties, and humbles herself to serve as her son’s nursemaid. Hannah does something very similar with Samuel. Rahab, Naomi, Ruth, Esther, Deborah, Elizabeth—the pantheon of great women who overcome profound questions, believe in God’s purpose for them, and act in agreement to God’s plan is a testament to the courage of their faith in a God Who uses all of us as God wills. They don’t view themselves as second best—as Plan B’s that God resorts to when suitable men can’t be found. They trust God’s judgment in choosing them and, in turn, choose to do what God asks of them. Only inasmuch as human nature and society place them in “female” roles do they fulfill God’s will as mothers and queens, wives and lovers. Their calling itself isn’t gender specific.


This truth—that God uses women to demonstrate inclusion, not distinction—causes much grief when we hear and see politicians and prelates abuse the Christian faith as a means of oppressing women. To deny women equal rights in society and the Church is nothing short of blatantly defying God’s expressed will for humanity. When we hear Rick Santorum denigrate birth control (and, with it, the health benefits it offers) as a license to engage in a sexual lifestyle that is not “how things are supposed to be,” we hear a man stripping women of their God-given agency. Mary of Nazareth’s role in bearing the Christ Child is sealed by her agreement. “Let it be,” she says. What if fear or pragmatism, both of which she had good reason to exhibit, had resulted in her demurral? What if she’d told the angel, “Find someone else”? Would God have forced her to conceive and give birth to Jesus? One shudders to consider that possibility. Yet today, many Christians and denominations crush a woman’s right to say “yes” to God’s will by denying her right to say “no.” And they do this in the most nefarious way imaginable. They demonize anyone who supports a woman’s right to choose as sexually irresponsible—defying “how things are supposed to be”—never once considering that the mother of God, the first person to believe in Jesus and hence of the mother of all believers, answered God’s calling by choice.

Then there's the brazen contradiction that the issue prompting Mr. Santorum’s comment—borne on the uproar of conservative Christians opposed to women’s agency in childbearing—came after years of ignoring how the provision of health coverage for men provided them free access to sexual enhancement products. To put it bluntly, enabling male sexual performance past its prime appears to pose no threat to “how things are supposed to be,” even though many partners to men who take sexual enhancements would furiously argue otherwise.

In the gay community alone, studies and anecdotal evidence demonstrate that ready access to male sex hormones and erectile dysfunction treatments has taken its toll in heightened spread of STD’s, infidelity, and no end of secondary harms. So, on one hand, one supposes this validates religious concerns about access to sex-related medication and treatments. But it also proves the misogyny seething beneath conservative Christianity’s surface, in that it would connect inappropriate sexual behavior to women’s access to birth control, while ignoring the male side of the equation. Furthermore, this gives slip to the lie that bypassing religious organizations’ obligation to provide free birth control to women by making it a matter of choice settled with insurers is a violation of religious freedom. Based solely on the Annunciation’s example, denying women the agency of choice constitutes religious bondage.


So we must ask again, what does this mean? What do we see at the Annunciation and empty tomb—and how should what we see in them open our eyes to see the world as God would have us see it?

God uses women. God chooses women. God uses men. God chooses men. But there’s a second part to the story that can’t go unnoticed. In return, women choose to be used by God. Men choose to be used by God. And therein lies the beauty of God’s will, as well as the miracles that God begets in us when we agree to participate in God’s plan. We confront our doubts and choose to believe. We believe and choose to act. And everything comes full circle: life-death-life; faith-despair-faith; miracle-mourning-miracle.

I so love that Gabriel greets Mary by saying, “You’re beautiful with God’s beauty, beautiful inside and out! God be with you.” (Luke 1.28; The Message) With that, the angel confirms that we all are blessed with God’s beauty—that God’s beauty can be found in each of us, inside and out! Though we may doubt it, we must believe it. And with our belief, we must be willing to act upon our faith, to enwomb the Christ Child like Mary of Nazareth and to declare the power of the Risen Christ like Mary Magdalene.

Choose to be used.

The Annunciation, as well as the empty tomb, is where God demonstrates gender is irrelevant.

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