Jesus Christ, God the Son, came on earth as a man in order to overturn ‘the aboriginal calamity’, humankind’s assertion of equality with the Creator, and to give us the freedom to love outside ourselves. He achieved this through the generosity of a WOMAN.
Her name was Mary and her love of God was such that she did not hesitate when asked by God to become the mother of his Son on earth, surely the most unlikely of all requests! It left her vulnerable to the threat of stoning (as a pregnant unmarried girl at that time) and she could not have been certain that Joseph, her betrothed, would marry her in these unforeseen circumstances.
We are told that he did, and became protector to her and to her child. She remains both virgin and mother; she is the benchmark of womanhood, because of the quality of her loving.
Christians have, from very early times, always claimed her as their own – in many languages she is ‘Our Lady.’ No wonder that the image of Mary, with her Divine Son is one of the most familiar of all, wherever Christianity has touched the culture.
She reflects the existential nature of woman undamaged by sin – her loving, giving and understanding enabling her to identify herself with her son’s mission with such intensity of love that we see her as the loving mother of the whole world and the Queen of Heaven. She is the most powerful of women; that is why we ask her to pray for us.
WOMEN ASSERTING THEIR PERSONHOOD
Women’s understanding of themselves changed too, with the coming of Christianity. The laws of Rome, for the most part, gave, as we have seen, power of life and death over women to fathers and husbands. But by the end of the second century A.D., we find young girls defying their pagan fathers and refusing to marry the pagan husbands chosen for them, which would have meant giving up their Christian faith.
They asserted their autonomy as individuals. It was a time of great persecution and a number of young Roman women chose to be faithful to their love of Christ, rather than deny him, a choice that led to death – a choice that may well shock the people of our time.
But these young women believed in the thing that they professed, rather like anti-Nazis during World War II or dissidents in Stalin’s gulags. Note that they did not kill themselves. No doubt, they longed for a time when such choices were not presented to them. With tremendous courage, they determined not to reject Christ’s life and death in order to save themselves.
The formal education of women began in a surprising way under the auspices of an irascible scholar called Jerome in the fourth century. He was the first to translate the Bible into Latin. He was acquainted with a number of wealthy Roman women, who were Christians and he gave them lectures on the Christian faith.
They were remarkable women. One of them, Fabiola, set up the first known hospital, in order to care for pilgrims travelling to Rome. Her enterprise started off a tradition of medical care and hospitality which continues in the Catholic Church to this day, in many parts of the world.
Another of Jerome’s female pupils, Melania the Younger, by name, had inherited as many as a thousand slaves. She decided to free them because she was a Christian and she divided immense tracts of land in the Roman province of Africa between them – in a practical and personal way anticipating the work of William Wilberforce by a millennium and a half. .
These women were educated, they studied in many fields and revealed remarkable organisational talents. Their circle of women formed the proto-type of the convent and led to the life of the nun – a woman who dedicated herself entirely to God, living with like-minded women in community. Such women continue to this day. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is probably the best known religious sister of the last century, and she devoted her life to the care of the abandoned and dying, so that they would know love. Her sisters carry on her work all over the world.