Filling the Brackets

Luke 3:21-23, 31-38

Every week I send out the texts for the coming Sunday to our online worship production team.   A few days ago, Bob Siemer sent me an email saying he wanted to confirm a couple of things.  One of the things he wanted to confirm, in his words was, “You really are going to read the genealogy as part of the Gospel text (yawn).”

Well, I have to confess that when I first glanced at the gospel text that Wilda Gafney has given us for this week in the Women’s Lectionary, I felt pretty much the same as Bob.  Yawn.  But then I took a closer look at what Professor Gafney had done in translating this text from Luke.  When I looked more closely, I noticed the brackets.  

Luke and Matthew each give us a genealogy of Jesus.  For what it’s worth their genealogies don’t entirely agree, but each of them felt it was important to give us a picture of Jesus’s family tree.  Matthew starts with Abraham then takes the lineage forward in time until he gets to Jesus.  Luke starts with Jesus then takes the lineage backwards until he gets to Adam. And Eve.  Except that Luke didn’t mention Eve.  Or Ruth.  Or Rahab.  Or Tamar. Or Leah. Or Rebekah.  Or Sarah.  And that’s where Professor Gafney’s brackets come in.  In every instance in Luke’s genealogy where the women ancestors are known from the Old Testament stories that feature them, Wilda Gafney has inserted their names in brackets.  

Even though Luke doesn’t mention their names, these women whose names are in the brackets are also part of the human heritage of Jesus.  Their stories are part of his life just as much as the men who are named.  In some instances, their stories are more interesting than the men who are noted as their husbands, and yet they just got written out of the story when Luke was naming the ancestors of Jesus.

All this got me thinking…  How well do I know my own ancestors?  I have spent a bit of time on the website familysearch.org and have followed the my patrilineal line back to Sir Roger John Beckham, an English nobleman who lived from 1350 to 1386.  But I realized when I thought about Wilda Gafney’s brackets in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus that there is an enormous part of my own gene pool that I have entirely overlooked.  I haven’t filled in the empty brackets in my own heritage.

Nancy Ida Curtis.  Susan Elizabeth Casey.  Priscilla Phoebe Whiteley.  Rachel Ellen Daniels.  Harriet Owen.  Nancy Jane Moody.  Edith Elizabeth Davidson.  Emma Malmgren.  Hanna Maria Carlson.  Karolina Aurora Andersdotter.

I am directly descended from these women, yet most of their names were new to me.  I didn’t know about them until I traced things back through my grandmothers instead of my grandfathers.  My surname may have traveled down the line through my forefathers, but every bit of my mitochondrial DNA came from my foremothers.  If I don’t know about them, I know less than half of my own story.

It isn’t news that our culture and our church have been dominated by a male perspective since…well, forever.  History in general and church history in particular has been told primarily as a story of men.  Faithful, devout, and sometimes heroic men.  But from the very beginning there were also faithful, devout and sometimes heroic women, too.  It’s just that their presence and their roles have often been overlooked, which is really odd when you consider the fact that it was women who stuck by Jesus at the crucifixion.  It was women who first experienced the empty tomb.  It was women who first encountered the risen Jesus and it was women who first announced the resurrection to the men.  Who were in hiding.

In Sunday School and Bible studies we learn about King David.  And if we’re willing to read a little more deeply, we’ll learn about David’s great grandmother, Ruth.  Ruth was not even Jewish.  She was a Moabite.  But she loved her mother-in-law and stuck with her even after her husband died. She traveled back to Israel with her mother-in-law and became loyal to Israel’s God and three generations later her great-grandson became the king of Israel.  Luke tells us that Jesus was of the house and lineage of David.  This is his Jewish bona fides.  But if Jesus was of the house and lineage of David, King of Israel, then he was also of the house and lineage of Ruth, a woman of Moab.

The story becomes richer and more interesting when you follow the women.  Ruth married Boaz.  His mother was Rahab, a Canaanite woman.  She was the prostitute who hid the Israelite spies in her house in Jericho when Joshua was first preparing to attack the city.  She helped the spies escape by lowering them over the city wall in a basket.   The Jewish Women’s Archive (www.jwa.org) describes Rahab as “a woman triply marginalized—a Canaanite, woman, and prostitute [who]  moves to the center as bearer of a divine message and herald of Israel in its new land… She is remembered in Jewish tradition as the great proselyte, as ancestress of kings and prophets, and, in the New Testament, as ancestress of Jesus.” 

Why don’t we learn more about these fascinating women of the Old Testament?  Why don’t we know more about Deborah and Huldah and Hannah and Abigail, just four of the seven women prophets?   Did you know there were seven women prophets?

