I have not been to Mass or any in-person prayer since March. My parish reopened with limited occupancy, but I do not feel comfortable attending any inside gathering. I miss the Eucharist. Despite virtual liturgies for the progression of time from Easter into Ordinary Time, it still feels like Lent. Spiritually, I am caught in the liminal space of Holy Saturday, called to notice the darkness and find hope in the witness of women who persist.
In his Holy Saturday homily this year, Pope Francis notes, “In this situation, the women did not allow themselves to be paralyzed. They did not give in to the gloom of sorrow and regret, they did not morosely close in on themselves, or flee from reality. . . . In the darkness of their hearts, they lit a flame of mercy.”
For me, this brings to mind Janet McKenzie’s art. Companion: Mary Magdalene with Joanna and Susanna is a beautiful, hopeful painting of three strong, immovable, faithful women of color on a mission.
Despite their grief, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and the women who followed Jesus went on planning, preparing, and acting. They persisted in their work, just as countless women to come have done, often unnoticed, unwelcome, or underappreciated.
They embodied a faith “so sure of what the spirit has whispered in your heart that your belief in its eventuality is unshakable,” to quote the late U.S. Representative and civil rights leader John Lewis. When I pray and reflect on what it means to be inspired by the witness of the early Christian women in the 21st century, I find discipleship as a call to incarnational solidarity—to see the face of Christ in our midst.
Yet I often struggle to see the church prioritize and lift up women as the face of Christ in our midst. All too often women are talked about as the face of mercy and the heart of a community without really being granted their full agency. The women who followed Jesus also ignited a flame of justice.
They persisted in their work, just as countless women to come have done, often unnoticed.
At the Amazon synod, even the bishops present lifted up the many stories of strong women leading within their communities. Yet the most recent instruction on leadership in parishes did not once mention finding ways to include women when discussing the role of the laity.
When I look around my community, I see the same determination and strength of the Holy Saturday women in the young women of the Rockaway Youth Task Force calling for greater racial justice. In the face of complex social problems—policing, food security, health care, equal access to education—they advocate and act. The pandemic has focused more public attention on the inequalities and vulnerabilities within the United States. In particular, it has shown the deep connection between racial justice, health care access, and other social justice issues.
Communities of color are disproportionately represented in the COVID-19 death tolls. The new virus exposes the underlying inequity among access to basic health care and other social determinants of health. Those who are more vulnerable to injustice are also more exposed to new pathogens. For this reason, “as science and technology advance, our structural sin deepens,” notes physician and anthropologist Paul Farmer, exposing the moral questions in how we distribute health care knowledge and resources.
Their model is one of persistence, of listening, and of speaking truth.
This year is one of upheaval and crises: a global pandemic, a tipping point in the national conversation on racial justice, and presidential election, to name merely the top three. “Complacency is seductive,” warns Pope Francis. As people of faith, we are called to build a community of solidarity and promote the common good.
I think back to the women of Holy Saturday, to their hope and faith-motivated action to sustain the community. Their model is one of persistence, of listening, and of speaking truth. I see their determination modeled all around me in those women who continue to speak truth to power even when, like the Holy Saturday women, those in power did not trust their witness.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/ Descendemiento by Ruizanglada