What happened in the Synagogue at Nazareth is central to understanding Jesus’ ministry. When asked to read the scriptures Jesus turned to Isaiah 61 and proclaimed, “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus was saying that, in him, the Messianic age had arrived, the Kingdom of God was ushered in. He was the one sent to bring good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
But now listen to what happened next! Initially the people were spellbound but, as spiritual senses were overcome by worldly knowledge and concerns, they became enraged. How can Joseph’s son make these claims? They refused to believe in Jesus’ divinity because they reduced him to being merely a human teacher, the lad from the village.
Jesus rebuked them reminding them that no prophet is accepted in their home town. And as those words were sinking in, he added a further rebuke, questioning whether they would ever understand God; reminding them that there were many Jewish widows in the time of Elijah yet Elijah went to a widow in Sidon; which is to say that often in history God has been more visible in the lives of those outside the faith because his own people have rejected him and closed their hearts to grace.
The good news of Jesus Christ was and is for everyone but all too often, those who think they are close to God turn out to be furthest from him. Difficult words for those who claim to be Christian. We like to think we know who is in and out of favour and how God’s grace should be doled out. But Jesus puts a line through all of that. So be warned. Simply belonging to a church, even to the point of being a scribe or pharisee, a Bishop or Cardinal, doesn’t count for anything if your heart is closed to God. Do we seek to fit God into narrow parameters we have decided in our arrogance or are we led by his Spirit? Are we luke warm tribal church goers or convinced and authentic disciples?
When the Nazarenes heard Jesus, they were filled with rage, and tried to kill him. Take note of why. We like to say the truth will set you free. But that is not always the case. It can…. but only if you are willing to embrace it and have the wisdom and courage to learn from it. More often the truth is unwanted and dangerous. And if you speak truth you will be rejected. Hostility, anger and violence are the predictable defense of those made to face truth they would rather deny. You see this in priestly ministry. Tell people what they want to hear and you are their hero but challenge them with God’s truth and the fireworks fly. Sadly this caused too many clergy of recent generations to abandon the proclamation of God’s truth. Instead they became timid and overly cautious, seeking a quiet life and not ever rocking the boat. Despite St. Paul warning us that a spirit of timidity is loathsome.
The bottom line is that Jesus came to bring God’s truth but we humans struggle with truth in truth. Ultimately this is why we turned on him and crucified him. Oh we love the idea of truth, we pretend we posses it at all times. But this is fallacy. More truthfully we shrink from truth on a daily basis. We often live in denial of our faults and weaknesses and refuse to face up to them. And then, when truth hits home, we respond badly. Like the Nazarenes. And this is what tears churches and families apart. We get so focused on pursuing personal comfort or worldly and political agendas that we lose sight of God’s truth. We become blind even when we think we are about the work of His kingdom.
God’s word is truth- and that, if we are honest, is a terrifying thing. Which is why so few are actually ready to receive God’s truth and even fewer seem ready to live by it. As I said last week the reality is most people hate the truly wicked, who threaten their safety and possessions, but also hate the genuinely good who prick dirty consciences and make them face truth they would rather ignore. That is why most opt for mediocrity in life and a dumbed down faith. But todays Gospel reminds us that is not good enough for God. He has no interest in that at all. We must learn to stand by the truth of God’s word not by the political expediency of the current age.
Despite Pope Francis having stated clearly that female ordination is an impossibility the issue is back on the agenda after a Catholic think tank suggested female deacons might, instead, be possible.
What should a faithful Catholic make of this claim? Firstly we must learn to think theologically as well as sociologically. Which is to state the issue is not simply about equality. Indeed it is perfectly possible to be a firm advocate of women’s rights and yet have grave reservations, on theological grounds, concerning the ordination of women into any part of the sacramental three fold order. What follows are the theological reasons to justify the clear teaching of the Catholic church in all ages.
1. Jesus fully valued, respected and upheld women and their dignity. He called them into full ministry as close disciples. Yet Jesus chose no women as ‘apostles’. Even after Judas killed himself and the evangelist Mary Magdalene, ‘first witness to the resurrection’, was the obvious replacement, she was not selected. The task fell to Matthias.
