2017-04-29

On Joy

joy (n) 1. the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation: She felt the joy of seeing her son's success. 2. a source or cause of keen pleasure or delight; something or someone greatly valued or appreciated: Her prose style is a pure joy. 3. the expression or display of glad feeling; festive gaiety. 4. a state of happiness or felicity. (Dictionary.com, based on Random House Dictionary)

joy (n) c. 1200, "feeling of pleasure and delight;" c. 1300, "source of pleasure or happiness," from Old French joie "pleasure, delight, erotic pleasure, bliss, joyfulness" (11c.), from Latin gaudia "expressions of pleasure; sensual delight," plural of gaudium "joy, inward joy, gladness, delight; source of pleasure or delight," from gaudere "rejoice," from PIE root *gau- "to rejoice." (Online Etymology Dictionary)

joy synonyms: bliss, delight, elation, glee, humor, wonder, ecstasy, exultation, gaiety, gladness, jubilance, rapture
The definition, etymology, and synonyms seem to me to miss something crucial about joy. They do, of course, capture common usage. Moreover, happiness is an important spiritual quality and practice. Understanding our capacity for ebullience and rejoicing, how happiness happens (which isn’t the way most of us tend to presume), and cultivating the habits of delight at “ordinary” things we encounter – these are crucial aspects of spiritual growth, and I hope this month’s exploration of joy will help with these. Becoming happier people is an integral part of becoming more joyous people.

And.

There’s also something about joy that goes beyond happiness, delight, ebullience. Faith, hope, peace, love, joy – on this standard list of spiritual qualities or blessings, joy is a natural part of the “package.” Happiness, however, has a different feel to it. We can have happy moments, but joy often connotes a more abiding quality. Happiness is the opposite of sadness, but joy, I want to say, can be present amid sadness.

We listen to the blues, or other sad songs, or go to sad movies or read sad novels, because it feels good to feel. It’s part of being alive, and, as Rachel Naomi Remen says on our quotations page, “Joy seems more closely related to aliveness than to happiness.” When grief turns away from bitterness into an affirmation of, and gratitude for, the beauty and value of that which has been lost, then grief connects us with the fundamental goodness of life and this world. In that connection, there is joy – but I wouldn’t call it happiness. Sharing tears, like sharing laughter, is an entrance-way into human community and the human family – a leaning in to the fullness of reality rather than a bitter retreat from parts of it. We discover in that reality an underlying joy.

The temporary exultation of things going well is one thing, and the abiding sense that you belong, no matter how things are going is something quite different: the former is better designated “happiness,” the latter, “joy.” When we face reality without filtering out the parts we don’t like, without turning away from the hard parts even for a moment, our own belongingness in that reality grows more secure. That’s why, I think, joy, not happiness, is on the list with peace, hope, faith, and love.

Still, if you want to cultivate joy, then cultivate happiness. Indeed, peace, hope, faith, and love are all pretty difficult if you’re unhappy. The more we find of happiness in our everyday life, the stronger is the foundation of joy supporting us even when grief comes.

2017-04-27

Our Body

Earth Day, part 2

We all die. I reflect often on my own impending death. It brings a certain peace, and a deep cherishing of the moments that I do have. And all species eventually become extinct. But we are here now, we humans, we primates, we mammals. Blue jays, chipmunks, sea turtles, and tuna – garden spiders, lobsters, snails, and beetles – maple trees and oaks, grasses and shrubs – fungi, bacteria, mosses, and molds. We are here now, sharing the blessing and the honor it is to be alive – to be a member of a species that is here, for now. The gentle Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, has written:
“The bells of mindfulness are sounding. All over the Earth, we are experiencing floods, droughts, and massive wildfires. Sea ice is melting in the Arctic and hurricanes and heat waves are killing thousands. The forests are fast disappearing, the deserts are growing, species are becoming extinct every day, and yet we continue to consume, ignoring the ringing bells. All of us know that our beautiful green planet is in danger. Our way of walking on the Earth has a great influence on animals and plants. Yet we act as if our daily lives have nothing to do with the condition of the world. We are like sleepwalkers, not knowing what we are doing or where we are heading. Whether we can wake up or not depends on whether we can walk mindfully on our Mother Earth. The future of all life, including our own, depends on our mindful steps. We have to hear the bells of mindfulness that are sounding all across our planet. We have to start learning how to live in a way that a future will be possible for our children and grandchildren.”
Intellectual understanding of what is happening is crucial. No less crucial is the spiritual understanding that this planetary body is your body. This Earth is hurting, and that pain is our very own pain, crying out for healing. That’s not just a few polar bears starving and stranded on an ice chunk – that’s us stranded on that ice. The cry of the forest withering into barren desert is our cry. The lament of acidifying oceans is our lament, not simply because the fate of sea life affects humans, but because the ocean is our body as much as your kidney and blood are your body.

