Once upon a time, the Virgin Mary pervaded the life and thought of the Western world. Her presence was so expansive, in fact, that even European fairy tales acknowledged her status. Take Cinderella. An abusive stepmother was still the cause of Cinderella’s impoverished conditions, but in one of the earliest tellings of the tale, she knew the one to call upon was the Virgin Mary. In no time at all, Cinderella’s hunger was resolved, and a prince was proposing. By replacing the Virgin Mary with a Fairy Godmother, the story of Cinderella was successfully secularized for today without disenchanting it. But it’s not just fairy tales that have stripped Mary from a well-loved story. She’s missing from The Story, too.
It’s not that Protestants have entirely forgotten Mary. At this time of year, the mother of Jesus gets some attention. But Mary is not a Christmas figure to be stored away like the manger and the Star of Bethlehem until next year. She played an extraordinary role throughout the life and ministry of Jesus, from the Annunciation to the day of Pentecost. By overlooking the roles she played throughout Jesus’ ministry, we may think that we are protecting Protestantism from falling into old “Catholic” habits of elevating her beyond what Scripture declares about her. But there’s nothing “Protestant” about neglecting what Scripture does say about her—and about the other women named by the New Testament writers.
Before Easter this year, I (Jennifer) stepped out of my comfort zone and preached a sermon at a church on the women named in Luke 8, who traveled with Jesus and financially supported his ministry. In one sense, it was an obvious choice for a sermon. I wanted the congregation to know who the women of Luke 8 were before they met them again at the tomb on Easter. After all, every single Gospel account mentions that women were the first witnesses to the risen Christ. And there is no better evidence of the truth of the Christian claim that Christ truly, bodily resurrected than the fact that the Gospel writers absurdly and consistently base it on the testimony of women during a time when a woman’s testimony was legally worthless. Still, I was uncertain about how a sermon with this kind of focus would be received. Afterward, I had just a swarm of people saying to me that they had never even heard of these women before. They told me that while they had heard sermons focusing on a number of biblical characters other than Jesus, they had never heard a single Sunday morning sermon focused on a woman. And this was in a congregation that’s part of the Presbyterian Church (USA), a denomination that takes pride in its inclusion of women into all areas of ministry! As I officiated communion afterward, a line of women softly whispered to me “thank you,” some with tears in their eyes. Women have a hunger to know that women were faithful and active participants in Jesus’ ministry. They were not just recipients of his miracles. Not just people shown love and respect, but people transformed by Jesus for new life as participants and witnesses in his ministry.
Numerous women are named in Scripture as supporters and participants in Jesus’ ministry. Many more are named as co-workers with Paul. These women are not entirely forgotten by Protestant churches today, but when we tell the stories of Priscilla, Phoebe, Susanna, Chloe, Junia, or the many other women of Scripture, we almost always reserve that focus for the women’s retreat. The whole testimony of Scripture is for the whole church—both men and women. What would it mean for men in the pews to think about the examples of women not as particular “women’s stories” but as universal Christian exemplars? Women in our churches have long had to learn special listening and application skills as they considered the many examples of men following Jesus. It is the normative filter for women in the pew. What if the tables were turned to better reflect the practice of the Bible? What if the New Testament writers didn’t just name female disciples to show women that they too can participate in Jesus’ work? What if the New Testament writers also intended men to learn from women how to follow Jesus? What if Mary, the Mother of God, is for men too?
Read it all.