Restored frescoes in the Catacombs of Santa Priscilla were recently unveiled by the Vatican. The catacombs date to the 3rd Century and are an elaborate underground labyrinth of burial chambers created by Christians living in Rome. One depicts a group sharing what might be a eucharistic meal. The other shows a person possibly leading a group in worship. What makes them intriguing in both cases is the people depicted are women.
Mind you the debate over whether women were priests in early Christianity has been going on for some time. And most scholars agree that there were women Deacons up through at least the 4th Century. So it is, like most things, an unresolved question that has two very different interpretations of what is true.
Vatican spokesmen (and they were indeed men, priests to be precise) offered that the frescoes do not depict women in official leadership roles, that any interpretation of that sort is “fable, a legend.” (The Guardian, January 15, 2016)
Karen J. Torjeson published When Women Were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity in 1993, and despite the controversy that ensued the book was hailed for its thorough scholarship.
Frescoes of women in the 3rd Century doing what could be priestly things. 20th Century scholars arguing that women have been subordinated by the church through the years. Official church responses that defend the male status quo. And it’s not just the Roman Catholic church. Many Protestant churches have similar policies preventing women from holding significant leadership roles in their churches.
Like me you might be asking, “What does this all mean and what does it have to do with my faith journey?” It seems to me that how I answer these questions determines what my image of God is. And how I imagine God determines how I act, and how I relate to others.
So I turned to the one source I thought would help the most. I opened up the Bible.
Let’s see here. “In his image he made them, male and female he created them” (Gen.1:27)
“Deborah, a prophetess was judging Israel.” (Judges 4:4) Esther. Ruth. Matthew names women in the patrilineal genealogy of Jesus. Jesus has female disciples. The first to discover Jesus’ resurrection are women. Paul relied on women like Cleo and Priscilla to help him start Christian communities, and also said we are neither Greek nor Jew, woman or man, slave or free anymore.
I think women have played very significant roles in the history of Christianity, leadership roles. I realize there are those who will disagree and have other examples to recite. I get that.
I remember a conversation I was having with two women who had visited Cardinal Mahoney, then Cardinal of the L.A. Archdiocese. They asked him why women couldn’t have greater leadership roles in their church. His answer? “It’s a man’s world.”
That conversation happened 40 years ago. “It’s a man’s world.”
Isn’t it God’s world? Aren’t we just the stewards of it? I believe the patriarchal attitudes held by many Christians today stunt the spiritual growth of the communities they lead. Think about this: If you take all the adjectives and adverbs used to describe God in the Bible you will find that most of them are feminine. Feminine.
If you don’t want to think about that, think about this: The Christian claim about God in the Epistles is that God is love. Not a person. Love. An action. A way of living.
A power. Love is a power. The most powerful thing in the universe.
More powerful even than men.