Supporters of women’s ordination counter this by suggesting Jesus was limited to the wisdom of his age. A dodgy claim given that Christ was ever willing to defy convention and countered pharisaic teaching where necessary. Furthermore the pagan world of his day was simply awash with female priests. They were hardly an alien concept to Christ who nevertheless chose to stick with Jewish practice and ordain only men.
2. St Paul also taught that women were equal to men (‘In Christ…there is no male or female, slave or free’) yet taught that their role was ontologically different. Furthermore he forbade women from holding ‘liturgical authority’ in Church. If we discount Paul as being somehow limited in understanding, or even bigoted, do we not then undermine the credibility of the vast majority of the New Testament which he wrote? Conventional Christian wisdom is that the scriptures are not dubious by nature of who wrote them but, in fact, divinely inspired and to be trusted.
3. It is frequently claimed today that the early church did, in fact, have women clergy. And much effort has gone into proving this claim ever since the advent of female clergy in the protestant world. But such scholarship stands on shaky ground, being driven by ideology not sound historical fact, and most serious scholars agree that there were no women presbyters. This suggests St Paul’s teaching was not mere “sexist” opinion but rather the consensus among all the Apostles and handed down to all their successors.
What then of these supposed female deacons of the early church? These were never, let us be clear, sacramentally ordained women. Rather they were appointed to help other women disrobe prior to baptism. Which is to say they held a role akin to modern extraordinary ministers and were never part of the sacramental three fold order of deacon, priest and bishop.
4. In the 3rd century a group known as Montanists formed. Their teaching was rejected as heretical because they questioned the reliability of Scripture and Tradition. (The Montanists pushed for changes due to fresh revelations of the Spirit…sound familiar?) Part of what condemned them was a desire to ordain women. This not only proves that the ‘male-only priesthood’ was the authentic teaching of the Early Church but also reminds us that this issue is hardly new – as we are often led to believe.
5. The earliest Canon Law strictly forbade women’s ordination. These canons were endorsed by the Council of Nicaea who gave us ‘The Creed’ in 325AD. To endorse women priests is to claim Nicaea gave wrongful teaching. Is this really tenable? If so why trust the creed?
6. Modern secularism promotes a notion of gender as being fluid and interchangeable. But authentic Christianity has ever taught that our sex is fixed and that intentional differences between men and women are to be celebrated not attacked! Male and female HE created them; equal but different. We saw this fruitfully working for the Church in the 20th Century via the ministry of both Mother Theresa and Pope St. John Paul II. Both witnessed with equal integrity – but via different callings. One as the priest -Peter- the other as the evangelist -Magdalene.
This working together of man and woman, to complete each other via a bringing together of intended differences, is not only important within the church but in marriage, the family and wider society. The Church should be upholding Christian teaching not being sucked into secular conclusions that obscure and downplay our divinely intended differences.
7. At the Mass the priest stands ‘in persona Christi’. Christ cannot be ‘sacramentally’ represented by woman because Christ’s ‘maleness’ is not irrelevant but revelatory. (It tells us something about God) It would be ridiculous to cast a man as Mary in a serious passion play. It is equally silly to ask a woman to stand in the place of Christ at the altar.
8. Jesus is male because God revealed himself to be OurFather not Our mother. Whereas in Pagan religion priestessesare the norm because they present a notion of feminine divine- the mother god who gives birth to her creation. (Hence nature worship) Judaism challenged this pagan view by revealing God as the life giver not the life bearer; revealing an intended separateness of God to His created order. Nature created by not of him.
The priest ‘in persona Christi’ symbolises this truth at a deep level. A woman priest leads instead to pagan understandings of feminine divine. And its worth noting here how, since women have been ordained in the protestant world, a more liberal earthy and pagan spiritually has arisen. Heterodxoy has replaced orthodoxy; the holding of pebbles in meditation has replaced the holding of crucifixes for prayer in many places. Even the gender of God is now challenged making him unknowable once more rather than revealed to us in the person and language of Christ.