Salvation lies, I believe, in our connection with this world of ours. The salve for our woundedness, our fragmentation, lies in nature. Connecting to the sacredness of the earth is what saves us – and it’s also what will save the Earth, if it will be saved.

Ecospirituality is the understanding that “our experience of the divine comes through the natural world.” As Thomas Berry put it:
“The universe is the primary revelation of the divine, the primary scripture, the primary locus of divine-human communion.”
And as a recent campaign from the Sierra Club said:
“This is not about getting back to nature. It is about understanding we've never left.”
We may ignore what is happening to our home, break our connection to the holy whole, break faith with the ground of our being. We might do so out of hubris. We might do so out of despair. Either would be a form of faithlessness.

We are given this amazing gift: life, for a few short moments – life amid this beautiful self-organizing universe. We are given this brief chance to be in the dance of creation with millions of other species of animals and plants. And we are given a mind and heart and spirit that empowers us to choose, if we will, to engage in the healing of our world.

* * *
This is part 2 of 2 of "Earth Day"
See also
Part 1: The Climate It is A-Changin'

2017-04-26

The Climate It is A-Changin'

One of my sayings is: Reality is never depressing.

Reality can certainly be challenging. What’s depressing is trying to turn away from reality – trying not to know, not to think about it. That can be exhausting – depressing. Face reality squarely, and it cannot be depressing. We might grieve; we might mourn – that’s part of a healthy human response to loss – but that’s different from being depressed.

So let us face squarely what there is to be faced: climate change. The sun warms the earth and much of that warmth is reflected back out into space. But CO2 in the atmosphere holds the heat in so that less of it escapes. More CO2 in the atmosphere means more heat is trapped.

High levels of atmospheric CO2 are a problem.

Number One, disruption of weather patterns. While the overall heat of the planet increases, some places might get colder. There is more extreme weather: more droughts and more floods, more heat waves, more hurricanes and superstorms.

Number Two, rising sea levels. For two reasons: (A) melting of land-based ice, which then runs into the ocean, and (B), things expand when they get warmer. Warmer oceans are bigger oceans.

Number Three, ocean acidification. CO2 in the air mixes with the world’s oceans, forming carbonic acid and making the world’s oceans more acidic.

For these three reasons, atmospheric CO2 levels above 350ppm are not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted. Remember that key number: 350. Since the beginning of human civilization, we’ve had 275 ppm.
Then, with the industrial revolution it began to rise. In 1960, it was still under 320 ppm. About 1987, 30 years ago, we surpassed the crucial 350 ppm line. And it’s still going up about 2 more ppm every year. Scientific American reported that on Tue Apr 18 the Mauna Loa Observatory recorded its first-ever carbon dioxide reading in excess of 410 parts per million – pretty much right on the predicted schedule.

We’re on track to create a climate unseen in 50 million years by mid-century. 50 million years! Hominids have only been around for about 6 million years.

I checked the data right here in White Plains, this year. I made a spreadsheet, and I looked up, for every day of 2017 so far, what was the normal high and normal low in White Plains for that date, and what were the actual temperatures for each day in 2017. You probably remember we had an unusually mild winter. Averaging the numbers myself, I found that January and February temperatures averaged about 7 and a half degrees above the White Plains normal this year. March was right at normal for a White Plains March. April is up again. Overall, for the first 112 days of 2017, the average daily high and daily low are both about 5 degrees above normal.

That’s kind of interesting. By itself, this doesn’t tell us anything. Weather always fluctuates – some cold winters, some mild winters. We have to look at a lot more data than just 112 days of White Plains highs and lows. People with much, much bigger spreadsheets have done that.

Over the whole Earth, 2016 was the hottest year on record, and it’s the third consecutive record-breaking year. No less an authority than Bill Nye the Science Guy has personally guaranteed that the 2010 – 2020 decade will be the hottest decade ever, since our records began.

The planet has already warmed 1° C over mid-20th-century average temperatures. Heat extremes that previously occurred once every 1,000 days are already happening four to five times every thousand days.

Extreme rain events are already occurring 25% more times per year than they did prior to the industrial revolution.

