Sunday, March 16, 2008

Women of the Passion

Today was Palm Sunday, the first day of the week that leads to Easter, the highest feast on the liturgical calendar. Mass begins in the narthex (the space outside the sanctuary), and the people process inside with palms. A short while later, the Gospel reading (this year, from the Gospel of Matthew) recounts the final week in the life of Jesus. In my parish, the reading is done in the form of a dramatic narrative, with the priest reading the words of Christ and several others reading the rest of the narrative.

This morning as I listened, I was struck by the women who spoke in this passage. In particular, I was moved by the words of the wife of Pontius Pilate, who warns her husband not to have anything to do with the demands of local religious leaders to do away with the Nazarene. Her words are sent in a message just as Christ is brought to him for judgment:

"Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream" (Matthew 27:19).

In that moment, the faint ray of truth gives her husband a moment of much-needed perspective. But in the end, the nightmare continues. Like Lady MacBeth, Pilate washes his hands of the case, but he cannot change the end result. Jesus dies a criminal's death, tortured and deserted by all but a small group of women and a single "beloved disciple."
The women of the Passion narrative -- from the girls who confront Peter outside the gate and cause him to deny the Lord, to the group huddled outside the empty tomb -- serve as points of light and truth throughout the Gospel narrative. Much about them remains hidden; often we are not told their names and the sparest personal information. And yet they interact with the main "players" in a way that reveals and illuminates.
Then as now, women have a special role to fulfill in God's plan, and how that plan is revealed to the rest of the world. Twenty years ago, John Paul II released a letter to the world entitled "Mulieris Dignitatem" (On the Vocation and Dignity of Women) that celebrates this fact. It was momentous not because it changed what the Church teaches about the value and responsibility of women "imbued with the Spirit of the Gospel to aid humanity in not falling," but because it articulated the significance of our gifts and calling in a way that is almost unprecedented. We are important not despite the fact we are women, but because of it.

If you are interested in learning more about this important document, I'd encourage you to consider signing up for the online study being hosted at entitled "Renewing Your Christian Self." It begins April 7, and costs $35 (plus S&H). For more information or to register, click here.

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