Contemplating Feminine Incarnation
At church on a recent Sunday we were encouraged to find ways to see the world differently this week. Change our routine and change our perspective to help us get out of the rut of going through life without actually seeing the world. To that end we were asked to draw a slip of paper out of a basket on which was written some sort of paradigm destabilizer. These were just suggestions to help us shake things up a bit, and force us to do life a little differently. These included everything from "take a new route to work" to "put your fork down between bites." The one I drew was "imagine that Jesus had been born a girl." I was amused at first that I had randomly chosen that particular option, since I doubted that task would destabilize my perspective as much as it might someone else's. But the idea has stuck with me for a few days as I keep asking, "well, what if?"
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The first thought that came to mind was, "would Jesus have even been born if he had been a girl?" In a culture that valued sons, I wonder what Joseph's response would have been if the angel hadn't told him "She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." The birth of sons was celebrated. But if Joseph had known the child in Mary's womb was a girl, would he have gone ahead and divorced her, quietly condemning her and the child to a life of abject poverty and ridicule? Or would he have exposed her as an adulterer to have her stoned? Throughout history we have seen women valued solely for their ability to bear male heirs. Henry VIII chopped the heads off of a couple of wives for only bearing him daughters. Even today one hears of women apologizing in the delivery room for the baby not being a boy. So I have to wonder if even a divine announcement would have been enough to save the life of an illegitimate girl.
But if she had been born, I wonder what the response would have been. Would the shepherds have scoffed at a baby girl in swaddling clothes and grumbled at having to leave their flocks in the night for that? Would the magi have questioned the stars, or understood the mystery at play? Would Herod have felt threatened by a girl and have ordered the slaughter of the innocents? And would her parents, some years later, marry her off at age 12 to be perpetually pregnant and too busy save the world? Or would they have remembered their angelic visitation and the prophetic destiny spoken about this child?
But let's just assume that this girl reached a point where she could choose to begin her ministry. Would the truth of her words and the divinity within her be enough to attract followers despite her gender? In other words, would something as minor as gender be enough for people to reject God's invitation to "come follow me"? Would her mother, who prophetically sung the Magnificat, have hushed her up and told her "girls don't discuss theology"? If she sat on the mountainside and spoke the Beatitudes to the crowds, would her words be affirmed as a beautiful new way forward or dismissed as the rantings of a crazy woman who was probably PMSing? Would men have seen an independent woman as vulnerable, and used that as an excuse to rape her? To avoid that would she have had to (like Joan of Arc) chop off her hair and dress in a man's' clothing -- in essence deny that she is a women in order to be respected as a person? Would the authorities have even allowed her three years to spread her message, or would silencing a woman for subversion and heresy have happened much sooner?
On one hand these questions might just seem to affirm why Jesus had to be born male. But making that assumption from either an essentialist or cultural viewpoint simply helps one avoid examining our own perspectives toward women. Even as I reflected on the particular struggles Jesus would have faced if he had been born a girl, I couldn't help but also think about the positive outcomes it would have engendered. If the person we commit our lives to follow and who sacrificed herself on our behalf was a woman, I can't help but think that would have significantly impacted how we have perceived and treated women for the last 2,000 years. If the founder of the church was a woman, then perhaps a patriarchy wouldn't have developed that effectively shut out and silenced the spiritual voice of women. If the body of a woman savior was treasured as sacrament, then perhaps the bodies of women would not have been so degraded, abused, and despised over the years. If for 2,000 years, women hadn't lived in oppression, silence, and fear, I wonder how much our collective input would have changed history. Would we have allowed the posturing and pissing contests of men to nearly destroy the world in wars? Would we have allowed nature to be oppressed and raped instead of cultivated and cared for? And would the kingdom of God be that much more vibrant and alive today if during that time it had been impossible to forget the feminine side of God or to muzzle the spiritual insight of half the church?
These are all hypothetical questions of course. But just the asking can be the first step in destabilizing paradigms. The historical truth of Jesus being born a girl matters less than how asking the question can move us toward living like it was.
Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.