|I had the privilege when I was in seminary at St. John’s to be part of a homiletics class taught by an amazing Benedictine. His name is Fr. William Skudlarek, and he was the primary author of the USCCB’s document on homiletic preaching, Fulfilled in Your Hearing. (Fun fact: Fred Baumer, PhD, friend of many, was among the other authors!) You can imagine how startled William was when he walked into the classroom to find five women awaiting him as students: Four lay Catholic women and a seminarian heading to priesthood in the Episcopal Church. He shared with us that he had never taught “a” woman in that class before, never mind a whole cohort.|
To his enormous credit, he revisited the syllabus for us and started integrating all sorts of wonderful resources from outside the Catholic standards that would reflect women’s perspectives on preaching, and examples of women’s voices in preaching. Of course I was spoiled; I had already been taught by a wonderful woman preacher, Patricia Baumer, and I had had the privilege of hearing many lay women break open the Word in a Roman Catholic Mass at my home, Pax Christi Catholic Community. Still, I learned a great deal from William, too, and I am grateful for the voices he introduced me to, including the great Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor.
One of our assignments that semester was to reflect on a sacred text and the reality of women as preacher, a notion that was very much outside the norm for my Benedictine prof. I chose to focus on the Magnificat, Mary’s great exclamation of joy and evocation of God’s promise. In my reflection I proposed that perhaps she was the first woman preacher in the Christian canon. I’ll paste the text in below for your amusement. William in fact loved it, although he didn’t agree that Mary was preaching — her words, to his mind, were a canticle, a song. I guess he never saw Fr. Tim Power in a Chicken hat doing a sung homily!
Barbara Brown Taylor said the following of this glorious part of the Gospel of Luke: “‘My soul magnifies the Lord,’ Mary sings right there in Elizabeth’s living room, ‘and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.’ Elizabeth and Zechariah are the first to hear her song, but it is not just for them. It is also for her, Mary, and for the Mighty One who has done great things for her. It is for Gabriel, who first gave her the good news, and for all who will benefit from it—for the proud and powerful who will be relieved of their swelled heads, for the hungry who will be filled with good things, for the rich who will be sent away empty so that they have room in them for more than money can buy. Her song is for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—for Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel—for every son and daughter of Israel who thought God had forgotten the promise to be with them forever, to love them forever, to give them fresh and endless life. It was all happening inside of Mary, and she was so sure of it that she was singing about it ahead of time—not in the future tense but in the past, as if the promise had already come true. Prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it—not divided into things that are already over and things that have not happened yet, but as eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone—maybe even God.”
As Advent people, we sing, like Mary, ahead of time. As Advent people, we sing for others who do not have the strength, for whatever reason, to sing. As Advent people, we welcome all who, with joy, try to open up the wonder of an inbreaking God entering the human experience — even preaching chicks like me and Barbara. And what a privilege it is, today, to be a priest and to be invited into this role by my loving and supportive community.
Get ready to break into song. God comes, soon. In gratitude for who you are in the world, Trish
An Ecumenical Catholic Community
cháris Χάρις khar’ece Our name means grace, good will, loving-kindness, favor; of the merciful kindness by which God, exerting his holy influence upon souls, turns them to Christ, keeps, strengthens, increases them in Christian faith, knowledge, affection, and kindles them to the exercise of the Christian virtues
Trish Sullivan Vanni
December 9, 2004
You remember that great song in The Sound of Music? A group of lovely, holy nuns are just beside themselves: “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” I’ve been cooking up a new version. In my version, a bunch of bishops are desperately singing to the Benedictine author of Fulfilled in Your Hearing: “What do you do with chicks who preach the gospel?”
What are we going to do with these women? The Bishops ask William. And he smiles…
Oh, Sarah, our Episcopalian, might not have a problem. So we’re 20% there. And Latisse could always jump over the gunnels of the boat and head back to the ELCA, so she might do fine. Rachel will go home to Montana, where they have more wheat than God but ever-dropping numbers of priests, so probably no one will challenge or chastise her. Or we could all don our ecumenical hats and preside at ecumenical services in the Olympic village with Maryjo. Me? I’ll just keep crossing my fingers that Harry Flynn won’t spend too much time with Redemptionis Sacramentum.
Trying to figure it all out certainly calls the question: What do you do with women who are called to preach, who’ve received the Holy Spirit? Women who hold the Word in their hearts? Who are so full, who are so pregnant with what’s possible with God, that they no longer are able to hold back the flood? You know, one thing women know about birth is that when it’s happening, there is no stopping, no turning back. Once it all starts, birth births us, not the other way around.
What do we do with chicks who preach the Gospel seems to me to be an Advent question. And I would like to propose that there is an Advent answer. And Mary, pregnant with God Mary, speaks it.
The Magnificat, Mary’s stunning response to her cousin Elizabeth, was called by Dietrich Bonhoeffer “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung,” I think it is all those things. Passionate, wild, and revolutionary. It is also prophetic, bold, fearless, and faithful.
It interests me that these words of Mary, the longest any women in the New Testament speaks, are always referred to as a song, a hymn. Do you imagine that Mary was actually singing as she proclaimed the righteousness of God? That she suddenly, with a sort of Oscar and Hammerstein flourish, broke out into glorious song?
I don’t think so. Let’s try on the idea that this isn’t a song, I say. Let’s open ourselves to the notion that this is something much more potent: This is a homily, a preaching. These are the words of a woman so filled with the power of God, she can’t contain herself. She’s swelled up. Filled with life. And moved, moved so profoundly, by God’s action in the world that she has to speak out, and what she says is prophetic, particularly for the preaching women. She sees the grace afoot in the world, and she names it. She names it in remarkable ways.
Mary says that God has looked on her in her lowliness. The Greek the word for lowliness describes misery, pain, and persecution. When Mary says she is lowly, she is not talking about her spiritual humility, but the hard reality of her oppression as a woman.
But God is almighty, God will do great things for her, God’s mercy will fill her, God’s power will guide her.
And all ages will call her blessed.
So today on this Advent day, this last day of homiletics, I want to offer the mother of Jesus, our spiritual mother, to you all, my beautiful, insightful, passionate preaching women friends. I invite Mary, the first great woman preacher of the Christian Church, to watch us, to guide us, to stay close to us.
Clearly, chicks who preach the Gospel are not a problem. Mary, the one who we revere over all the Saints, was the first. She says to us: In my voice, my female voice, in the wisdom of my experience, my female experience, God is revealed.
I can hear her hovering over you, and she is saying, “Blessed are you…”
You, whose souls give glory to the Lord
Who rejoice in a saving God
Preach boldly, sisters, preach fully, preach on. Preach the Gospel, given to all times, all places, and all people, men and women
Preach the God who has looked on your in your state
Woman heart, woman body, woman mind, woman spirit,
And called you blest.
For God works marvels in our sight:
Latisse, Mary Jo, Rachel, Sarah… and William,
And Holy, Holy is God’s name!