9. Scripture teaches that Christ’s relationship to his people is signified by the rich symbolism of Christ the groom and His bride the Church. This is echoed in marriage and at mass. It follows that we- the bride- must open ourselves to the groom and be impregnated by his Holy Word. We then ‘give birth’ to fruits of the Spirit. At Mass created order is echoed. Marriage and the Mass tell us about our relationship with God. A female priest or deacon confuses this symbolism and imagery making it sterile.
10. Mother Church (feminine not masculine) has ever taught that changes to belief and practice can only be accepted when backed by scripture, reason and tradition. All three -not just one. So even if modern ‘reason’ suggests women’s ordination might be worthy – it ultimately cannot be accepted- because it is backed by neither Scripture and tradition. Indeed to pursue female ordination we must first dismiss the example of Jesus, the teaching of St. Paul, the practice of the Early church and refute the Council of Nicea. At this point is man not dictating the faith to God rather than receiving it from him?
11. All arguments in favour of women priests rest on political and secular arguments for ‘inclusivity’– which itself stems from the sexual revolution and a misguided view of man and woman as being in a battle for dominance. I am yet to hear a convincing theological argument in favour. Sociology is not the right starting point for Christians who believe scripture and tradition help us discern that which God has revealed to the world.
12. God does not do U-turns. Why would the Holy Spirit teach that women’s ordination is wrong until around 1965 and only then declare the practice valid? God is, the bible teaches, the same yesterday, today and forever! We should be wary therefore of any suggestion regarding a new ‘revelation of the Spirit’ Firstly because to suggest the Spirit contradicts the Son is blasphemous as it points to an impossible disagreement and tension within the Godhead. Secondly because a spirit which has only spoken thus since the rise of radical feminist theory in the last Century seems doubtful at best.
13. The example of the protestant world is not at all encouraging where female ordination is concerned. Despite Anglicans promising, at the time of their innovation in this regard, that the admission of women to holy orders would lead to growth and renewal, the polar opposite occurred. The church became deeply divided, it fractured and numbers have dwindled to an all time low. All evidence shows that it is churches faithful to tradition that attract new members, not those pandering to the zeitgeist in a desperate attempt to seem relevant.
Here then are solid arguments for why the door should remain closed to women regarding the threefold order of deacon, priest and bishop as we have received them.
Perhaps our energy would be better by looking elsewhere in a quest to ensure women are fully involved in the life of the church. One possible idea from the early church might be to renew the vocation and role female Abbesses who ever were the equal of male bishops. Why not simply reprise this vital ministry and give Abbesses greater prominence in the governance of the church? Or create a new role to support female Christians and ensure they are as valued as men? Which is to say one doesn’t need to break the centuries old traditions of the church to ensure an equality is present. Even if there is work to be done in the arena of greater equality.
Two radically different groups of men visited Jesus in his infancy: Jewish Shepherds and Eastern magi. The shepherds learnt of Jesus as we might expect- through a divine intervention that fits easily into a Judea-Christian narrative; God does something utterly amazing, then sends his angels to tell his chosen people about it. It makes sense.
But the magi, quite possibly Zoroastrian astrologers from the school of Isaiah (for he was the prophet obsessed with Virgin births and the Messiah) learnt of Jesus by following a star. A star that said nothing aloud. They had to interpret a sign to know what it meant, to discern where it led. And this means of unlocking divine mystery is shocking within a Judea-Christian narrative. For the magi found God via mystical means not so far removed from gazing into crystal balls or tea leaves. A pagan tradition is manifest.
Many are those who think, not only that their tradition or faith is best, but that it is the only way to God. The magi demand we broaden our horizons a little. Understand that God is never limited nor straightjacketed by dogma nor creed. In fact he is often active in places we ourselves would fear to tread. Why? Because God has little interest in how we first find him. Only that we do. So he reaches out beyond the safe confines of sound faith to call to those who seek him with a sincere heart.
