There is no shortage of strong and independent women in the Bible. Even in the Hebrew Scriptures, viewed by many as presenting a low view of women, there are numerous stories of courageous women, women who take strong leadership roles and women with independent personalities.
What we hear proclaimed at Catholic Masses however, is not the entire Bible, but only those portions selected for inclusion in the Lectionary (the book from which Mass readings are taken). Thus, choices have to be made about what to include and what to exclude from the Lectionary. And those choices – intentionally or not – convey a message.
What is excluded from the Lectionary conveys to women that they are not important. The Lectionary gives short shrift to many stories of women, including strong women with important accomplishments in our faith history—they are either ignored completely or included only on weekdays and never on Sunday. So we hear nothing ever of Deborah, a prophet and judge of Israel; the Lectionary completely ignores her song of victory. The strong, brave, faith-filled figures of Ruth and Naomi appear only in two weekday readings in every three-year cycle. Courageous Esther gets only one weekday reading. Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection is only one of two possibilities in each cycle for Easter morning, despite the fact that she was the first to see the risen Christ.
In addition, and I was reminded of this in the Gospel reading for this past Sunday, the Lectionary makes stories of women (or portions of their stories) included in Gospel passages optional, such that they may be excised to shorten a lengthy Mass reading. Thus, the story of Anna the Prophetess is often excised from the Gospel for the feast of the Presentation. Similarly, Jesus’ healing of the woman with a hemorrhage – such an important image regarding what it says about Jesus attitude toward the taboos that existed at the time – is part of a long passage involving the healing of Jairus’ daughter and is often excised, keeping the focus on the portion of the passage relating to Jairus. In the example of last Sunday, in which Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman, the portion where she goes off from her encounter with Jesus – transformed by that encounter – and evangelizes the people of her town is optional. Thus, in the version I heard Sunday morning, we are told simply that many of the Samaritans in the town began to believe in Jesus, rather than that many began to believe in him because of the testimony of the woman.
The examples could go on and on, but they all convey that women are optional and that their stories are less important than those of men. I am not suggesting that is the intention, but the perception created is one that should be of concern.