Shawna Atteberry

Baker, Writer, Teacher

The Last Shall Be First: The Women of Holy Week


The past few years I have been on a mission to write, preach, and teach the women of Holy Week back into our Holy Week liturgies, practices, and Scriptures. In this post we’ll learn about the first two women we meet during Holy Week in Matthew and Mark.

When I decided I wanted to write a blog post on the women of Holy Week, I started flipping through the Gospel accounts, and I was surprised to find the first woman mentioned in Holy Week was the widow who gave her last two pennies as an offering in the Temple. For some reason I never connected her story with Holy Week. And for good reason: before her story is a list of controversies and debates Jesus was having with the religious leaders in the Temple. After her story Jesus described the Temple being destroyed, and what would happen before his second coming. Big stories with lots of drama are on either side of this humble, generous widow. First let’s look at her story:

Jesus sat down across from the treasury and watched the crowd throw money into the treasury. Many who were rich threw in large amounts. A widow who was poor came and threw in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. He called his disciples and said, “Believe me when I say that this widow who was poor gave more than all those who are contributing to the treasury, because they all gave out of their abundance, but she, poor as she is, gave everything she had – all she had to live on” (Mark 12:41-44, New Testament: Divine Feminine Version [DFV]).

This happened right after Jesus finished criticizing religious leaders who “devour widows’ houses and show off with long prayers” (v. 40). Normally this woman is praised in stewardship campaigns as a person who gives unselfishly to God, trusting God will provide. But that interpretation does this woman a great disservice.

Elizabeth Struthers Malbon notes: “The poor widow is unlike the self-centered scribes and instead like Jesus–one who gives all. The last words of her story could well be translated ‘but she from her need cast in all of whatever she had, her whole life.’ Perhaps we are to assume that the poor widow has been victimized by the greedy scribes and by the authority of traditional religious teaching. But in this again she is like Jesus, who teaches with ‘authority, and not as the scribes’ (1:22), yet is victimized by those who hold authority in the temple and in the broader religious tradition” (Women in Scripture, 432).

Jesus’ praise of this woman who lived the life he called his disciples to live is the last thing Jesus said before he left the Temple for the last time. In contrast to the religious leaders who went after fame, wealth, and a good reputation at the cost of the poor and destitute (like this widow), she is shown to be humble, generous, and like Christ. Her offering of everything she had prefigured Jesus’ own offering of his life on the cross. Instead of being praised for stewardship campaigns this woman should be praised for pointing the way to Christ and for living the same kind of life, that Jesus himself lived: an all-encompassing sacrifice to God.

After Jesus praised this woman and left the Temple, he described the future destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and what would happen when he returned to institute fully the reign of God. In chapter 14 we discover this end of times discourse is nestled between two stories of women and their Christlike generosity. In Mark 14:1-11 we meet the woman who anointed Jesus as king and prepared him for his death and burial the day before he celebrated the Last Supper and would be betrayed by Judas (for her story see my sermon, Anointing the King). Again a woman’s story is surrounded by religious leaders who are now seeking a way to arrest and kill Jesus without having an uprising on their hands.

Once again Mark contrasts the thoughts and actions of corrupt religious men with the Christlike actions of a woman:

When he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the house of Simon who had leprosy, a woman approached him with an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured it over his head. But some got angry. “Why has this ointment been wasted?” they said to one another. “This ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to those who are poor.” They scolded her.

But Jesus said, “Leave her alone! Why are you bugging her? She has done a good deed for me. You will always have people who are poor with you, and you can help them whenever you want to; but you won’t always have me. She did what she could. She poured this ointment on my body to prepare me for burial. Believe me when I say that wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what this woman has done will be talked about in memory of her” (Mark 14:3-9, DFV).

This the first scene in Mark’s passion narrative. This woman who acted as a prophet (or priest) and anointed Jesus as king began Jesus’ journey to the cross. Like the widow we see another selfless act of generosity. Whereas the widow’s offering was ignored by all but Jesus, this woman’s offering was criticized as wasteful by all but Jesus. Jesus rebuked the critics and praised the woman for preparing him for his burial. Jesus knew his road to being king went through the cross. He promised that wherever the Gospel was proclaimed this woman would be remembered, and she has been. After this woman’s extravagant gift Judas decided to betray Jesus and went to the religious authorities who paid him 30 pieces of silver to lead them to Jesus when crowds wouldn’t be around to protest his arrest.

In comparing these two women Malbon notes: “One woman gives what little she has, two copper coins; the other gives a great deal, ointment of pure nard worth more than three hundred denarii; but each gift is symbolically or metaphorically priceless. The irony that the poor widow’s gift occurs in the doomed temple is matched by the irony that the anointing of Jesus Christ, Jesus Messiah, Jesus the anointed one, takes place not in the temple but in a leper’s house (14:3), and not at the hands of the high priest but at the hands of an unnamed woman” (Women in Scripture, 433).

