In the western church yesterday, July 22, was the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, named the apostola apostolorum, the Apostle to the Apostles, thanks to her unique role as the first disciple to see the Risen Lord and as the first apostle, the first preacher of the good news of Christ’s resurrection. Similarly, in Matthew, Mary Magdalene along with the other women at the tomb encounters the Risen Christ, and in both Matthew and Luke the women as a group are the first preachers of the kerygma.
One week later, on July 29, we celebrate St. Martha and, in some churches and traditions, her sister St. Mary of Bethany and her brother St. Lazarus. While some of us just heard them in the Gospel on Sunday, that only happens in lectionary year C; every July 29th, however, we hear about these friends of Jesus, and in the Gospel of John Martha professes her faith that she has “come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” (John 11:27) In many traditions, Martha (after taming a dragon!) went on with her sister and brother to bring the Gospel to Gaul/France. [Full disclosure – I’ve got a major soft spot for Martha, not only because her feast day is my birthday, but also because “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.There is need of only one thing” is what I hear Christ telling me in my prayer almost daily.]
I floated on twitter the other day the idea that the nearness of the feasts of these holy women provides, perhaps, an opportunity each year to celebrate in thanksgiving the service of so many women to our churches as preachers like Mary Magdalene, as believers and doers like Martha, and as contemplatives like Mary of Bethany. And, at the same time, our prayer in this week can also be a prayer of hopeful petition for greater opportunities for women’s leadership, preaching, and teaching in our churches.
My model for this is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, started in 1908 by Fr. Paul Wattson, SA, of Graymoor to link the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter with that of the Conversion of St. Paul. That week started as a grassroots effort to link prayer and action for ecumenical unity, and now is a traditional part of our churches’ calendars in many ways.
Common prayer for greater appreciation for women’s ministry and for the growth of women’s leadership has a similar unifying potential, both within the Catholic Church and across our different churches. Not all Christians, and not all Catholics, agree on the question of women’s ordination to the diaconate, priesthood/presbyterate, and episcopate, as reactions the other day on twitter regarding women’s preaching shows. But at least in my Catholic Church, even Catholics for whom ordination of women to the priesthood is a closed question can see, I hope, that there are many, many, many other ways that our structures of leadership, decision-making, and organization can be reformed and converted from structural sexism and misogyny so that the women of our church are no longer treated as second-class disciples. We don’t need to agree on ordination to start acting now, just as the early ecumenical movement moved to do all that they could together, together, in pursuit of greater unity. Whether by appointing them to Vatican dicasteries, naming them as cardinals, recognizing all of the service that they already provide both publicly and privately, thanking them for all of the ways in which they are already following Mary Magdalene’s example as the first apostle and Martha’s example as a confessor – in all this, we could come together in gratitude and in prayer for further discernment and reform.
Some will say that this is not enough – they are correct. A Week of Prayer for Women’s Ministry, or changing the status of the Feast of Mary Magdalene, is an empty gesture at best or a virtue-signaling distraction at worst if not connected with action; Martha, her anxiety notwithstanding, knew how to get things done, and we, likewise, will only pray authentically if our prayer leads to work for justice. That work must involve continuing discernment on the restrictions placed on women’s leadership in our churches – including even those churches that already ordain women – as well as activism. But just as the ecumenical movement began not from the top but from Christians committed to doing everything that they could already do together, together, a Week of Prayer for Women’s Ministry might be a way of thanking the often un-thanked women who minister in our churches and of imagining, together, what churches in which the full gifts of more than half of their members are encouraged, fostered, and structurally supported.
Mary Magdalene and Martha, and all of the nameless friends of God and prophets who have followed them in ministry, pray for us.