Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Why Didn’t Jesus Have Any Girl Friends? What My Daughter and Mary Magdalene Taught Me About Empowerment, Representation, and a Search for Belonging

A few months back, my daughter and I were reading a story about Jesus and the 12 disciples.  As my bright and inquisitive little girl listened, her eyes were fixed upon the related illustration of Twelve men gathered around their Teacher.

That’s when she asked, “Daddy, who are these guys?"

I responded, “They are Jesus’ friends. The Bible calls them disciples."

“Where are the girls?” she quickly replied back. “Why doesn’t Jesus have any friends who are girls?"

After a brief pause in awe and wonder, I began to explain how Jesus actually did have of friends who were girls. We even read, both previously and in the days that followed, stories that celebrated women in the Bible.

I will never forget this late-night and formative chat. Hidden within my daughter’s bold yet innocent question was a desire for validation, recognition, and empowerment.  She wanted to be able to identify with the characters in the story and be assured that Jesus’ crew was not some sort of exclusive boys club. She wanted to know girls had a place in Jesus' circle of friends, too.  

If we are honest, her questions are also our questions: Do I belong? Do we have a place within Jesus’ circle of friends?

One of the great calls of the Christian church is to empower and equip diverse leadership.  We are to proclaim to our congregations and the world, “You belong. You are welcome. You can have a seat at the table.” We are to affirm the unencumbered YES of God in Jesus Christ.

Which means, when people walk into our congregations and look at the faces of those who preach in our pulpits, lead in liturgy, sing in worship, and serve in governance, they should be assured of representation and validation to the best of our ability. 

Recently, CNN has aired a series based on the book, Finding Jesus.  The episodes explore the historical Jesus, Biblical stories, and other related and often controversial moments in Christian history.  When Finding Jesus engaged the resurrection, the contributors highlighted Mary Magdalene in a way I had never previously considered:
"Mary Magdalene is the first one to whom the risen Christ appears. So she is of immense importance to Christianity. For that hour or two, Mary Magdalene is the only one who knew about the resurrection; and so Mary Magdalene was the church.” (Father James Martin)
Mary Magdalene was the church.  This courageous and compassionate, yet often overlooked, friend of Jesus was the first preacher, teacher, and recipient of the good news of life beyond the grave. While the boys back home were stuck in despair, God chose Mary to be the one to first find hope and new life. I think my daughter would be more than satisfied (or at least will be when she is old enough to comprehend the significance).

Yet, for generations, this hour was the only hour in which her witness was credible and permissible. In other words, it didn’t take long for the church to return to paternalistic and homogenous patterns of leadership by silencing, or at least deeming less valid, the likes of Mary Magdalene. Tragically, in far too many places, this is still the case.

But if it were not for Mary Magdalene and the witness of one of Jesus’ most trusted confidants and companions, there may not be a church today.  If God’s people had not trusted the voice of the woman from the margins, who had personally experienced the resurrected Christ, the Twelve would have remained in their doubt and despair.

And so would we. 

As I continue to wrestle with Eastertide, both the curiosities of my daughter and the power of Mary Magdalene have raised a few questions of my own. 

Who in our midst have encountered the resurrected Christ yet have not been given proper voice and place in our congregations and communities? 

Who among us have found validation in the risen Savior only to meet resistance and exclusion within our places of worship? 

Who are today's Mary Magdalenes?

My prayer is that there would not be a single person whom, when they walk into our churches and faithful ministries, does not find representation and affirmation that they indeed belong. After all, who knows what Mary Magdalenes of today can teach us about resurrection in the midst of pervasive and debilitating despair?

May we all venture to listen...