The widow and the prophet: these two women close Jesus’ public ministry and begin his journey to the cross. The both foreshadow Jesus’ coming death, and they both live the life of sacrificial faith that Jesus himself entered through his arrest, crucifixion, and death. They won’t be the last women we meet this Holy Week. In fact in Matthew and Mark, the entire passion is enclosed within stories of women: The prophet who anointed Jesus opens the passion, and the women who stood vigil at the tomb close the narrative. As Jesus lived through betrayal, arrest, denial, the agony of the cross, and death he was embraced in the arms of the women who followed him, obeyed him, and did not forsake him.

How will we follow these women’s Christlike examples through Holy Week and through the rest of the year? What do the widow and the prophet have to teach us about living Christlike lives?

My guest appearance on the Talk Gnosis podcast

hermaphroditeOn New Year’s Eve I joined one of my best friends, Bishop Lainie Petersen, on the Talk Gnosis podcast, in which we are our usual feminist and irreverent selves. I can’t beat the description that’s already been written up about the show:

We have a very special guest in the Rev. Shawna Atteberry for our After Dark podcast on the Gospel of Thomas’ Saying 22. She helps unpack the mysteries of GoT with Bishops Lainie and Ken and our director Father Tony. You’ve got to check out our free-ranging discussion that goes everywhere from the gender politics of evangelical movement to Broadway’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

That’s right: gnostic theology, gender politics, AND Hedwig and the Angry Inch. You have to listen now, don’t you? You can do that by clicking here: Make the Above Like the Below. Please let me know what you think.

Blogging Advent: Wisdom has built for herself a house

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Luke 1:46b-55 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
Year B, Advent 4

“The Holy Spirit had to come upon [Mary] and the power of the Most High had to overshadow her so that Wisdom might build [herself] a house and the Word might become flesh” (From the Letters of St. Leo the Great).

madonna and childWisdom Has Built for Herself a House

Wisdom has built for herself a house
In the womb of a young girl.
A young girl strong and brave
A young girl who said yes.

Wisdom has built for herself a house
In the song of a young girl:
“The powerful are humbled, the lowly lifted
The hungry fed, the rich emptied.”

Wisdom has built for herself a house
In a manger tucked in a cave
Where animals provide warmth and music,
And shepherds praise her newborn king.

Wisdom has built for herself a house
Under the noses of the powerful:
Herod the power hungry couldn’t thwart her
Caesar the almighty was oblivious to her building.

Wisdom has built for herself a house
In the journey of the Magi.
Traveling by her light, seeking her truth,
Bowing to a child in his humble home.

Wisdom has built for herself a house
Where the hungry are fed
And the lowly are raised.
Will you join them at the table?

Wisdom has built for herself a house:
Will you powerful be humbled?
Will you who are full be emptied?
Will you come in and eat at the table?

(c) 2014 Shawna R. B. Atteberry

Blogging Advent: What do we oppressors do with the Magnificat?

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:46b-55; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Year B, Advent 3

Magnificat-ImageMy soul praises the Lady,
and my spirit rejoices in Godde my Life-Giver,
because she’s looked favorably at the humble state of her bondservant.
Look, from now on all generations will call me blessed
because the Mighty One has done great things for me!
Holy is her name.
Her mercy extends to those who revere her from generation to generation.
She’s flexed her muscles
and scattered those who imagine they’re something that they’re not.
She’s pulled down rulers from their thrones
and has exalted the humble.
She’s filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
She’s helped Israel, her servant, that she might remember mercy,
as she promised our ancestors,
Sarah and Abraham and their offspring forever” (Luke 1:46-55, The Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament).

I love the Magnificat. It has been one of my favorite biblical passages for most of my life. I’ve always loved how Mary saw God doing these incredible things to turn the world on its head through her. Mary’s prophetic words have given countless generations of oppressed people hope that this is not the way God intended the world to be. But as I’ve read and meditated on Mary’s words this week, one thing has hit me: I am not part of the oppressed, I am part of those oppressing. I am not the humble and hungry. I am part of the rulers and rich that lose everything and get sent away.

In fact, if you are a white American, chances are you too are the oppressor, not the oppressed. We are the status quo willing to do anything to keep our power and influence. White America is not part of the persecuted church: we are Rome. We are the Empire. Empires do whatever is necessary to keep their power and affluence in the world. Nothing has shown more clearly that we are Empire as the CIA torture report that was released earlier this week. Our government has and will in the future commit unspeakable atrocities to keep our position at the top of the global food chain (this is nothing new for the USA–we’ve done it since we committed genocide against the Native Americans to steal their land, so we would have more power and wealth).

