Why Altar Girls?

Light of truth

Question: Miss Teena Joseph, Ernakulam

When I was a boy if women were to enter the sanctuary it was considered defiling the sanctuary through their impurity. Why is there a change in this approach? There are altar girls in some churches of India, but this is not the practice everywhere. What is the reason?

Answer: Jacob Parappally MSFS

The most revolutionary revelation of God in the Old Testament is that humans, both male and female are created in the image and likeness of God. “God created the human in his own image, in the image of God he created; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Why is it a revolutionary revelation? When the other cultures and religions of the time of biblical narration did not recognize the equality of women and men and did not treat them as human persons but objects and passive receptacles for man’s seeds to grow, form and come into the world, the book of Genesis affirms woman as image and likeness of God. When women were used and abused in the cultic worship of Canaanites, Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, was a leader equal to Aaron for guiding and leading the people of Israel (Micah 6:4) and was recognized as a prophetess (Exodus 15:20). However, when Aaron and Miriam rebelled against Moses and questioned him, only Miriam was punished with leprosy and not Aaron (Numbers 12:10)!

In the New Testament it is re-affirmed that God does not show any partiality (Acts10:4). Miriam’s leadership role was so recognized by all Israelites that they did not march on till Miriam was brought back healed, indicating her influence on the people. Miriam’s story of sharing leadership role with her brothers is an indication of the actualization of the original revelation of the equality of men and women as well as the stories of women leaders and prophets of the people of Israel like Deborah (Judges 4:4) and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14). Miriam alone receiving the punishment and not Aaron who did the same crime also shows the entry of patriarchal bias against women in the narration about the God-experience of the Hebrew people. The later history of the people of Israel confirms the terrible discrimination and exclusion experienced by women who were created in the image and likeness of God.

Ritual Exclusion of Women
The easiest way to marginalize, subjugate and exclude someone or a group in a society is to make them and others believe that such a discriminatory system is willed and sanctioned by God. The God-experience of the Hebrew people was articulated in the Old Testament by those who were living in a patriarchal society. The patriarchal mind-set could easily be seen in the laws and the structures of the society where, more often, men held leadership roles in the socio-religious community of the Hebrews. Women had no place in this patriarchal social system. Some of the Old Testament narrations about women are shocking- that women were identified as mere property (Exodus 20:17, Deuteronomy 5:21, Judges 5:30). If a woman who is not betrothed was raped, according to the laws, the father of the victim was to be paid for damages because she was the property of the father and the victim had to marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)! The girl child brings more impurity to the mother than the male child. “If a woman conceives, and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean” (Leviticus 12:2) However, “if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days” (Leviticus 12:5). Surprisingly, adultery laws subjected women to more severe punishment than men!

The narrations about women like Tamar, Dinah, Hagar and others reveal both inequality and inequity that were prevalent in the society. While blood symbolized life, losing of blood from body made women ritually impure. Probably, simple instructions for keeping good hygiene were loaded with divine sanctions so that they may be practised with seriousness as well as out of the fear of divine punishments. Eventually, such rules and regulations were used to discriminate women and others who were marginalized and made as the weaker sections of the society. Laws are often made by those who are powerful in the society and often they are made for the advantage of those who make them rather than based on the principles of justice, fairness and equality of humans.

Jesus includes Women but Religions exclude
No world religion is free from using the rules of purity and impurity for discriminating people on the basis of these. The Semitic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam seem to have perfected it through unambiguous rules and regulations. But Jesus, the Self-revelation of God in history, treated women and related with women as human persons. He recognized their equality with men as humans, treated them with respect, love, care and concern. Though his twelve apostles were men symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel to re-affirm the continuation of the salvation history planned and executed by God, many who followed Jesus were women (Luke 8:1-3). They provided for Jesus and His disciples out of their own means. Jesus included women in His extended group of disciples and the privilege of the resurrection experience was first offered to Mary of Magdala, a woman disciple and not to the men disciples! Jesus’ revolutionary departure from the religion’s exclusion of women to inclusion as equal disciples in the Kingdom He preached would have been very clear and defining that the Evangelists could not but give importance to this revolutionary revelation that turns the patriarchal society upside down and makes it a society of equals.

Women were a part of the ministry of proclaiming the Kingdom where there is no higher or lower, superior or inferior, pure or impure but all are sisters and brothers as well as daughters and sons of the same Father in Heaven who makes His sun shine and rain fall on all without any discrimination. The evangelists Matthew and Mark had no hesitation to narrate the incident of a woman anointing the head of Jesus with oil which is a prophetic act of royal consecration and so also for John to narrate the story of the Samaritan woman as the first missionary to bring her people to Jesus, source of living water! However, in the course of time, Mary of Magdala, the first witness of the resurrected Jesus and a prominent leader of the early Church was made into a sinner woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and anointed the feet of Jesus! Sermons were preached on this wrong understanding and so a large majority of the people would say when asked who anointed Jesus, “Of course it was Mary Magdalene who was the sinner woman and she was the one who anointed the feet of Jesus” without knowing that Mary Magdalene had nothing to do with it and not knowing too that two gospels narrate that a woman anointed the head of Jesus. When the Scripture is misinterpreted to support the existing system of discrimination the liberative message of Jesus loses its prophetic challenge and cutting edge.

All religions have their structures that keep religious traditions alive and these are mostly controlled by men. They determine the position of women in their religious system. The Church is not an exception to it. However, after the Vatican II Council there is a re-affirmation of the equality of all the members of the people of God who are baptized into the Body of Christ and have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Women in the Sanctuary
Raymond Brown, one of the great biblical theologians, once raised the question while discussing Mariological issues, “Can any of us fail to see that in all those centuries when no woman could publicly stand in the sanctuary of the churches, it was symbolically significant that the statue of a virgin stood there? If by the Church law a woman could not preside at the ceremonies that brought about Jesus’ Eucharistic presence, no one could deny that by God’s law it was a woman and not a man who brought about Jesus’ historical presence” (The Virginal Conception and the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, p.68). It may appear strange to us today that women were not allowed to enter the sanctuary of a church for so many centuries.

The rules and regulations that prevented women from entering the sanctuary as well as not allowing girls to serve at the altar were not guided by the Spirit of the Lord but by the archaic laws of purity and impurity borrowed from the Jewish tradition and uncritically implemented by the patriarchal mind-set of the Church authorities who are all men. After Vatican II many churches in India of the Latin rite tradition encouraged girls to be altar servers with due preparation. However, the churches of Oriental rites in India rarely follow it because they seem to be still adhering to the Jewish tradition of purity and impurity uncritically not because they may be convinced of it but it is found convenient for them. Any rule and regulation that discriminate human persons in order to preserve the sanctity of a place for the sake of God, in fact, desecrate it, dishonor God and disfigure humans who are the image and likeness of God and the temples of the Holy Spirit!


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