And the life was the light of all women

It is not easy to imagine, in these days of scientific knowledge, quite how revolutionary some ideas were to the early Christians…

A few hundred years ago, it was still believed that women were a sort of diminished, weakened version of men… that men alone were fertile, carrying within them the spark or seed of life, and that women were empty vessels, able only to offer room to carry that spark, which they received from men… a creative spark that men, in turn, were believed to carry from God.

So in this view, God created men in his image, and women in the image of men… a sort of copy of a copy if you will…This view was prevalent in much theology, and as theology formed, for many centuries, the principle study of all things, it lay beneath a lot of other subsequent ‘scientific’ and philosophical theories.

Now think about the incarnation… have you ever wondered about that strange phrase in the Christmas carol, ‘lo he abhors not the virgin’s womb’… what an odd thing to say. But it makes sense if you believed that women were infertile, barren creatures, and had to fit your world order around that.

The message of the incarnation of God in the womb of the virgin Mary was not just startling because Mary was a virgin, and generally it ‘takes two to tango’… in fact the most extraordinary idea to early theologians, would perhaps have been the idea of a woman carrying the spark of life within her. God did not go to Joseph and tell him to get Mary pregnant… which would have neatly followed the imagined world order of more than two thousand years… but God gave that spark of life… the very heart of the spark of life –the one through whom ALL things were made… directly into a woman…

What an amazing thing… to bear not just the ‘image’ of God… but to bear ‘God’ himself. Suddenly womankind begins to look less like a copy of a copy and more like the equal of her partner.

Subsequent theologies wrestled, and continue to wrestle with this incredible gift… the salvation of all women through the God-given childbearing of one woman… a beautiful balance to the story of Eve… But somehow the theology of women that should surround Mary, is still so often distorted… to make certain that women remain a step-further-down from God; whether by insisting that Mary was not like any other devout human girl, but a one-off creature, abnormal… or by emphasising her humility and reliance, not  upon God, but upon the protecting arm of the various men who surrounded her.

However, in every age there have been incredible women, who have responded to God directly, and there is a beautiful antiphon written a thousand years ago by Hildegard von Bingen, a German religious mystic, artist, musician, herbalist and abbess… which begins to capture something that theology has almost failed to do before or since:

The words and music combine in a soaring song like a bird released from a cage, the plainchant calls exultantly that the curse is lifted, and the pathway to life is open… the heavens no longer shut off but open and ablaze with light and hope…

Nunc aperuit nobis clausa porta…         Now opens to us, a closed door

Quod serpens in muliere suffocavit…   Which the serpent stifled in the woman;

Unde lucet in aurora…                             And there shines, in the dawnlight

Flos de Virgine Maria…                            The flower of the Virgin Mary

(I can’t share the music here because of copyright, but search for Barbara Thornton and Sequentia’s recording of Hildegard von Bingen’s Nunc aperuit nobis on the album Canticles of Ecstasy… it sounds like a phoenix being born)

And just in case you were wondering… yes, the life was the light of all men too!… But we’re already so used to hearing it put like that, I though it might do no harm to hear these words too…

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About Jemma

Learning to be both a priest and a human being in the Anglican Church
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