From Lynn Japinga’s excellent Feminism & Christianity: An Essential Guide (p.93):
Artist Edwina Sandys created a sculpture of a female form, arms outstretched as if hanging from a cross. The sculpture, entitled Christa, has created controversy wherever she is displayed. Critics say the statue defies the historical fact that Jesus was a man. Some viewers feel that the symbol of the cross is degraded or even blasphemed by a Christ in female form. Others are disturbed by the sexual overtones of the naked woman. Some people are troubled by yet another violent image of female suffering. A few people see in the sculpture the message that the death of Jesus symbolizes the pain of all human suffering.
The response to [this image] reveals various theological assumptions. Some people dismiss…the sculpture because they are literally false. Jesus was a man. End of discussion. Other people consider these images offensive and uncomfortable. It insults Jesus, and them as well, to think of him as a woman. These imaginative reconstructions of important events in the life of Jesus pose an important theological question: What difference does it make that Jesus was male?
Have at it. What do YOU think about this piece? What’s your first gut reaction? Why? What difference does it make that Jesus was male?
What must it do to the psychology and religious and spiritual experience of women that their entire life in Christianity is being told to obey, model, worship, and adore a man in order to experience all it promises?
Now to be clear, no feminist that I’ve ever read brings up this topic in order to challenge the historical fact that Jesus was a male. That’s not the issue here. Providentially, that is how God did it, and there were perfectly good historical and cultural reasons for doing so.
The issue here is that there were a lot particularities about Jesus. He was Jewish, lived in a particular geographic area, was a construction worker, spoke a certain language, had a certain skin color, wore certain clothes, etc. And yet which of these particularities do we choose to invest with special meaning?
And this isn’t theoretical. In the 1970s, during the Vatican II reforms of Catholicism, they brought this up as a primary reason why they wouldn’t let women be priests. Priests had to have a “physical resemblance” to Christ. And yet this “resemblance” wasn’t in dress, language, ethnicity, and or race–but in maleness.
Others might say that the Bible predominantly speaks of God in masculine terms, therefore of course Jesus would be male. But is the subtle assumption there that maleness more accurately represents God in some way? Would a woman have been “insufficient” to be the incarnate God?
The early church articulated beautifully the idea that whatever Jesus did not take on, he did not redeem. If it’s important not simply that Jesus was human, but specifically that he was male, then in what sense did Jesus “take on” female nature? Are women redeemed as well? Of course that is silly, but to people to think that maleness was absolutely essential to the Incarnation, it’s logical.
These are the questions at hand. We have little problem with accepting art that depicts Jesus in ways that go against what we know about him. Some of the most well-known and honored depictions of Christ have him looking white, European, dressed in the clothing of other eras, crucified alone and not with the thieves, with other characters and individuals around the Cross, etc. Jesus has been brought into the experience and culture of different peoples since his death and Resurrection.
And yet these images don’t punch us in the gut like seeing him as a woman. Why? What makes his maleness so much more sacred than every other historical, biblical, and cultural particularity he took on?
Lastly, I’ll leave with some beautiful quotes from Julian of Norwich, a mystic from the Middle Ages. She wrote the first book in the English language known to have been written by a woman. Here are some of her meditations on Christ:
“[Like a pregnant mother,] he carries us within him in love and travail, until the full time when he wanted to suffer the sharpest thorns and cruel pains that ever were or will be, and at the last he died….The mother can give her child suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does, most courteously and tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life …. The mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast through his sweet open side….So he wants us to act as a meek child, saying: My kind Mother, my gracious Mother, my beloved Mother, have mercy on me. I have made myself filthy and unlike you, and I may not and cannot make it right except with your help and grace.”