Teresa Berger on the Optional Omission of Women

Or, rather, one woman: Anna, the prophet.

Teresa Berger (Professor of Liturgical Studies at Yale Divinity) draws attention to the option created in the Roman Catholic lectionary to omit mention of Anna from Luke’s account of the “Presentation of the Lord,” the feast celebrated February 2. While the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord is one of the oldest Christian feast days, its name, liturgy, and date has changed throughout the centuries:

What remained throughout all these changes was the Gospel reading for the feast day, namely Luke 2:21-40.  “Remained throughout,” that is, unless one attends Mass today in a Roman Catholic community that chooses to follow a shorter option of this Gospel text, provided in the current Lectionary.  This shorter form simply drops the Lukan account of the prophet Anna (Lk 2:36-38), thus rendering her presence at the presentation of Jesus in the temple “optional”.  Without Anna, however, Luke’s careful pairing of men and women in the infancy narratives – Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna – is lost.  Lost also is the emphatic presence of Spirit-inspired women in the infancy narratives:  Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna are all depicted as giving prophetic voice to what God is doing.  Last not least, Anna’s optional presence in liturgies on February 2 is doubly painful because Luke’s story itself already leaves this woman voiceless.

Read the rest at PrayTell.

And if you do meander over there, there’s also a… lengthy… discussion of the phrase in the Nicene Creed which in the Roman Catholic liturgy is translated “He became man,” also initiated by Teresa Berger. The Greek and Latin wording is non-gender specific: “became human” rather than “became a male human.”

The difference does matter theologically–not because anyone is trying to deny that Jesus was male, but rather because a good deal of thinking about the Incarnation rests on Gregory of Nazianzus’ maxim that “what is not assumed is not saved.” In arguing against the idea that in the Incarnation, the  Logos takes the place of the human rational soul in Christ (“Apollinarianism”), Gregory holds that it is the assuming of a complete humanity to the Logos that effects salvation–if Jesus didn’t have a human rational soul, then our rational souls are not saved.  By this logic, if there is an essential, ontological male human nature that is fundamentally different from an essential, ontological female human nature–well, the Incarnation unites male human nature to the Second Person of the trinity… not female human nature. Meaning you’d need a second incarnation–a female incarnation–to save women. Granted, there are strands of radical feminist thought that would embrace this idea, but it’s not Christian orthodoxy.

So, the “and became human” is actually theologically significant from a deeply traditional perspective.

11 thoughts on “Teresa Berger on the Optional Omission of Women

  1. Yikes! Speaking of women who were prophets in the Bible, I remember once I visited a church as a wing man for one of my Southern Baptist friends. The young adults class was studying 2nd Chronicles 34, and how the king found the Law (book of Deuteronomy). The passages about Huldah being a prophet were ignored but the text says she was a prophet. Goes to show when Scripture does not align with sexist presupposes, the method of literally making a “canon within a canon” is found useful by conservatives.

  2. Bridget–
    Excellent post! Sadly, it seems that the new Missal coming out this fall retains the old language of “becoming man.” Not only does this vitiate the supposed rationale of being “closer to the Latin,” but I had originally heard that this text WAS going to be changed to “human” or something else neutral. Then the final edition came back from Rome and, lo and behold, it’s man again. Ugh.

    • Yeah, it is interesting… it seems the only times “man” is not interchangeable with “human being” is in English versions of Inter Insigniores and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis…

  3. I’ve never heard of the “and became human” way of saying it; that’s clever. I vacillate between saying, “and became man” or “and became one of us,” depending on what the people around me are saying (and any given Sunday, there are equal chances of it being either).

    I have seen a few hymnals, though, in which someone’s taken a ballpoint to the text of the creed and blacked out the “men” of “for us . . . and for our salvation.” It always makes me smile when I happen to sit in a pew that has one these; it’s like when you were a kid and ate shark snacks, and you’d get real pumped when you got a bag that had the “great white shark” in it.

  4. In the case of Jesus being made man or human, I have been changing the words of this and many others prayers, hymn and readings for years now. My way of defecting in place, I guess.
    Thank you for pointing out the Berger’s post.

    • Thanks for bringing up the notion of defecting in place, Claire — it adds an important angle to Julia’s post on Aquinas’ notion of courage and discerning whether to stay or leave… these small acts, perhaps, are reminders of our agency in choosing the path of endurance rather than exit.

  5. I’ve thought about the “became human” translation for quite some time; glad to see someone like Berger flesh it out some more. One counterargument is that “man” can mean both “human being” in general and, more specifically, “male human being.” This is accurate, but it still isn’t as neutral as one would hope because some insist on it precisely to emphasize the particularity and exclusivity of the Incarnation (i.e., that the Son became a man, not a woman). This then supports the Vatican line on women’s ordination that ultimately conflicts, as Bridget points out, with Nazianzus’ maxim.
    One thing I wonder about is how feminist theology deals with the male-ness of the Incarnation–why couldn’t it have been a woman? Did God know ahead of time this wouldn’t fly to well? Is there something about Jesus’ life as a male that subverts traditional understandings of masculinity?

    • Hi, Sophie —

      Thanks for commenting! There are of course various perspectives in feminist theology on the issue of Jesus’ maleness, but Rosemary Radford Ruether proposes just what you’re suggesting — that Jesus’ life of service and message of liberation subvert our notions of masculinity, and that he in this way presents us with “the kenosis of patriarchy.”

  6. Pingback: The “Maleness” of Christ? « WIT

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