Lessons from women of the New Testament

| Jessica Weinberger | April 16, 2019 | 0 Comments
“The Holy Women at the Tomb” (1890) by William-Adolphe.

“The Holy Women at the Tomb” (1890) by William-Adolphe. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

When Catholic author and columnist Liz Kelly visited the Holy Land in 2013, she marveled at the convergence of faith and history unfolding in front of her. Praying over the Gospels through St. Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual exercises, specific biblical figures began appearing in her prayers: Mother Mary. Elizabeth. Mary of Magdalene. Anna.

It’s those women — and many others — who fill the pages of her award-winning book “Jesus Approaches: What Contemporary Women Can Learn about Healing, Freedom & Joy from the Women of the New Testament” (Loyola Press, 2017), which highlights the importance of women in the New Testament, both then and now.

“I think especially for our era, it is valuable to keep in mind for both men and women that Jesus was formed by women. He was mothered and knew women as friends and disciples,” said Kelly, a parishioner of St. Pius X in White Bear Lake who also offers a Bible study based on her book.

Kelly and two other women authors in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis reflected recently on women in Scripture, particularly in light of the Lenten and Easter seasons.

Stories of strength, courage and faithfulness flow from scriptural narratives, providing valuable insights and encouragement for Catholics that transcend the centuries, the women said.

Some stories feature well-known women like the sisters Mary and Martha who welcomed Jesus and his disciples into their home, as recounted in the Gospels of Luke and John. Others receive less attention in today’s homilies or formation, such as the woman who was healed from a hemorrhage, included in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

It’s by spending time with this wide-ranging group of women that Catholics can be reminded of the complementary gifts that both men and women bring to the Church, Kelly said, and that can spur meaningful dialogue among couples, friends and families. She hopes that women especially can see themselves in the Gospels.

“If women take a peek at the Gospel, they are going to see their own lives unfolding,” Kelly said. “That should give us all courage, greater sense of dignity, greater sense of purpose, greater sense that it’s not just Mary who is being invited to give Christ to the world — it’s all women.”

MELODIES OF FAITH

New Testament women in song

Folk musician Katy Wehr was working on her doctorate in theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland when she turned to songwriting for a creative escape. Wehr, who works as the faith formation director at St. Mark in St. Paul, found inspiration in her studies and wrote her first song about the Mary who anointed Jesus’ feet. A song about Mother Mary followed. Continuing that theme, she began penning additional songs about women in the New Testament, which in 2018 became her third album, “And All the Marys,” available at katywehrmusic.com.

From Elizabeth to the Samaritan woman to Salome, Wehr wrote each of the 12 songs in the first person, drawing upon her biblical and theological training to channel each woman’s unique perspective — and most importantly, their experiences with Jesus.

“One of the biggest takeaways for me was that Christ treated women like people. He interacted with them individually,” she said, noting how women were often witnesses to Christ’s teachings, healings and miracles. “I find it encouraging to know that Christ also sees us as individuals and that our individual needs and struggles can be brought into conversation with him for healing or just companionship.”

Seeing how women lived in the background due to cultural constraints, yet still had a meaningful presence, resonated with Wehr. Reflecting on how these women stayed faithful despite overwhelmingly difficult choices, like the Virgin Mary’s “yes” at the Annunciation, became a source of encouragement when she converted to Catholicism from the Anglican tradition three years ago.

“Even when we don’t see the final result, there’s this trust that can come when we catch a vision for what God is doing, even if we know we won’t see all the pieces of the puzzle,” she said.

Wehr was deeply curious about each of the women she profiled, but especially the women at the foot of the cross. Her song “The Women Prepare the Spices” draws upon Luke 23:56, where the women prepare the spices for Christ’s burial. She imagined how they would have felt, leaving the foot of the cross in despair, only to return to find the tomb empty.

“What a journey that they went through,” said Wehr, who also works as a fellows tutor at Anselm House, a Christian study center serving the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. “It’s easy for us, but they didn’t know the end of the story. To walk alongside them through that would be amazing.”

She credits the Holy Spirit for why these stories are woven throughout the Gospels and preserved. As Catholics, she said, we can look to them for their close understanding of Christ’s character, will and love for his people.

“They can intercede for us and be examples for us,” Wehr said of the women. “We need all of the intercessions we can get, right?”

— Jessica Weinberger

Lessons that transcend time

Author Stephanie Landsem has spent more than a decade bringing to life the stories of women in the New Testament. Her historical fiction series “Living Water” retells the accounts of women who were changed and transformed because of an encounter with Jesus.