Sea levels have already risen about a foot, with the best estimates of the Global Mean sea level rise by the end of the century ranging from another one to eight feet.

Oceans are already about 30% more acidic than they were 30 years ago, threatening marine life, killing coral reefs, and reducing fish populations that penguins and seals and some human communities depend on for survival.

As governments are destabilized by these events, and competition for resources intensifies, the “us versus them” mindset expands, as it already has begun doing, hatred and violence grows, resource wars break out, eventually drawing in the nuclear powers, who will refrain from using their nuclear arsenals – for a little while.

As Lester Brown put it,
“We’ve been saying we need to save the planet. The planet’s going to be around for some time to come. What’s at stake now is civilization itself.”
The situation can be frightening. I understand the fear reaction, but we need not let fear govern us. We can instead be governed by compassion for all the life affected by climate change. (As Cindy Davidson illustrates HERE)

* * *
This is part 1 of 2 of "Earth Day"

2017-04-21

The Retreat from Freedom and Democracy


Twenty years ago Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) laid out a story of the rise of European wealth and power as geographically determined. Temperate climates, suitable soil, and availability of domesticable animals created the initial conditions that freed a little time for technological development and the rise of population centers where close proximity of humans to each other and their domesticated animals led to diseases and eventual immunities not found among other humans. The technological development (steel, guns) and the immunity (germs) were the key means by which Europeans came to dominate the globe.

I don't know whether Diamond got all the details of the story right -- probably he ignored or underemphasized some important factors while overemphasizing others. But if we are unwilling to say that white people are superior, then something like Diamond's geographical determinism becomes attractive, and perhaps inevitable, as the gist of accounting for the hegemony of Western civilization. The Europeans aren't smarter or more virtuous by nature, they are just the beneficiaries of geographic good luck. This explanation also dodges the possibility that Europeans might be inferior: more violent, vicious, and dominating by nature than other peoples. Humans and chimps have a deep history of conquering each other when they can, so any people that stumbled upon the means for vast conquest was liable to use it.

Western civilization has, until quite recently, tended to be proud of itself. Before stories like Diamond's there were stories like Will and Ariel Durant's Story of Civilization. The Durants
"basically told human history (mostly Western history) as an accumulation of great ideas and innovations, from the Egyptians, through Athens, Magna Carta, the Age of Faith, the Renaissance and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The series was phenomenally successful, selling over two million copies." (David Brooks)
While the Durants never said, "white people are genetically superior," or "are God's favorite," they also provided no other explanation for why these "great ideas and innovations" did not appear in the pre-Colombian Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, or East Asia. White readers were left to assume that there must be something special about white people.

Western civilization is problematic. The wealth of Europe and America was built on the oppression of, theft from, or genocide of other peoples. The West's standard of living continues to depend to a distressing degree on exploitation of people in less developed countries. Moreover, those of us "enjoying the benefits" of Western standards of living are often more stressed, isolated, alienated, and unhappy than people in nonwestern societies.

At the same time, I really like some of those "great Western ideas." Liberal democracy (elected leaders subject to periodic re-election, an independent judiciary, and protected freedoms of expression) and the modern scientific method, both of which began taking shape among Europeans in the mid-seventeenth-century, are particular favorites of mine. I also happen to think that a number of really good ideas emerged in the Americas, Africa, and East Asia, and various "traditional societies" all over the world. (Diamond's newest book, The World Until Yesterday, discusses a number of those ideas from which Western society could benefit.)

Can we be glad of liberal democracy and science while acknowledging that these appeared where they did because of luck, much of it geographic and perhaps some of it also merely random, rather than because of the beneficent smile of divine providence upon people with paler skin? Can we hope to address Western civilization's problems and reduce oppression and exploitation by advancing, rather than retreating from, norms of truth and justice?

Instead, we are seeing retreat from democratic norms and scientific standards of assessing truth. We are seeing, writes David Brooks in this morning's column, echoing what many are noticing:
"the rise of the illiberals, authoritarians who not only don’t believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative, but don’t even pretend to believe in them, as former dictators did. Over the past few years especially, we have entered the age of strong men. We are leaving the age of Obama, Cameron and Merkel and entering the age of Putin, Erdogan, el-Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. The events last week in Turkey were just another part of the trend. Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismantles democratic institutions and replaces them with majoritarian dictatorship. Turkey seems to have lost its desire to join the European idea, which no longer has magnetism and allure. Turkey seems to have lost its aspiration to join the community of democracies because that’s no longer the inevitable future. More and more governments, including the Trump administration, begin to look like premodern mafia states, run by family-based commercial clans. Meanwhile, institutionalized, party-based authoritarian regimes, like in China or Russia, are turning into premodern cults of personality/Maximum Leader regimes, which are far more unstable and dangerous."
It seems as though the displacement of a Durant-type story by a Diamond-type story has made democracy and freedom less compelling. If liberal democracy appeared by geographic luck rather than by the superiority of the people who created its foundation, then free and democratic ideals are less inspiring.

