Some Things You Can't Unsee

The Second Sunday after Easter (i.e., the Sunday after Easter) always has the same Gospel reading--John 20:19-31.  It's a pretty famous section of the Gospel--it tells the story of "Doubting Thomas," who would not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead until he was able to place his fingers in the nail marks on Jesus's hands.  Most priests preach something about that part of the story.

But Doubting Thomas is in the second part of the reading.  This Sunday I was totally focused on the first part of the reading--John 20:19-23.  Here's what it says.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  

In the traditional understanding of this text, this event on the evening of Easter Sunday is significant because it represents, in part, Jesus's institution of the priesthood.  Those individuals in the locked room were empowered by Jesus to forgive sins, one of the key "powers" if you will, of the Catholic priesthood.  It stands to reason, then, that the kind of people that were present in the locked room are the kind of people that can be priests.  And, since the people in the locked room were the Twelve Apostles, all male, then only men can be priests.  So the traditional interpretation goes.

I never thought twice about this interpretation, until I read this post the the blogger who calls herself "the Ewe."  She points out something that I never caught in the two or three dozen times I've heard this Gospel read at Mass, and in the equal number of times I've read this passage on my own--the Gospel doesn't say that "the Apostles" were in the locked room; it says "the disciples" were in the locked room.  While "Apostle" is traditionally understood to refer to the Twelve, "disciple" is a much broader term that encompasses other followers of Jesus.  In Chapter 19, Joseph of Arimathea is referred to as "a disciple," and he is clearly not one of the Twelve.  Acts of the Apostles also explicitly mentions female disciples, such as Tabitha (Acts 9:36).  If it is the case that the "disciples" received this ordination from Jesus, then it stands to reason that all of the disciples that were present--male, but also potentially female--are priests.  And if female disciples were made priests by Jesus, how can the Church not ordain them now?

It is hard to see the substitution of "Apostle" for "disciple" as anything other than a deliberate attempt to downplay or cover up the role of women in the early Church.  But, as I looked at this further, I found other places where a similar kind of slight of hand had been done.  Like in Romans 16 where Phoebe is called "a deacon" and Junia is "prominent among the Apostles" (which, if taken literally, means she is a bishop).  The Junia business bothered medieval translators of the New Testament so much that they converted "Junia" into "Junias," which is not a real Roman name, to obscure the fact that Junia is actually a she.

What if that's true?  What if the early Church was indeed a new creation, where the old norms of essentialist gender identities were being washed away in a common baptism?  What if one of the first bishops in Rome was a woman?  What if the New Testament represents a bold, even radical, feminist message?  What if it was so radical that the established order has spent the better part of 2000 years trying to cover it up and roll it back?

So much of Christianity is about imagination, at least for me.  When I hear the Gospel stories, I almost reflexively picture the scene in my head--I guess I am an Ignatian at heart.  Prior to yesterday, when I imagined the scene in the locked room, I saw only men sitting in the room.  Yesterday, when I imagined the scene, it was a mixed gender crowd.  In a small way, it feels like something has changed.  Some things you can't unsee.


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