In “The Tomb” (Howard Books, 2015), Landsem builds on what we know about Martha in Bethany by detailing a fictional secret past that influences the events leading up to her brother Lazarus’ resurrection from the dead. In “The Well” (Howard Books, 2013), she reimagines the story of the woman at the well from the Gospel of John by detailing how the Samaritan woman’s daughter strives to save her mother after a stoning. And in “The Thief” (Howard Books, 2014), she presents the story of a Roman centurion and a Jewish girl who witness the healing of a blind man to illustrate the power of forgiveness and love. Each installment in the three-part series has been approved by the Catholic Writers Guild.

Landsem, who attends St. Michael in Stillwater, said perspective is the most important takeaway from reflecting on women in Scripture. Jesus met thousands of men and women during his ministry, yet these stories with women at the center are consistently carried by the Gospels.

“The Holy Spirit wants us to learn from that,” she said. “That’s why I write [these books] and ask the questions — what did [the encounter with Jesus] mean to her and what did she feel, but also why is this relevant to me? What is it saying to us?”

Landsem said that it’s important to remember that just because these women were changed by Jesus, the Christian life is not always easy. And even though they are separated from current events by time and often by geography, these women are more like people living today than one might think.

“They wanted the same things we want. They were concerned about their families, they loved their children, they worried about politics and where they were going to get their next meal,” Landsem said. “We have more in common with women in the New Testament in those times than we have differences.”

Many faith journeys

For Kelly Wahlquist, a Catholic author, speaker and associate director of the Archbishop Flynn Catechetical Institute at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul, the wide-ranging women of the New Testament mirror how women today are at different points in their faith journeys. As the editor of “Walk in Her Sandals: Experiencing Christ’s Passion through the Eyes of Women” (Ave Maria Press, 2016), which includes contributions from 10 Catholic women writers including Landsem, she sees this displayed in each reflection.

There’s a young Mary at the Annunciation who accepts an unlikely and perhaps troubling request, and there’s Elizabeth, who is older, barren and lives in the hills. Those moments, Wahlquist said, could represent challenging points in a person’s spiritual life. And then, by contrast, there’s Anna, the prophetess at the presentation of Jesus in the temple, who embodies a deep and prayerful faith, and whose hope that she would see the Savior is fulfilled.

It’s through the women of the New Testament, she said, that people can see the most important relationship in the world — the relationship God has with his people. As founder of WINE: Women in the New Evangelization, Wahlquist considers this especially significant because people can see how Jesus related and responded to women 2,000 years ago, much as he does now.

“He continues to pursue them, to pursue their hearts and offer them love, mercy, forgiveness, compassion and healing,” said Wahlquist, a parishioner of Holy Name of Jesus in Medina. “When we read their story, we can enter into their story, and it becomes our own because Jesus is doing the same for us. He is constantly pursuing us in the way he’s pursuing the women in Scripture. And we can learn from their responses.”

Key roles

This is especially poignant during the Lent and Easter seasons because women played key roles in Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, despite cultural norms that curtailed the influence of women at that time. “Walk in Her Sandals” allows readers to walk alongside women through these pivotal events, illuminating lessons that relate to today, Wahlquist said.

She cited Mary Magdalene as an especially important figure for women to turn to during Holy Week and the Easter season. Even after Jesus was crucified, when confusion and grief overflowed among his followers, Mary Magdalene went to where she knew Jesus to be — the tomb.

“In our deepest, darkest hour, we need to go where we know Jesus to be — whether that’s in the Mass, Scriptures, in the Eucharist or in adoration,” Wahlquist said. “Even though we may not sense that he’s there, he is there.”

While the Bible offers some details and context around women in the New Testament for Catholics to reflect on, many questions remain. What happened in the days, weeks and months after an encounter with Jesus? Were they forever changed?

Kelly, who said she forged deep, prayerful relationships with these women as she penned “Jesus Approaches,” recognizes that only knowing parts of their lives may be frustrating for some. But, she said, this ultimately serves as an opportunity for spiritual growth.

“The pieces of Scripture that are left out are an invitation to us to order our imagination and allow the Holy Spirit to enter into their stories and (help us) wonder: How did they get to be like that?” Kelly said.

The lessons taught by Christ to these faithful women from centuries ago still ring true, for how Jesus interacted with them sheds light on how he interacts with people today. And that’s why, according to Kelly, the stories of women in the New Testament matter at women Easter and beyond.

“Because they’re us,” she said. “The Gospels are not dead. They’re living, and their stories are our stories.”

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