Sojourners Magazine reported last month that L’Osservatore Romano is publishing a series of essays advocating for women to preach in the context of the Roman Catholic Mass. With these authors, and with many others, I agree that women should be invited to use fully the gifts God has given to them, and this includes the gift of preaching. For Roman Catholics in pews across the world – and indeed, for the enrichment of the entire body of Christ – I hope that women’s gift for preaching will be welcomed so very soon. To those communities who already bend the rules and allow gifted and educated women to offer “reflections” on the gospel during the Mass, please continue bending rules. Preach the good news!
I have journeyed with Roman Catholic women gifted with preaching and who already share this gift in a variety of contexts: as hospital chaplains during ecumenical services, as leaders of retreats, as directors of faith formation programs (friends, you know who you are!). The liturgy would be enriched and God even more authentically worshipped if these women’s baptismal gifts could be welcomed during the Mass. My own personal desire to preach eventually moved me away from the Roman Catholic Church and into a communion in which women can exercise such ministerial gifts, the Episcopal Church.
Two years ago I had a Holy Week that was extra holy, you know, the way that life and liturgy sometimes eerily overlap. On Palm Sunday it was made clear to me that I, as a woman, would not be allowed to preach at my Roman Catholic parish, despite my theological education and ministry gifts. On Holy Thursday I kept watch at my dying grandmother’s hospital bed, and was with her as she breathed her last on Good Friday. In this heightened sensibility that Easter Sunday, I heard the space in between the Sunday lectionary readings. I was yearning for the truth of a resurrected body in the Easter Sunday gospel reading, but heard only the empty tomb, for the first time ever. I eagerly anticipated Jesus calling “Mary” and heard silence. I listened for “Go to my brothers and tell them…,” but nothing. I wanted confirmation that “I have seen the Lord!,” but dwelt only in blank time and space.
Allow me to state more directly what I learned that Easter Sunday: the story of Mary Magdalene (John 20:10-18) is never proclaimed on a Sunday in the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, Easter Sunday ends with an empty tomb (just before we are told that the disciples go home while Mary stays), and Divine Mercy Sunday resumes with the Resurrected Christ appearing to the disciples in the locked Upper Room. The interaction between Mary Magdalene and the Resurrected Christ – attested to in three of the four canonical gospels – is sliced from the liturgical telling in a manner that does violence to the integrity of the text. Somehow in my studies – which included excellent works like Katherine Ludwig Jansen’s The Making of the Magdalen – I had not caught the Sunday lectionary’s grave omission, which simultaneously conceals the historical reality of a woman as the first preacher of the good news of the Risen Christ, and protects the power of men.
My revelation that Easter Sunday is this: Mary of Magdala, the apostolorum apostola – the first person called by name and sent by the Risen Christ to proclaim the good news – has no public voice in the Roman Catholic Church; I should not be surprised that women in general possess no public voice, and I among them.
To me, the issue of women preaching in the 21st century is a question of giving women’s voices space in a much larger historical context. It means advocating for Mary Magdalene’s biblical story to be proclaimed on Easter Sunday, as those of us following the Revised Common Lectionary heard last week. It means giving serious scholarship to the voices of all biblical women, as Lindsay Hardin Freeman has done in her book Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter. It means recovering the dangerous memory of women preachers and mystics in history, such as Hildegard von Bingen. And it means claiming the space for women today to exercise their baptismal gifts and to let God’s voice speak through their art, music, prayer, and yes, preaching. Let it be so among the communions, for the greater glory of God.