Sunday, January 20, 2013

Woman!: Reflections on the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jesus was here.
In today's Gospel reading we hear about Jesus' first miracle. And right there by his side is His mother, Mary. Mary is very important to us Catholics. We sing about her, we pray through her intercession, we name churches after her, we celebrate feasts and solemnities in her honor...Mary is kind of a big deal. So, what's up with Jesus calling her "woman"? And why is she such a big deal?

And why am I sharing this cartoon? Because it's funny and topical, that's why.
Jesus calling his mother "woman" provokes our modern sensibilities. Women think, "If my son talked to me that way, I'd smack him up side the head." Our feminist bent recoils at the idea of Mary being referred to simply in terms of her gender. It doesn't fit our view of women.

On one level, this is simply a linguistic misunderstanding. When Jesus calls Mary "woman," He isn't disrespecting her. In the ancient world, "woman" was a term of respect, roughly equivalent with our "lady." It was a title; female rulers, like Cleopatra, were referred to as "woman."

Yes, I did that. Be kind, I don't have a lot of experience manipulating pictures. I call it, "Mary the Riveter."
On the other hand, Biblical studies has a lot to say about this particular verse. Some translations of the Bible feature Jesus never calling his mother "mother." They have him consistently calling Mary "woman." This intrigues scholars who engage in typology. Typology is the study of words, phrases and images to make connections between the books of the Bible. It is especially used to show how the Old Testament foreshadowed parts of the New. For example, the Israelites going to Egypt and escaping from Egypt foreshadows the Holy Family going to Egypt to escape the slaughter of the Holy Innocents.

In the case of the "woman" Mary, in calling His mother "woman" Jesus is making clear Mary's place in salvation history. It is linking her to Eve and Genesis 3:15: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel." Calling Mary "woman," underlines the fact that Jesus is the new Adam and Mary is the new Eve.

It also links her to the end of time in the book of Revelation chapter 12:1-6
1 A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.
2 She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth.
3 Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems.
4 Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth.
5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne.
6 The woman herself fled into the desert where she had a place prepared by God, that there she might be taken care of for twelve hundred and sixty days.    
It is believed that this unnamed woman is Mary after her assumption and her son is Jesus. Some theologians believe that this entire passage simply underlines her identity as the "Mother of the Church."

And here we come to, "Why is Mary such a big deal?" Catholics do not worship Mary, worship is due to God alone, but she is put high on a pedestal. She is seen as a role model for all Christians in her faithfulness and her willingness to follow God's will even when that will didn't make much sense (remember the annunciation. How would you feel if some angel came to you and said God was going to get you pregnant with His Son?). She is believed to have been born without sin because God cannot be in the presence of sin and she gave birth to God; as you see, everything that Catholics believe about Mary ultimately points us back to her Son. A woman who held God in her womb for nine months, gave birth to Him, and followed Him to His death and beyond cannot be an ordinary woman.

But, on the other hand, she was a woman. A woman who played and continues to play a pivotal role in our salvation in her intercession for all of us with her Son. So, we should not cringe when her Son calls her "woman," because that is what she is.

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