I grew up inspired by a Durantish story of my place in history. I came eventually to understand that the silences in that story -- silences about why the West's ideas and innovations occurred where and how they did -- created spaces within which racist assumptions could flourish. My transition to a Diamondish story leaves me no less inspired by and committed to the ideals of free speech and press, an independent judiciary, fair and frequent elections, and respect for the results of science. There are a lot of us who continue devotion to those ideals -- but fewer than there used to be. For a number of folks, race -- or some form of in-group identity -- trumps freedom, democracy, and processes of determining what to believe that attempt to recognize and temper our own confirmation biases. If they can't have racist reasons for devotion to democracy, they won't be devoted to it at all.

History appears to be at a pivot point. The human world will either continue the current retreat from freedom and democracy -- or it will turn around. Which will happen, I don't know. Turning around will require finding a way to be inspired by those ideals that is also informed by nonwestern ideals, that rejects the domination that has been so much a part of Western history, and that can accept that all our ideals are contingent accidents of history.

2017-04-20

Our Commission of Compassion

There's Something About Mary, part 3

Between the first and fourth centuries, there existed a Magdalene Christianity, characterized by emphasis on ending the oppression of the world’s powerless. Unfortunately, over the long centuries, Jesus’ more inclusive message, as conveyed through Mary Magdalene, was silenced. The Orthodox Church “replaced, appropriated, and left behind” the prominence of the Magdalene.

Despite official suppression and neglect, something of her significance is hinted at by the folk legends about Mary. According to tradition, Saint Mary Magdalene, who had patrician rank, gained an audience in Rome with the emperor after the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. She denounced Pilate for his handling of Jesus' trial and then began to talk with Caesar about Jesus' resurrection. She picked up a hen's egg from the dinner table to illustrate her point about resurrection. Caesar was unmoved and replied that there was as much chance of a human being returning to life as there was for the egg to turn red. Immediately, the egg miraculously turned red in her hand. It is because of this tradition that Orthodox Christians exchange red eggs at Easter.

The hints about maybe being Jesus’ wife are enticing and get a lot of attention, but whether she was or not, she was a significant leader in spreading the teaching of the new faith. Our Unitarian and Universalist roots are in liberal Christianity, a Christianity which has always affirmed Jesus’ resurrection not as a metaphysical or supernatural event but as an ethical renewal of the world. This renewal will not be easy, for the costing price of love is high.

Mary Magdalene is a symbol that represents those of whatever gender who stayed behind, weeping. Powerfully we see how we must confront death, how our lives are about losing forever the thing we love. Death and loss come. Hope comes: the morning light, the garden, the angels.

Life is there, it calls our name, and we reach out to embrace all that we can – even though we sometimes recoil from the isolation and separation that seems to be part of this momentous task of being human. In the depth of our grief we must not only let go of our expectations of living in a perennially joyous garden, but we must go our way alone with the commission to speak all of what we have seen and felt. It is a commission of compassion: to apprehend that the suffering of others is your suffering -- like Mary beholding the suffering of Jesus, and taking it as her own.
Or like the two girls in C.S. Lewis’s remake of the Christian story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, who stay behind to witness the death of Aslan, the great Lion. The girls wept the night through stroking Aslan’s shorn mane. Those who stay, who are there, who bear witness and break silence, somehow give us the courage to do the same.

When we cannot stop violence and death, we can be with it – and speak to power the truth we have witnessed. What the women who were there saw and told, what the message of Mary Magdalene and Magdalene Christianity tell us is that we can only remake our lives and make them whole by including the last and the first in an egalitarian society. To build this society – to try to make it for ourselves and model it for others -- we come together in Unitarian Universalist congregations. Alice Blair Wesley sums it up this way:
“I understand the Easter myth as a way of saying you can't kill the Holy Spirit of love by killing a body. It will rise up all the stronger in other people's bodies because they have seen and felt and known ultimately-costing love in action. And I see other elements of the story -- the failure of the Sanhedrin, the cowardice and barbarity of the Roman governor, as political, pointing to a new polity for Jesus' followers based on experience of the spirit of love. This was truly revolutionary! (Still is!)”
We can’t say exactly what happened to Jesus 2000 years ago. We weren’t there. We’re here. Yet here is there. Like Mary, we have been left behind to tend to our tears and tend to earth’s garden. We smooth-skinned primates haven’t yet botched it entirely.

