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Say My Name

Passover started last night. Today is Maundy Thursday. For the first time in close to 20 years I had to check my datebook to find out when each was happening—sometimes they are close together, sometimes farther apart.

For the first time in almost 20 years I will not lead the Maundy Thursday service. I guess it was always my favorite service—maybe because it was all about food. It commemorated the last dinner that Jesus ate with his closest friends. There’s not much information in the gospels about what kind of sauce was on the fish, whether the bread was made from stone-ground grains or not (though, you know, given the technology, it probably was) or if it was key lime pie or raspberry pavlova that rounded out the meal. The point is, fill in the blanks.

The larger point—though I think a menu is terribly important—was that this was a meal designed to be about remembering it. The Last Supper means it’s a remembered supper. It’s not tonight’s supper or a supper next week. It’s all about what happened and would not happen again—but was still far too significant to simply forget.

In that respect the Maundy Thursday observance of the final supper Jesus had with friends and the Passover Seder have much in common.
The Seder, too, is a meal designed around the theme or remembrance. The text read and the actions indicated in the text comprise the Haggadah. And though there are many different versions of it, all of them pivot on the act of looking backward with gratitude to God who righted misfortune and brought deliverance from slavery.

For a couple of years I participated in a Seder where we followed a women’s Haggadah. We commemorated our foremothers and our daughters and the kinds of imprisonment that have been historically characteristic of women’s lives. I remember bringing my daughters with me. We each had to name our mothers, grandmothers, etc, as far back as we could. On the Grae side I could name Norma, my mother, and Jennie, her mother, who had died the month before my mother married.

On the Page side the only woman I could name was Sophie Wilomena, my father’s mother. Maybe because I know nothing about the lives of the women who are my forebears it is easy not to be too curious—there’s no way to find out anything about them since they were working class Danes and Germans who came to this country and didn’t own property, didn’t hold office. Basically, they didn’t leave a paper trail, which is the only way to know—or prove—that anyone existed. So if I don’t know their names, this is not surprising.

But maybe it’s precisely because there is a paper trail for so many of the women in the Hebrew and Greek scriptures that their namelessness incenses me. And when I think of our collectively remembering the exodus from Egypt in the Passover Seder or Jesus gathered around the table of the Last Supper in Maundy Thursday services, I want to say—this is not dayenu: It’s not sufficient to remember only the first-born sons or the 12 disciples or the fearless warriors or David or Jesus or Moses or Elijah unless we also remember—and remember to name—the women who carried them, bore them, shaped them. And even that is not enough. It is not dayenu—not sufficient—to only remember these women as mothers. And that’s because their tragic portrayal in both Hebrew and Greek scripture is as far more than mothers and far less than human.

They are largely unnamed. Do we remember their stories? Could we name these women? Of course not. They slip between the lines of scripture. Their stories are unsettling, not the kind of thing to tell the children in their religious education classes.

After all, who wants to tell the story of the Levite’s concubine? That poor upstart whose father and husband condoned her gang rape by the men of the town in order to spare her husband’s own hide? Outraged that she has been raped, abused and killed, her husband dismembers her body and sends it to warlords all over Israel in order to get the fighting started. And, of course, he is successful.

Who wants to tell the story of Lot’s wife? Yeah, we all know she was turned to a pillar of salt because she disobeyed and turned back to look at the home she was fleeing. By why is her sin more egregious than that of Lot’s himself when he offered to whore out his virgin daughters in order to spare the man-flesh of his divine visitors?

Or what about Jephthah’s daughter, poor girl? Her father, the insecure but reliably victorious warrior tells God he’ll slay the first person he sees on his arrival home if he could gain yet another victory. Well, he does. And the first person he sees on his arrival is his daughter, dancing and singing as she comes out to welcome him home.

Women might fare better in some of the stories in Greek scripture, but they still don’t earn themselves names. The stories are great, gripping. In one, a woman with serious fibroid problems grips Jesus’ hem and her bleeding stops; he knows and commends her for her faithfulness.

In a couple of other stories, women who are members of a long-hated rival religious sect encounter Jesus. In one instance, Jesus gives her grief on the number of husbands she has had. In another he insults the woman who begs him to heal her daughter, though he does, indeed, act as if she has persuaded him that his narrow view of who was worthy of being healed was a wrong-headed one.

In yet another story—and such a poignant story—a woman washes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. This pisses off the disciples mightily. But Jesus says “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Would that that were true, but it isn’t. We have no name by which we can remember her.

And so we gather at Passover Seders and Maundy Thursday services with the express purpose of remembrance. Then we leave these solemn observances blithely unaware of who we don’t know. Without their names, these women are not even significant enough to forget.

—Jo Page

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