Imagine you’re Mary, the mother of Jesus. You just made it through an unplanned pregnancy. You’ve delivered your baby in less than ideal conditions and now you're mixed up in soreness and lack of sleep and awe over this new-to-the-world little baby. Eight days after giving birth, you go with your husband to present your son at the temple, as was the custom. A righteous man from Jerusalem named Simeon finds you there. You stand before him, slightly awestruck, as he speaks a blessing over you and your husband.
But then, he says this:
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
A sword will pierce your soul, too.
Simeon’s words probably pierced Mary's soul right where she stood. Maybe she felt doubt. Fear, for herself and for her son. Sadness at the inevitability of it all.
A sword did pierce Mary's soul many times over. It happened when Jesus effectively denied his family. When he was rejected by his own people and she just wanted him to come home. When she witnessed his body, lifeless, on the cross.
Like Mary, women in ministry suffer soul wounds. Many of us are trying to live out our callings in a church that rejects us. Simeon’s ancient prophecy is echoed in we who, like Mary, are called into difficult work. Because we know that when we say “yes” to God’s call to ministry and when we persist in that ministry despite opposition and hardship, we’ll likely be hurt. We’ll be grieved by those we love and long to serve.
“A sword will pierce your soul, too."
Often, when we first say “yes” to the call of God, we envision that our ministry will be happy and bright, that birds will sing and puppies will trail after us as we do the amazing will of God. If we are new to ministry work, we might think that a sword won’t come for us at all.
And we really don’t imagine that a sword could be wielded by those closest to us. Or by the church we love so dearly. We trust we are exempt from the exclusion and judgment other women face, that our souls will not be pierced. No one could be that cruel to us.
Then, it happens. And it hurts like crazy.
Many of us know these wounds from experience. We know the pain of hearing our God-given callings rejected. We’ve heard the not-so-quiet whispers and seen the knowing glances:
“She doesn’t belong here.”
“She’s just a distraction.”
“She’s rebelling against God’s order.”
“She shouldn’t be standing up there, teaching a congregation.”
“Who does she think she is?”
We’ve known impossible expectations and relentless demands on our time and energy. We’ve had to defend our very presence, along with our callings, in the sanctuaries we long to serve.
Is anyone else weary of wounds inflicted by the church? I know I am.
Once our souls have been pierced, we have to decide what to do with those wounds. Will we try to heal, as best we can? Will we sink in hopelessness and exhaustion in our ministries, picking at scabs and reopening old wounds again and again? Will we try to deny the wounds out of self-preservation and disbelief until we just can’t ignore the pain anymore?
In the worst cases, women in ministry can succumb to an infection of the soul—a slow death of bitter silence. Some of us just dry up a little at a time and disappear. Those of us who survive the sword often need to go away for a time to deal with the trauma. Many of us find quiet places in which to hide, lick our wounds, and recover enough to keep going. And it’s crucial to allow ourselves that time and space.
Painful questions rattle around in our heads. Was this wound God’s will? Did I do something wrong? Is there still a place for me in this work? Is the call to ministry worth the pain and rejection? Does God still love me? Did God ever love me? Why won’t they accept me? Why did I say “yes”? Why does it all hurt so badly?
We doubt. We cry. We curse. We sit in self-pity and self-doubt. We rewrite the story in order to ease the pain of the story that actually is.
If we do recover, as Mary evidently did, we are forever changed. It’s hard to regard the world or the church with the same naive optimism. Our innocence is gone. Our wide-eyed, audacious hope is tempered. There is a painful knowing—a sense that Mary’s wound is now ours too.
In Luke 2, Simeon doesn’t give this prophecy to Joseph but to Mary. That’s no accident. He’s talking to a young woman with a risky calling. And today, Simeon’s words are still the burden of women who take risks for the gospel, women who say “yes” to God’s outrageous call on their lives.
Yes, it hurts. But the wounds we suffer at the hands of doubters and naysayers can’t alter this truth: we are called by God to do this work.
Still, it’s not easy to say “yes” to God again when we’ve been hurt, rejected, and silenced by the church. Once we’re wounded, we know that Simeon’s words are true—that being a woman in ministry sometimes hurts.
When we say “yes” a second time, we do so without innocence. Some of us possess a fierce determination to persevere. Others gain a gentleness in our souls that wasn’t there before. Many of us have to decide that we no longer care what others think. Most of us move forward again a little hesitantly, a little shakily.
I honestly don't know if Mary thought things like, "I didn't sign up for this!" or "was this in the fine print?" after hearing Simeon's words. I know I sometimes have.
I do know Mary could have moved from “Yes” to “No, God, it’s too much.” She could have taken an off-ramp and saved herself a lot of hurt. But she didn’t.
According to tradition, Mary waited with the apostles in the upper room after Jesus’ death. She’s believed to have been present for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Some suppose that she might have lived in a house provided by John or that she maybe stayed in Jerusalem.
We can’t know exactly what happened to Mary. But we do know she survived her soul wounds. I believe she found healing and chose to persist in the work God gave her.
As women in ministry, we have a difficult choice before us. Will we, like Mary, move forward knowing we may still be rejected by the church? That we’ll probably be hurt again? Will we persist in the work of God when we face opposition simply because we’re women? Can we still say “yes”? Can we allow God to heal our wounds and ready us to serve again?
Can we offer our wounded, scarred, transformed, shaky, fearless selves to God again?
May the God who calls us also give us—women called to pastor and minister—the strength and grace to say “yes” once again.