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Matters of Language

At last Sunday’s Matins I was shocked by the language in the Doxastikon of the Praises. The text refers to the Resurrection Gospel that was read earlier in the Matins service and which described the encounter of Mary Magdalene with the resurrected Jesus. Here is a translation of the Doxastikon:

Verily, the fervid tears of Mary were not shed in vain; for behold she was found worthy to learn from the angels, and to look at your face, O Jesus. But since she was a weak woman she was still thinking of earthly things. Therefore, she was turned away from touching you, O Christ. But she was sent to proclaim to your Disciples, and to tell them the glad tidings of your ascent to the heavenly heritage. With her, therefore, make us worthy of your appearance, O Lord. 

So Mary Magdalene was “a weak woman”, γυνὴ ἀσθενής? Maybe in the mind of the anonymous monk who composed this hymn, but certainly not in the Gospels, where the women, including Mary Magdalene, were the only disciples who stayed with Jesus to the end; except for John, who was the only male disciple at Golgotha.

In Christian traditional language, women are rarely more than weak; after all, they are descendants of Eve, who led Adam to sin by her own weakness in the face of the serpent’s temptation. Even men who know nothing about the Bible or theology – and don’t care to know anything – do not hesitate to blame Eve and women in general for everything that they don’t like. It’s only a short hop from the Doxastikon last Sunday to the hatred of women that we see in our society today.

When women are not “weak” in the medieval traditions of the church, they are sinners or prostitutes. No wonder that the only women that can become “saints” are either virgin martyrs or nuns; or repentant prostitutes who become nuns! Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza published a landmark book in 1983, In Memory of Her. The title of her book comes from the episode in Mark’s Gospel where an unnamed woman anointed Jesus. Immediately there was an uproar among the men against this act under the pretext that it was a waste of money. But Jesus’ response was memorable: “Truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 14:9). The Greek is even more pointed: ἀμὴν δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν, ὅπου ἐὰν κηρυχθῇ τὸ εὐαγγέλιον εἰς ὅλον τὸν κόσμον, καὶ ὃ ἐποίησεν αὕτη λαληθήσεται εἰς μνημόσυνον αὐτῆς. Because of that conjunction καὶ in the middle of this sentence, I would translate it more like this: “Truly I say to you, wherever in all the world the gospel is proclaimed, this also, what she has done, will be shouted out as a memorial to her.” This act is her memorial for all eternity. But it also becomes part of the gospel, part of the good news of Jesus Christ. Because of that conjunction καὶ! For no other person, man or woman, does Jesus say such a thing. Perhaps the only other saying of Jesus that could be considered as similarly remarkable is what Jesus said to the thief on the cross.

Matthew’s Gospel has the exact same incident almost word-for-word as in Mark (see Matthew 26:6-13). There is a similar incident recounted in Luke 7:36-50, and there it is a sinful woman (presumably a prostitute or an adulteress) who anoints the feet of Jesus and receives forgiveness. But the Luke incident is clearly a different event and a different woman. There is NO similarity with the woman in Mark and Matthew. And yet much of Byzantine and medieval tradition merged both incidents into one: It’s a sinful woman who anointed Jesus!

Schüssler Fiorenza also points out something else that is deeply important and perceptive. In Luke’s narrative the woman washes the feet of Jesus and then anoints his feet with the ointment. It was normal in that society to wash the feet of a visitor; but even there the men make a big deal in Luke’s narrative because the woman was “a sinner.” How could Jesus allow a woman to wash his feet? Shocking! But the woman in Mark and Matthew pours the ointment over Jesus’ head, not his feet. Schüssler Fiorenza goes on to point out:

Since the prophet in the Old Testament anointed the head of the Jewish king, the anointing of Jesus’ head must have been understood immediately as the prophetic recognition of Jesus, the Anointed, the Messiah, the Christ. According to the tradition [accurately reflected by Mark and Matthew] it was a woman who named Jesus by and through her prophetic sign-action. It was a politically dangerous story.

Politically dangerous indeed; as in today’s political climate as well. Far from the world of “weak” women to which much of the Christian tradition has reduced women, here we have a woman who acted as a prophet in the Old Testament sense and proclaimed, by anointing his head, Jesus to be Messiah, the Anointed. Whether she was conscious of this or not, it is enough to say that God intended this woman to be the prophetess for Jesus. Just as another woman, Anna, was prophetess when she and Simeon recognized and blessed the 40-day old infant Jesus.

The language of church tradition needs a major overhaul, so we don’t resort to labels like “a weak woman” to describe one of the strongest and most remarkable persons in the life of Christ. And so we don’t turn every woman who went to Jesus into a prostitute or sinner. I’m not advocating political correctness of any sort. The label “politically correct” becomes a convenient way out for men in power. This is not about political correctness – it’s about linguistic correctness and accurate exegesis! But then that last sentence is probably beyond the vocabulary of many men in our society, including men in positions of power.

But what about Mary, the mother of Jesus, the most visible woman in the New Testament? She is the highest of all the saints in the church’s estimation. She is held as a model of purity, humility, faith and faithfulness, devotion, and everything positive that can be said about a person of faith. Surely she doesn’t need any “politically correct” help. Think again. In the most commonly used hymn devoted to her we sing these words:

More honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim, without defilement you gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos we magnify you.

A beautiful hymn to be sure, that properly elevates Mary beyond even the highest angels. But maybe she’s elevated too high, so she ceases to be a woman? Note how the hymn describe her birth-giving of Jesus: “without defilement” or “uncorruptedly” – αδιαφθόρως. Why is her birth-giving without defilement, without corruption? Is it a defilement to give birth? Is it corruption? Is her birth-giving “without defilement” because it was a virgin birth? So every other human birth is a defilement? Do I have to be politically correct to say that there is a problem with the anthropology behind such language? I prefer to believe that this is not the authentic language of the church! And yet there it is, in one of the most frequently sung hymns. I prefer to think it is the language of male monks. It is indeed a tragedy that once monasticism became an organ of the imperial church instead of what it was at the beginning – an act of resistance against the state church and the empire – the church allowed monks to become the primary hymn composers. And that is still the case today. And it’s a mistake, in my opinion; a weakness in our otherwise rich liturgical tradition.

A fellow church member was rejoicing that Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the US Supreme Court. He looks forward to the Supreme Court now overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that legalized abortion in the United States over 40 years ago. I told him that if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, there will be revolution and women will rise up. That’s okay, was his reply, we’ll put them right back in their place.

I don’t expect anything from politicians and Supreme Court justices. But the church listens to another teacher, the Holy Spirit. Shouldn’t we start by taking an honest look at our language and how we interpret the Bible? It would be a good start toward healing our attitude to women – and to men, for that matter.