Thursday, March 28, 2013

"He Took the Form of a Servant": Holy Thursday and Jesus's Gender Transgression

I've written about this before (and here), but it bears repeating: when Jesus knelt to wash the feet of his followers and served food to them at the Last Supper, he quite specifically assumed the role not merely of a servant, but of a female. Domestic service, waiting at table, washing the feet of guests before a meal, was a role reserved in Jesus's culture for women.

In his book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (NY: HarperCollins, 1994), acclaimed biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan notes,

Most of Jesus’ first followers would have known about but seldom experienced being served at table by slaves.  The male followers would think more experientially of females as preparers and servers of the family food.  Jesus took on himself the role not only of servant but of female.  Not only servile but female hosting is symbolized by the juxtaposition of those four verbs.  Far from realizing and being served, Jesus himself serves, like any housewife, the same meal to all, including himself (p. 181).

And what to make of this biblical fact, in this period when so many Christians are determined to continue relegating women to second-class status as human beings, and to attack gay people (and gay men, in particular) for bending gender roles and obscuring the hard, bright lines that patriarchal cultures want to draw to separate the male from the female? At the very least, I think we must conclude that the liturgical celebration of the holiest of days in the Christian calendar--the Sacred Triduum--begins with an astonishing act of gender transgression and gender bending, which radically calls into question some of the most cherished assumptions of some of Jesus's loudest and meanest spokesmen these days.

Though I'm not entirely sure they recognize the significance of what they're seeing as they attend the Holy Thursday liturgies.

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