Over the past number of years, an interesting demographic trend has been noticed in many of the so-called “helping professions,” including psychology and medicine. In clinical psychology, for example, the majority of those being accepted into training programs and becoming licensed in psychology are women. Women now make up the majority of classes in medical school, and for that matter, are more represented in higher education in general than their male colleagues.
“Good for them!” you might say, seeing these trends as part of a growing culture of equal opportunity. But some have speculated that the “feminization” of certain professions might also represent a lowering of prestige in these same professions. And it is true that those who become doctoral professionals in fields which provide direct care to people—including medicine—can no longer anticipate the same level of prestige or command the kind of salaries which were common in previous years. The same trends my also be represented in the Church, where whose churches which embrace women clergy are seeing larger numbers of women applicants. Does this mean a lessening of prestige over-all? Well, I’ve had many women colleagues in ministry describe how they are not afforded the same level of automatic respect that a previous generation of male clergy would have presumed. Unlike the days when there was something of a presumed vocational trajectory for priests in the Episcopal Church—movement toward larger and more prosperous parishes, perhaps ultimately to become a bishop—such patterns are not to be presumed among female clergy. In some cases, this represents a lingering bias against female clergy in the church. In other cases, it reflects that women are often more willing to invest in less rewarding forms of service as priests which do not automatically lead to promotion and advancement. All of this is not meant to stereotype the goals and ambitions of men, or the dedication of many male clergy in doing some of the most challenging and service-oriented forms of ministry. I don’t mean to advocate for any type of “gender competition,” but want to recognize that misogynistic tropes continue to infiltrate the way in which many people think of women and their impact on society.
Mary has rarely been cited as a role model of any kind of feminist ideal. While her role in bringing forth the incarnate of God seems indisputable, the Western Church has tended to emphasize her virginity in a way of preserving an idea of purity, even if Scripture and the early tradition have tended to focus on the miracle of a birth without “marital relations” as a Christological statement: a recognition that the child Jesus cannot be thought of as merely a human being with natural parentage. But, wanting to have it both ways, being born to a woman was also a statement about the full humanity of the incarnate one. Mary has been used as a role model for women—usually as described by men– who are either virgins or mothers—the only two options available in the church until relatively recently. From this perspective, we might read Matthew’s text—as well as other accounts of the role of Mary in the birth of Jesus—as present her as something of the compliant and passive vessel to be filled by God for the divine purpose. We leave it to Luke to describe Mary’s more active consent as well as her identification with the lowly “who have been raised up.” In the Eastern Church, the naming of Mary as Theotokos—literally, God-bearer—goes a bit further in recognizing Mary as a woman who preserves a status of real power. You must look at the rest of the Gospels to get a broader sense of Mary as a woman with an important, albeit complex actor in the story. True, Mary is sometimes depicted as helpless and passive, as in when she stands by the cross of her dying son. Yet she is also an agent in helping him reveal his destiny, as in the wedding feast at Cana. Mary, along with other women depicted in the Gospels, take their place as being, first of all, disciples, promoting the ministry of Jesus and the early Church.
Far from being merely a secondary character who helps move along the plot of the birth of Jesus, Mary stands as a role model as one who is both receptive and very active in bring forth God’s holy plan. To be receptive is not the same as being passive—but describes an act of will which allows for a surrender to God and a capacity to receive and hold God’s grace. At the same time, Mary remains a pre-eminent model of those who have been willing to step-up and accomplish great things.
So, as we are learning more and more, if you want to get the job done, ask a woman. But men, don’t be disheartened. There is plenty for us to do as well. Everything in the story of the coming of the Christ reminds us that it’s not all about prestige and power, but rather wonder, surprise, humility and joy—all of which can be pretty powerful after all. May the Christ continue to be born into the world through those who bear the burden of bring forth new life, and share the joy of nurturing life in all its manifestations toward the growth of God’s reign in creation.