A story is told about an old man resting under a huge oak tree with his young grandson. The grandfather picks up an acorn and hands it to the boy, telling him that the massive tree was once that very size. The boy, looking up at the tree and down at the acorn, then asks: “Gosh, grandpa, how did God get that giant tree into this little package?” Stories like this remind us about the importance of growth, evolution, and transition.
In the Gospel, we learn that Mary Magdalene transitioned from demoniac to disciple, and then as Apostle to the Apostles, as she is now known. When she went to Jesus’ tomb to anoint His body she found it empty and so she quickly ran to the disciples to share the news and bring two men back to the site. In that culture at that time, a woman’s word was not considered reliable; in order for an event to be valid, it needed two male eyewitnesses. Among the very notable differences between the early Christian community and the Jewish culture from which it emerged is the elevated status given to women among the followers of Christ, in large part due to her.
Of course, many argue that it wasn’t elevated enough. For centuries, great philosophers and theologians from Aristotle to Augustine to Aquinas commented on this matter revealing to us how culture and church have grown, evolved, and transitioned. Though they are among the most brilliant of men, they were also products of their time. Aristotle, like his contemporaries, believed that the nature of men was superior to that of women. Augustine taught that souls were infused into male embryos fifty days before female fetuses got ensouled. Aquinas held that women are misbegotten men. They each believed that women are subject to men because of their inferiority. There are 7-800 years between each of them and about the same time-frame from the last of them till now. We’re still evolving.
People of this generation can understand the history of perceived inferiority but cannot grasp that the errors of history should have any relevance whatsoever today. It is a history that believed women’s brains were smaller than those of men (but one of our kindergarten girls recently told me, “Everybody knows now that girls’ brains are way bigger than boys’”). It is a history in which women were property of men, even slaves to them. Some cringe at wedding ceremonies in which fathers give away their daughters to husbands; though no longer considered an exchange of property, the ritual has evolved to signify entrustment from one family—the past—to a future family. It is also a history that, only 100 years ago, did not permit women in our country to vote because of their inferior status.
Because we understand human ignorance, we view the errors as part of the maturation process, not as references for how things ought to be. Many Catholics note that our society grows, evolves, and transitions faster than our church. Pushed by scandals of hierarchical mismanagement, many church leaders, including Pope Francis, urge the ecclesial structures to transition by welcoming more women to the tables of governance that shepherd us. Some, also, are concerned about the tables of sacrament that spiritually nurture us.
We don’t stand in awe of an acorn when we behold the mighty oak that it has become. Similarly, we acknowledge what the status of women once was in our world but we don’t celebrate it—we celebrate that growth, evolution, and transition change it. As Mary Magdalene helped the early Christian community elevate the status of women by her role as first witness to Jesus’ resurrection and the one who brought the men to the Risen Lord, so might the successors of the Apostles call upon her guidance to bring us to Him again. Since she is the one who Christ chose to reveal His own resurrection-transition, they—and all of us—would benefit from her witness, and the great witness of other women in the church. In this Easter season of new life, perhaps her intercession can help us grow, evolve, and transition much like an acorn becomes an oak.