Western Christians gathered this past weekend for the most significant of holy days, Easter (Eastern Orthodox Easter is next weekend). For those Christian Churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary (and many that do not) the Sunday Easter worship service included, perhaps even highlighted, the story of the first Easter morning as told by the Gospel writer of John. Mary of Magdala is the first to discover the empty tomb and is then the first to encounter the Risen Christ.
Although Mary was, according to the writer of John, the first evangelist sharing the news of the resurrection, this hasn’t done much for the status of women in the Christian church. The great majority of the world’s Christians, whether they celebrated Easter this weekend or will next weekend, gather in churches that belong to denominations that deny ordination to women. It’s rather starting, really, that in the 21st century, that this is still an issue. And, it’s more than a little depressing.
A few weeks ago, Pope Francis released a document stating that women have “legitimate claims” to seek more equality in the Catholic Church, but he wouldn’t go so far as to say that women ought to be in positions of leadership.
Years ago, I remember attending an Easter worship service at a Congregational Church in Massachusetts where the preacher emphasized that the women in the first Easter stories really don’t deserve much, if any, credit. After all, the women were there for the wrong reason. They didn’t go in search of the empty tomb or to discover the whereabouts of the Risen Christ. They went to the tomb to take care of the body they assumed would be inside.
As I sat there listening to that terrible sermon, I wanted to jump up and yell—and what about the men? They didn’t do any better. Some of them were even in hiding.
Yet, there they are, given sole authority in leadership for the largest Christian denominations in the world.
Two centuries after the start of this religious tradition that includes powerful testimonies of women in its earliest stories and most holy of moments, the great majority of the faithful worship in churches that belong to denominations that deny ordination to women—Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, Southern Baptists, etc.
It’s hard to understand the continued insistence on keeping women out of the ranks of the ordained, and out of leadership. Clearly, the men aren’t doing an especially good job. Sexual abuse and sexual misconduct have scarred and continued to scar the Church in profound and unspeakable ways.
To be fair, it ought to be noted that nuns don’t exactly enjoy a spotless reputation. There are lots of deeply troubling stories of their abuse as well.
Still, Easter offers a remarkable moment of the evangelism of women, especially Mary of Magdala. As Christians around the world observe this most holy of days, it’s time to pay attention to the person who first shared the amazing news of the Risen Christ, and her gender. Presumably, Christ could have appeared to whomever he wanted. He could have appeared to Peter, or one of the other disciples, but he didn’t. According to the Gospel of John, Christ appeared to Mary, and spoke to her, relying on her to bring the news of resurrection to the disciples.
Where would we be without her?