But be careful here! Don’t make the silly but frequent mistake of confusing the worth of the journey with the worth of the destination. God may be active in strange and myriad ways but, no matter where he first calls to us, it remains essential that it is the true faith we ultimately find. The true church. The true revelation which God revealed to gentiles via the Magi.
We begin to see that journeys are less important than destinations within the Christian faith. Consider the accounts of Christ’s birth. People came to Jesus by many different ways. The shepherds through angels. The magi by a star. Herod’s scribes, though they did not follow through, by searching the scriptures. Visions, stars, scriptures – different paths that all led to the one same truth. And it is this sacred destination, not the routes, that matters; the sacred destination that is Jesus our Lord.
Understand then that religious searching is good because it can lead to God but it is not good in and of itself. In fact spiritual searching can be useless if it does not lead us to Christ and to a life transformed by grace. It can even be dangerous and bad if it leads us away from him to the occult or to mumbo jumbo nonsense like healing crystals, psychics et al.
Next consider that though a strange Eastern practice led the Magi towards God, it only took them so far. The star dimmed when it got to Jerusalem. To complete the mission, the magi needed more conventional means of spiritual direction. And they only found it when Herod consulted the sacred scriptures on their behalf. Then the star moved to Bethlehem! Over and above the natural light of the star, they needed the supernatural light of scripture. It was this that led them, in the end, to Jesus the Lord.
And here we find also another warning as regards spiritual searching. Namely that the possession of truth itself is quite worthless if we choose to do nothing with it. See Herod and his scribes, not only possessed scripture, but even used them accurately to predict Jesus birth. God was calling them too. But they chose not to hear. They resented bowing to the Christ child. Of submitting to God. So they refused to worship. Refused to do what scripture ordained. What God decreed. And it was this pride, like all human sin, which led to chaos and destruction. To the slaughter of the innocents.
Are we prepared, not only to search for Christ and find him, but ultimately walk in his light? This is a profoundly question because many Christians today are modern manifestations of Herod’s scribes. They have the faith but refuse to live by it. They have the teaching of Christ but resent it and deny it. Especially in the area of faith and morals. Hence the rise of modernism.
Be warned. This is not good enough! Epiphany tells us it is, in fact, better to have only the dim light of a star and follow humbly, than to posses the full faith of scripture and yet neglect it. As Christians today we are fortunate. We need not grope in the dark like magi because we have received precious gifts- not gold, frankincense or myrrh, but a bible, the catechism, the teaching of the church, tradition, the sacraments. But these gifts mean nothing if, like Herod’s seers, we choose to ignore them. If we refuse to live by them. If we seek instead to re-interpret them to conform, not our wills to God, but his word to our ways.
Today let us delight in the mysterious and manifold ways that God calls to us all. But let us be warned and remember that sincerely committed pagans will find the truth of Jesus quicker than apathetic scribes and seers. The feast of Epiphany serves to remind us that we should be as broad, inclusive and liberal in our pastoral approach as possible, for all must hear the Gospel, but we must simultaneously be rigidly faithful doctrinally. For unless we are leading the people we embrace to the true and living God then we fail them. We leave them chasing around after impossible stars instead of leading them to Jesus that they might do homage.
Gus rather enjoyed his role as Balthasar in the school nativity play this year. His line ‘we have come to worship the new born King’ was a fitting reminder of our devotional obligation during Christmastide.
This Sunday we celebrate the visitation of the magi in Church for it will be the feast of the Epiphany. To honour it we shall hold a special carol service at 6:30pm to which all are warmly invited. It will be followed by refreshment. The Advent and Christmas carol services were delightful. Do let us ensure, via our presence, that the final carol service is also a success.
At the 8am, 9:15am and 11am Mass, as is our parish custom, we shall bless and distribute Epiphany chalk which is then taken to our homes to mark them out for the Lord. And during Mass the movable feasts for the year will be intoned. A reminder that we have an obligation to be present in church for the great feasts of the Christian year. What a gift they are to the faithful!