Why don’t we pay more attention to the astonishing women in the New Testament? How did we lose the story of Joanna, also known as Junia?  St. Paul refers to her as an apostle,[1]after all!  She travelled with Jesus and helped support his ministry.  She was a witness to both the crucifixion and the resurrection.  She crossed paths with and corresponded with Paul. Some scholars think she may even be the author of the Letter to the Hebrews.

Lydia of Phillipi, Phoebe of Cenchrae, Chloe of Corinth, Priscilla of Pontus, Thecla of Iconium.  All these women were partners in ministry with the Apostle Paul but we know so very little about them. 

We read and learn about St. Augustine, a great theologian and Doctor of the Church, but it was his mother, St. Monica, who steered him toward the church when he wanted nothing to do with it, then kept him in constant prayer, and finally  introduced him to St. Ambrose who could answer all his questions.

We celebrate Saint Patrick’s day every year, but why don’t we have parades for St. Brigid of Kildare, the mother saint of Ireland?  She founded several convents and monasteries, including Kildare which was a community where men and women could live together with equal status and equal responsibilities.  She had a tremendous influence on Celtic theology and Celtic liturgy. Because she oversaw several monasteries, she was regarded as a bishop.  Believing that the arts were an important expression of faith and devotion, she established a school of the arts at Kildare.  Much of what we know as classic Celtic art and illumination was either preserved or created by her artisans.

Why don’t we know more about Kassia of Constantinople?  She was a Byzantine-Greek composer, hymn writer and poet.  She is the only woman whose music is included in the Byzantine liturgy.

Why don’t we see more about St. Scholastica of Nursia in the church history books?  Her brother, St. Benedict, gets a lot of ink for establishing the Benedictine order and writing the Rule of Benedict, but she did the same thing at the same time establishing the Benedictine order of nuns.

Katharina von Bora, the wife of Martin Luther is fairly well known, as she should be.  But why don’t we hear more about Argula von Grumbach, the Bavarian noblewoman and writer who promoted and defended Luther and Melancthon with her essays, letters and poems?  Why do we not know more about how she challenged the University of Ingolstatdt’s faculty when they arrested a student on the charge of being “Lutheran?”

With all the Norwegian Lutherans, why don’t we hear more about Lady Inger Ottesdotter Romer, the powerful Norwegian noblewoman who promoted and financed the Lutheran Reformation in Norway and helped usher the Reformation into all of Scandinavia?

I could do this all day—naming women who have had a tremendous role in the scriptures and in the history of the church of Jesus Christ.  I could spend the rest of my life inserting brackets into the story of the Church.

I don’t know if we will ever be able to undo all the damage of patriarchy.  I doubt that we’ll ever be able to insert all the brackets that are needed to truly balance the history and understanding of our faith.  But I know we should try.

We say that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine.  One of the great things about that is that when we look at his human lineage we see a few people who were devout and heroic, but we also see a good number who were flawed and feckless.  In other words, human.   In the list of Jesus’s forebears, it was often the women, the people in the brackets who were the strongest, smartest, and most heroic.  Their strength and wit was part of the human heritage of Jesus.  They were part of who he would become and who he is.

Luke takes his genealogy of Jesus all the way back to Adam and notes that Adam was the child of God.  But so was Eve.  If we’re not listening to and learning the stories of all our grandmothers and mothers and sisters in our long lineage of faith, then we are learning less than half of the story.  

The 27th of January, just a few days ago, was the day the Church commemorates Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe.  In observing that commemoration, Guy Erwin wrote this:

It’s fitting, after a day in which we commemorated three male leaders of the early church, that today we think about three extraordinary women mentioned in scripture as important in their Christian communities. Within the social conventions of the ancient Mediterranean world, the public role of women was more circumscribed than that of men, but that didn’t prevent them wielding considerable influence, and even exercising some power within communities. Of course class and economic status intersect; wealth made women both freer and more restricted, as social convention often mattered most to the elite.

Lydia and Dorcas are both mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles: Lydia as a wealthy matron, active in her community in Macedonia; Dorcas as a helper of the poor in Joppa. Phoebe, who was part of a congregation near Corinth, is referred to by Paul with great respect. Historians know that what we know about the past is strongly shaped by who recorded the events and people, and that it’s important to look beyond that for other signs of those who are missing from or less regarded in the narrative. That’s often the case with the women in these stories. But we also don’t know much about many of the people on the sidelines, even the three male saints from yesterday.

The point for me is that it isn’t just the principals in the story, but the whole community that is part of the Christian story—not just those with names, but all the saints both named and unnamed. The story belongs to all of us, believers of every kind. We’re still making church history every day, and we stand in line with Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe. 

We stand in line with Lydia, Dorcas and Phoebe.  We are joined in communion with Kassia and Scholastica and Argula and Inger…and all the saints, named and unnamed.  The story belongs to us now.  Let’s try to live it and tell it in such a way that no one in the future will need to insert any brackets.


[1] Romans 16.7

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.