March 4, 2010
On the southern slope of Mt. Parnassus rising high above the Gulf of Corinth stands the ancient shrine of Delphi. Dedicated to Apollo, this sanctuary was the most important place of pilgrimage for Greeks in the ancient world. A recent study of inscriptions at Delphi has shed some light about the role of women in the first century. Out of six hundred families, only six had raised more than one daughter. Clearly men were considered more important.
Unlike society in ancient Egypt, the Greco-Roman world did not accord women equal status to men before the law. Women were expected to be wives and mothers. They were to work at home. They received only a basic education and were under the authority of their father or their husband. Female infanticide was practiced, as well as primitive forms of abortion. In either case, women died. As a result, men greatly outnumbered women in the Greco-Roman world. Dio Cassius, the Roman historian from Nicaea in Bithynia, listed the shortage of women as one of the reasons that the population of the Roman Empire was in decline.
Even in Jewish society, women did not enjoy the same status as men. The pious Jew would thank God each morning in prayer that God had not made him “a Gentile, a slave or a woman.” Women could not be counted in the quorum for a synagogue. Prior to Jesus, there is no record of any woman being a disciple of a teacher or of a group of women following a famous rabbi. Even within the family structure, women were limited in regard to inheritance. They had a legal right to be cared for, but not to receive the inheritance.
However, with the rise of Christianity, the role of women changed. An inventory of items removed from a Christian house church in North Africa shows the prominence that women had gained in the Christian community. The inventory listed 82 women’s tunics, but only 16 men’s tunics. It included 47 pairs of specifically women’s shoes and no men’s. Clearly, “Christianity seems to have been especially successful among women. It was often through the wives that it penetrated the upper classes of society in the first instance” (Henry Chadwick,
The Early Church, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967, p. 56).
In the early Church, women had greater equality and security than before. The status of women in marriage was raised (cf. Eph 5). Abortion and infanticide were condemned. This new attitude toward women took its origin from Jesus himself.
In writing his gospel of compassion, Luke, Gentile by birth, makes a special effort to highlight the place of women in the life and ministry of Jesus. Twenty-four times in Luke, Jesus either meets a woman, talks about a woman, or places a woman in one of his parables. Luke names women not mentioned in the other gospels. He tells of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, Anna, the prophetess, the widow of Nain, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s business manager, and Susanna. Luke is the evangelist who paints for us the most beautiful portrait of Mary the Mother of Jesus. He is the only gospel writer who records Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she is to be the mother of the Messiah.
Women immediately recognized in the gospel of Jesus his message of freedom and personal worth. Paul clearly summarizes the liberating power of the gospel when he says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Through Baptism, all have equal access to salvation. All are graced. Distinctions of race, gender, social status no longer determine a person’s worth. It will take time to work out all the practical implications of this new freedom. However, from the very beginning, women recognized what was being said about them and were attracted to the Christian gospel.
Women saw in Jesus more than a friend and teacher. They recognized him as the one to set them free. No woman ever spoke offensively to Jesus in his ministry. Nor is there any record of any women deserting him in his Passion. It is no surprise, then, that Luke is the only evangelist to speak of the women Jesus meets as he carries the Cross to Calvary.
Out of the large crowd that follows Jesus along the way, Luke singles out “many women who mourned and lamented him” (Lk 23:27). “Mourning” and “lamenting” are the same two actions used of the self-beating and crying at the death of King Saul. Here is no mere king who has failed. Here is Royalty itself. These women are the first to offer any consolation to Jesus on the way to the Cross. These women are moved by the sight of Jesus’ suffering. They wailed and cried out loud. Only the women weep aloud for Jesus. Their maternal heart cannot contain their grief. Only a heart moved by suffering is a heart open to God.
Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry the Cross. Pressed into service by the Romans, he offers Jesus the support of his physical strength. But, the women who weep and wail for Jesus are following him of their own volition. They offer to Jesus the comfort of their sympathy. In his human nature, Jesus welcomes both the physical and emotional support. True God, he is true man. He suffered disappointment and needed support from his friends and, ultimately, from his Father. He longs for the support that we can give him to alleviate his suffering in his Body, the Church.
Freed from the burden of carrying the Cross now resting on Simon’s shoulders, Jesus turns to the women. To mourn for a person about to be executed was more than an act of human sympathy. It was an act of religious pity. Jesus sees this and does not let their goodness go unrewarded. He speaks to them. His words to them are the first that he speaks on the way to Calvary and the last before he is nailed to the Cross.
To be continued…….