This week, many of us in the US will celebrate Thanksgiving. This holiday asks us to be thankful for the good things we have in our lives, giving us a good reminder to practice gratitude for what we have. Yet this holiday can also make us feel obligated to be thankful, and particularly in the context of women in the church and society, to be thankful that life isn’t as hard for us as it was for our mothers and grandmothers.
This type of gratitude can all too easily be weaponized: can’t we women just be thankful that we can vote and own property? Why do we keep bringing up the effects of patriarchy and sexism instead of being grateful because our lives aren’t worse? And so the call to gratitude, however well meant, can carry the implication that we need to stop asking for full equality.
We can end up caught in tension between thankfulness and frustration as we are thankful for the progress made towards gender equality but also discouraged by the misogyny and patriarchy we see around us. Gratitude for progress does little to erase the pain of continued sexism, pain triggered by small personal interactions and by prominent Christian men who tell women in ministry to “go home.”
How can we be thankful when so much work is yet to be done in the church—let alone society as a whole—to move towards gender equality?
It is precisely here that the Christian season of Advent can offer us a better paradigm for holding gratitude and longing together. During Advent, Christians wait alongside the people of Israel for the promised Messiah and celebrate the birth of that Messiah, Jesus, on Christmas day. But Advent not only remembers that our savior was born on earth but also looks forward to the time when Jesus will come again; we long for the time when Christ will restore all things, wipe away all tears, reconcile the world to God.
Advent points us to the reality that the kingdom of God is both already and not yet present. Jesus was born, died, rose again, and ascended into heaven; he inaugurated his kingdom on earth. And yet, every day we are painfully aware that his kingdom is also yet to come. Advent invites us to live in the tension between these two truths.
So what does that look like for those of us who care deeply about empowering women in the church, about working against the sin of patriarchy? How do we give thanks for the already part of the kingdom while continuing to acknowledge and challenge the places where the kingdom of God is not yet evident?
One way to do this is to be thankful for the many, many women God has used to build and strengthen the church. As Christmas approaches, we can remember Mary, a young woman of humble background who was chosen by God to become the Theotokos, the mother of God. The one through whom the eternal Word became an incarnate human being. The first person to know that the Messiah was coming into the world was a woman.
And speaking of first people to know, the first to know that Jesus had risen from the dead were also women. One of them, Mary Magdalene, is called the Apostle to the Apostles because she was the first to bring the good news of the resurrection to the other disciples of Jesus.
Skipping over all of the women mentioned by Paul who were instrumental in building the early church, we can give thanks for Monica, the mother of Augustine, whose faithful prayers for and presence in her son’s life led to his conversion. Or Macrina the Younger, whose holy life profoundly shaped the theologies of her younger brothers Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa.
One of my personal favorites is Hilda of Whitby, whose deep devotion paired with her political acumen to build the church in early medieval England. Another woman who combined devotion with political boldness is Catherine of Siena; her strong criticism of fourteenth-century popes led to significant changes on an international scale. And then we have Queen Elizabeth I in England, whose strong Protestant convictions and long, well-respected reign as queen solidified and built up the nascent Anglican church, now the third-largest Christian denomination in the world.
I could go on with more women, but the point is clear: over and over again, God has worked through women to build and strengthen the church. Despite the limits set by patriarchy and sexism—real limits that we certainly should not ignore as we tell the stories of these women of faith—women have served God and the church faithfully.
As we celebrate the ways that women are already living into the reality of a world free from the sin of patriarchy, we also continue to acknowledge that this reality has not yet arrived. Our thankfulness coexists with, perhaps is even strengthened by, our heartbrokenness at the pain still caused by sexism.
And so, as we celebrate Thanksgiving and begin the season of Advent, we rejoice that God is already at work in the world restoring agency and dignity to women, that God has poured out the Spirit on both women and men. We give thanks for the women, famous and obscure, historical and in our present-day congregations, whose lives and work demonstrate God’s love for women. We also give thanks for the many men who work to treat women as their equals. And we pray: Come, Lord Jesus. Come, light of the world. Come fulfill the words that Mary spoke; come lift up the humble and fill the hungry with good things.