Our coming together in tender moments is defying death by holding it in our hearts, holding the suffering and the joy, loving the light of every passing day. During daily life and even during times of danger we stay present to love.
“The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.” (William Sloan)
We could give in to the fear of losing what we love most because the earth is covered in ruins, in secrets, and in ashes. It’s also covered in roses, in songbirds, and in the laughter of dear friends.

Lo, the Earth awakes again from the winter’s bond and pain. Alleluia. Alleluia.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "There's Something About Mary"
See also
Part 1: Witnesses to a World-Transforming Event
Part 2: Her Gospel

* * *
Acknowledgement: I am indebted to Rev. LoraKim Joyner, portions of
whose earlier sermon, "Were You There?" were adapted for this sermon.

2017-04-18

Her Gospel

There's Something About Mary, part 2

The Easter narratives place us on Calvary Hill, where the rational world of control is submerged in fear, pain, and a maelstrom of emotion. As a reader or listener of those narratives, we join those women who feel the doom of day darkening as if it were night, losing everything we had hoped for, losing someone who loved us, and who made the world a better place. Their experience is ours. Everyone experiences death and loss. How do you come to terms with that?

The religious life is grappling with unspeakable tragedy and heart wrenching loss and sorrow right here in the midst of this world of infinite beauty and wonder. Lives end, and life doesn’t – and that is so strange!

The tragic and the beautiful are inextricably mixed together into one thing: not even woven together in a fabric which still has distinguishable threads, but mixed together like yellow and blue dye to make green.

Every child of God has claim to the fullness of life, to love, to justice. The resurrection stories ask us to move out of our daily roles, to be struck down with pain. But then they ask us to pick up the pieces of our lives, of all lives, by sticking around to clean up the mess, and not to be silent to what we witness in life, to what we know brings life to all beings.

That much we get from the canonical gospels. We now have reason to believe Mary Magdalene’s role was probably even greater than the four canonical gospels reveal. Later writers and Christian leaders couldn’t entirely write the Magdalene out of the script, but they did suppress her role.

In 591, Pope Gregory I invented the idea that Mary had been a prostitute. Gregory pointed to Luke, chapter 7, where there is an unnamed “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus feet. Gregory was wrong. For one thing, most scholars agree that woman was not Mary Magdalene. For another thing, “sinful woman” would cover such sins as talking to men other than her husband or going to the marketplace alone. "Sinful" doesn't mean prostitute -- even if that unnamed woman were Mary. Gregory was just making it up. It wasn’t until 1969 that the Vatican officially acknowledged Mary was not the “sinful woman” of Luke.

The official Christian Bible – the 27 books of what is called the New Testament – wasn’t established until the late 300s. The decision was made to exclude certain other texts, including a Gospel of Thomas, and a Gospel of Mary Magdalene. These texts were well known to the earlier Christians, but after exclusion from the official canon, they disappeared. They were essentially unknown for over a thousand years, until archeological discoveries in the last hundred years.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Magdalene and another woman, Salome, are among the six (not 12) true disciples of Jesus. Another Gnostic text calls her “the woman who understood all things.”

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is brief, just 19 very small pages, and half of those are missing. In what we do have, we see the apostles fearful:
“How are we to go among the unbelievers and announce the gospel of the Kingdom of the Son of Man? They did not spare his life, so why should they spare ours?” (Gospel of Mary Magdalene, 5:1, trans. Jean-Yves Leloup and Joseph Rowe)
Without Mary’s calm leadership in those first weeks after the crucifixion, there might not be a Christianity today.
“Then Mary arose, embraced them all, and began to speak to her brothers: ‘Do not remain in sorrow and doubt, for his Grace will guide you and comfort you. Instead, let us praise his greatness, for he has prepared us for this. He is calling upon us to become fully human.’” (5:2-3)
Then Peter asks her,
“Tell us whatever you remember of any words he told you which we have not yet heard.” (5:6)
Mary relates a vision she had of their teacher, and what was said in that vision. Andrew doesn’t
“believe that the Teacher would speak like this.” (9:2)
Peter is indignant:
“How is it possible that the Teacher talked in this manner with a woman about secrets of which we ourselves are ignorant?” (9:4)
But Levi defends Mary.
“Yet if the Teacher held her worthy, who are you to reject her? Surely the Teacher knew her very well, for he loved her more than us. Therefore let us atone and become fully human.” (9:8-9)
The Gospel of Mary Magdalene ends:
“When Levi had said these words, they all went forth to spread the gospel.” (9:10)
Maybe, without Mary, they wouldn’t have.

