written by Terri C. Pilarski
A little over two weeks ago I started reading Mary and Early Christian Women by Ally Kateusz. I remember thinking that it was a good book to offer insight into this reflection on the Annunciation. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and impacted all of our lives as it has. Particularly over the last week, there have been almost daily changes to routine and schedules. I have had to reorganize everything I do. Everything. More than once. It’s no surprise that I haven’t picked the book up again until tonight, as I began to ponder this reflection.
Mary and Early Christian Women analyzes early Christian texts that describe in words and images Mary, the mother of Jesus, along with other women, as priests in the early church. Kateusz cites stone epigraphs from ancient synagogues that show women as the head of the synagogue, as “Elder” and as “Priest.” Some of the images clearly show women in liturgical roles, often holding thuribles and using incense. The idea that Gospel writers consider Mary as the new Abraham is reflected in writings from Cleo Mary Kearns (The Virgin Mary, Monotheism, and Sacrifice). Mary is also referred to as the New Abraham in the Holy Women, Holy Men narrative for the feast of the Annunciation. One ancient text, the Protevangelium of James, describes Mary’s birth and childhood as well as Jesus’ In this text the annunciation takes place at a well. The Protevangelium twice places Mary inside the temple in Jerusalem, the place of the high priest. Other extra canonical texts also refer to Mary as if she were a priest, partaking of bread and wine at the temple altar.
These images of Mary as priest, as a leader in the church, as an apostle, and as a bold and strong woman who was at the crucifixion despite the risk it posed to her own life, stand in stark contrast to the image that is often associated with Mary as meek and mild. They tell us that some people in the early church knew her this way, and they knew other women this way. Women as leaders. These stand in contrast to the image that many women have been taught to strive for – being meek, being submissive, even accepting abusive relationships as one’s burden to carry. Mary and the Early Christian Women reviews multiple texts and using critical analysis shows how scribes edited texts down to slowly minimize or eliminate the role of women in the early church. This was done to reflect cultural norms of society that had also minimized the role of women, relegating women to property of men – fathers, husbands, brothers and sons – and to what became viewed as the “lowly” care of children and households.
Reconstructing the view that the early church had of Mary is a powerful testimony to the teachings of Jesus and the values of God to lift up and respect the integrity of every human being. Dismantling the impact of thousands of years of patriarchy and how its values and beliefs have subjugated women and people of color into lower class members of society, free labor for white men, is both challenging and crucial if we are to live out our baptismal covenant faithfully. Challenging because early church documents exist only in part and are often dismissed because they have been assigned as outside of the authorized canons of the church. Crucial because patriarchy does not work with the values of the baptismal covenant.
In this new age, when my days are filled with organizing and then reorganizing every single aspect of how I function as a priest, it seems appropriate to commemorate Mary and the feast of the Annunciation, the day her life changed forever. She too was a woman who had to constantly reorganize her life in order to respond to God’s call to her. She did it with integrity, with grit and strength, with love. She did, like I am, like we all are, with the intention of building and maintaining communities of the faithful, people who pray together and work together to bring God’s love into the world and transform lives for the better. In these weeks or months of staying home, staying safe, saving lives as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, our only option to maintain community is through virtual prayer, worship, and social time as well as phone calls, notes, and letters. Will this effort bring us closer, or will we collapse from the strain of it?
I pray that this time in our lives will lead to radical transformation and a new and bold revealing of God’s presence in the world. May we be agents of God’s presence, midwifing God into the world anew. May we be like Mary, taking on the challenge, and yet rejoicing that God is with us.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever. Luke 1:46-55
Image: in pencil by the author
The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski, is the Rector at Christ Church in Dearborn, MI.