Jesus never wielded a whip, driving women from the temple, nor commanded a gang of bullies to encircle a broken woman, head bowed, then reach down for the sharpest stone. He never reprimanded a woman for washing his feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, anointing his head with costly oil. He did not hesitate to sit on the stone lip of a well to announce his divinity to a woman shunned by his disciples. Nor, in a crowd, did he withhold healing from a woman touching the hem of his garment. And I like to think he might have been in love with Mary of Bethany.
I don’t recall Jesus ever losing his temper with women as he often did with his twelve, male apostles, too concerned with who would sit on Jesus’s right and left in glory, too afraid of sudden squalls, too certain of the Law to unclench the fist of judgment, remove the beam from their eye. No wonder they were of such little faith. Unable to say to a mountain, “Move,” to answer, “Yes, I am,” when the girl on duty at the high priest’s door asked, Aren’t you another of that man’s disciples? Unable to reply, “I am,” to the guard warming himself at the fire—Aren’t you another of his disciples? Unable to say, “Yes,”when a servant of the high priest asked, Didn’t I see you in the garden with him? And the rooster crowed.
No one has ever taken me for a preacher. And rightly so. I would have been the one, upon being told, “Follow me,” to say I’m busy now working my nets. I have many possessions. I know my neighbor and will not bathe his feet, lift him from the ditch, treat and bind his wounds. I cannot forgive seventy-seven times. Once, having just come from Spring commencement, professor of English, still robed and hooded, my hair at that time long, curling white from underneath my tasseled beret, I was stopped by a woman who asked, “Are you a priest?” Thinking she would laugh, I said, “No, a poet.” She turned away. It would have cost me nothing to hear her confession, grant her absolution.
Three women stood at the foot of the cross, three women, maybe four, and on Easter Sunday, Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene, calling her by name. All those Marys: Jesus’s mother. Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha. Mary the wife of Clopas. Mary of Magdala. And what of the woman in that circle of men clutching stones? Was she named Mary? One of the four at the cross? All I know is that Jesus bent down before the woman and with his finger wrote upon the ground, then stood and said, “Let the one among you who is guiltless be the first to throw a stone.” Then he bent back down and continued writing. And when each man had slipped away, Jesus asked the woman, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?” And she answered, “No one, sir.” “Then,” Jesus replied, “neither do I.”
I suppose what got me thinking of Jesus and his appreciation of women, his love of women, was poet and theologian Christian Wiman’s question-and-answer session and his poetry reading in the Logsdon Chapel this past Monday. I consider both sessions blessings. In poetry and in his personal essays, Chris Wiman writes about the love he has for his wife Danielle. In his essay “Mortify Our Wolves” in Chris’s book My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, Chris describes going with Danielle to a retrospective of the American artist Lee Bontecou. He says that viewing her art was one “of the most powerful experiences of art” (150) he had ever had. Part of what was so moving about her work, Chris writes, “is the sense of enclosed and solitary suffering that is slowly transfigured through the decades” (150), culminating in, for Chris, a revelation: “we walked into a room filled with large, delicate, astonishingly complex mobiles that hung from the ceiling—like sea creatures or dream creatures; we knew, at any rate, that we were suddenly in another element. And could breathe” (150).
Writing about Lee Bontecou’s art leads to Chris’s recalling his grandmother’s death twenty years earlier in Colorado City, Texas. Chris writes that he “was pierced, not simply by grief and the loss of her presence, but by a sense that some very particular and hard-won kind of consciousness had gone out of the world” (152). He defines this consciousness as “passive rather than active; it involves allowing the world to stream through you rather than you always reaching out to take hold of it. It is the consciousness of the work of art and not necessarily of the artist who made it. People, occasionally, can be such works, creation streaming through them like the inspiration that, in truth, all of creation is” (152-53). Then comes this paragraph:
“Lee Bontecou, my wife, my grandmother—if this consciousness I’m describing is gendered (and I think it is), it is clearly feminine. The single most damaging and distorting thing that religion has done to faith involves overlooking, undervaluing, and even outright suppressing this interior, ulterior kind of consciousness. So much Western theology has been constructed on a fundamental disfigurement of the mind and reality. In neglecting the voices of women, who are more attuned to the immanent nature of divinity, who feel that eruption in their very bodies, theology has silenced a powerful—perhaps the most powerful—side of God.” (153)
When I consider the beauty, the intelligence, the perception, the honesty, the intuitive knowing of women, their quiet smiles, how their fingers touch a man’s forearm to say be still, how they bend, lift a child to their breast, how they rise and fit themselves to a man unable to speak, I begin to comprehend God’s becoming flesh. It is almost Easter. Today is Maundy Thursday. Jesus will ask his disciples to pray with him, for him, his dark night of the soul in the Garden. They will fall asleep. Judas will betray his master. Peter will swear he is not a follower of Jesus. Three times.
Tomorrow is Good Friday. The women will gather at the cross. Saturday will be a day of fear and despair. Sunday: the day of the stone rolled from the tomb, the day Mary Magdalene will arrive early, stare into the emptiness, then turn, weeping, to ask of the man she supposes to be the gardener, “Sir, if you have taken my Lord away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and remove him,” the man she does not recognize until he speaks her name, “Mary.”
Mary, his mother; Mary of Bethany; Mary of Magdala; all the Marys, everywhere, enclosed in a ring of men. And Jesus sent Mary to the apostles huddled in a room, afraid, confused, without a shepherd. She said to them, “I have seen the Lord.”
Selected Biblical chapters and verses alluded to: Matthew 21: 12-13; John 8: 1-11; Luke 7: 36-50; John 12: 1-8; John 4: 1-42; Luke 8: 43-48; Luke 10: 38-41; John 11: 1-44; John 18, 19, 20: 1-18.
Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.