* * *
There's Something About Mary, part 2 of 3
See also
Part 1: Witnesses to a World-Transforming Event
Part 3: Our Commission of Compassion

2017-04-17

Witnesses to a World-Transforming Event

There's Something About Mary, part 1

There’s Something About Mary – which was the title of a 1998 Ben Stiller movie that has nothing that all to do with what I’m talking about. There was another movie, and book, The Da Vinci Code, which does relate because it plays on the fascination with Mary Magdalene and the possibility that she may have had a child with Jesus. We have no evidence of a child – though, of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence: there might have been one. We do have texts that refer to Magdalene as the woman Jesus loved best among women – whatever that might mean.

Whatever happened at the death of Jesus and the birth of Christianity, Mary Magdelene is at the center of it. She was there at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ mother, Mary, as Jesus’s life ebbed away. She was there at the discovery of the empty tomb. Jesus appears to her, and it is she who then tells the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” With those words, the Christian religion begins.

The Four Canonical Gospels differ on what happened Easter morning: Mary Magdalene went by herself to the tomb, or she went with another Mary, or there were three women, or at least four. She, or they, were taking spices to prepare the body for burial. She came in the pre-dawn darkness, or they came when the day was dawning, or the sun had already risen. They arrived just in time to see an angel roll the stone back, or found the stone already rolled back. In Matthew, the two women saw an angel and some guards. Mark says the three women entered the tomb and saw one “young man dressed in a white robe." Luke says the group of four or more women saw “two men in dazzling robes.” In John, Mary Magdalene went alone and saw no one; she then left, found two of the male disciples, told them the body was missing, rushed back to the tomb with the men. They saw nothing but linen wrappings. The men left Mary alone crying, and only then did she look into the tomb and see "two angels in white."

In all four gospels, women were the first to find the tomb empty and were the only witnesses who had seen Jesus placed there and could vouch that the empty tomb really was the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid a day-and-a-half before. In two of the Gospels, women were the first to see the risen Lord.

In Jewish Palestine of the time, women’s testimony was widely regarded as unreliable and untrustworthy. Women were not eligible to be witnesses in court. They “were thought by men to be gullible in religious matters and especially prone to superstitious fantasy and excessive in religious practices.” In that world – and, to an unfortunate extent, persisting still today -- men’s dominant power enabled the delusion that men alone occupied the rational domain while women belonged to the more suspect emotional end of the spectrum of human response. Given those attitudes about women, why would the gospels give such a prominent role to women? Why would anyone make up a story based on such low-credibility witnesses?

According to the story, women were the first, and in some cases only, witnesses to key aspects of the death and resurrection narrative. But that's in flagrant violation of the norms of credible story-telling. So it's probably true that women really were were the ones who discovered the empty tomb, and told the others about it. If that part were made up, it would have been made up with men being the main actors and witnesses. By the time the Gospels shifted from an oral to a written form, some one to two generations after Jesus’ death, that story had been so widely retold that it had a staying power that the prejudices of later writers could not overcome.

The Christian tradition, at its inception, took the patriarchal religious priority given to men in God’s dealings with the world and turned those assumptions on their head. By giving women priority, the story confronts and challenges cultural assumptions. “In these stories women are given priority by God as recipients of revelation and thereby the role of mediators of that revelation to men” (Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women, 2002, 275). By reversing the normally expected priority of one gender over another the gospel cancels out gender privilege in the new order heralded and constituted by the resurrection – a kin-dom of God in which, as Jesus had said, “the last shall be made first and the first last.”

Because we see women central to the creation and dissemination of the message, we understand that everyone is included in the hope of the message. In the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene tells the apostles that they have been commissioned by Jesus to spread the word of hope. She was the apostle to the apostles. The women become
“witnesses of the crucified and risen one...through the deeply disturbing encounter with the numinous that transforms their faithfulness into something more than their accepted role: the vocation to be witnesses of a world-transforming event.” (Bauckham 293)
* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "There Something About Mary"
See also
Part 2: Her Gospel
Part 3: Our Commission of Compassion