Mary’s words should not be comforting for white Americans who depend on the Empire of the United States for our safety and livelihood. What does the Magnificat mean for us oppressors? Mary proclaims that God has ” pulled down rulers from their thrones and has exalted the humble. She’s filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” If we are oppressors, Mary’s prophetic words are a call to repentance. A call to see where white privilege and ruling the status quo have gotten us. A call to change our ways and share our power, wealth, and influence with those who really are poor, humble, and hungry. It is a call to change the way we do things, so that everyone has shelter, food, and clothing, and not just the few we deem fit for such blessings.

During this time of Advent (a time normally set aside in the historical church for self-examination and confession), I’ve been asking myself what can I do to start changing the political and socio-economic structures that favor me, as a white person exclusively, to be more inclusive and fair for all people regardless of skin color, economic standing, or religion. Where is God working in exalting the humble and filling the hungry with good things in my world where I can join in? God is working–as Isaiah proclaimed she is always doing new things in our world to bring her love, mercy, and justice to our world. The questions are: where is she working now? And will we join in?

Want to Know More About Your Spiritual Foremothers? DO NOT watch Lifetime's Women of the Bible

Epiphany by Janet McKenzie.

Epiphany by Janet McKenzie.

I recorded Lifetime’s Women of the Bible last night. I thought it would make a fun blog post to correct everything they got wrong about the women in the Bible. I was wrong. It would take a freaking book to correct what was wrong in this two hour special, and it was not fun to watch. Thankfully my Facebook friends were there to help me keep my sanity as I watched this train wreck of a special on some of my favorite women in the Bible. As it would be a Herculean effort to correct the absolute wrongness and inaccuracy of this special I will leave you with my Facebook posts as I live blogged watching the two hour melodramatic claptrap about the women of the Bible. Grab a bottle of wine (you’ll need it) and enjoy.

Recorded Lifetime’s Women of the Bible last night and watching it now. Roma Downey likes her melodrama. And her definition of Biblical “scholars” and mine are drastically different. Oy vey.

Who does Roma Downey think the most pivotal women in Judges are Samson’s mother and Delilah, not Deborah and Jael. Of course Deborah and Jael weren’t immediately connected to a man, so naaahhh they couldn’t be THAT important, now could they? Not sure I can sit through another 1.5 hours of this schlock. Ugg.

Oh and did I mention that Victoria Osteen is one of the so-called “biblical scholars” on the show. *face palm*

Lainie, I think I need to put Lifetime’s Women of the Bible on hold until you can come watch it with me with lots of Josefina Pink Syrah, and we can make fun and tear apart this melodramatic claptrap that Roma Downey has invented about our foremothers of the faith. The woman thinks Samson’s mother and Delilah are the two most important women in Judges! Aaacccchhhh!

And we skipped from Delilah to Mary. I’m terrified to see what Lifetime’s Women of the Bible does to Mother Mary.

Oh. My. God. Gabriel is dressed like a Roman soldier in the Annunciation scene. Need. Booze. Now.

And we have broken out the Josefina Syrah over one of the “biblical scholars” claiming that Mary was the first women to have the responsibility of carrying the Word of God. Of course it has to be the literal Word of God. I guess they’ve never heard of Miriam or Huldah or the Jewish tradition that Huldah was a scribe that first started compiling the Hebrew Scriptures. And they are taking this far too literally. I am becoming absolutely terrified of what they are going to do with Mary of Magdala. I might be drunk by the time this is over.

And the Wise Men just showed up at the stable. Yep that’s some biblical scholarship.

Now Roma Downey has cast herself as Mother Mary for the Crucifixion. I should just bring the bottle of wine into the living room.

Oh and I should mention that the only woman of color to play a Middle Eastern woman in this show about the (Middle Eastern) women of the Bible was Samson’s mother. I think the only reason they did that was so they could cast Samson as an angry black man. Another face palm. Everyone else (except Pharaoh) has been lily pad white, including white boy Jesus–but he does have brown eyes instead of blue….

My favorite woman in the entire Bible has now taken the stage: Mary of Magdala. Get ready for the sarcasm to ratchet up a few more levels.

OK so far so good on the Mary of Magdala front: she was possessed by seven demons (they don’t claim she was a prostitute), and that she was a wealthy woman who supported Jesus’ ministry financially and traveled with Jesus and his entourage (which included more than the 12) (see Luke 8:1-3). They fail significantly when they say she was “essentially” an apostle. She was an apostle. Also the 12 disciples look like a white boy band.

They did cover that Mary was not a prostitute, and that there is no Biblical support for it. But the claim is made that Mary being called a prostitute was a “mistake.” It wasn’t a mistake. It was slander to discredit and minimalize the leadership role she had in the Early Church.

We’re heading for the Crucifixion. Can’t wait to see what heights the melodrama hits now. Why yes, I will have some more wine.

And of course Mother Mary and Mary of Magdala have seats front and center for the slow-mo, over-the-top melodramatic flogging.

And of course Mother Mary is able to run out onto the Via Dolorosa when Jesus fell to comfort him and for Jesus to tell her not to be afraid, this is how it has to be. John cries out: “Let her through. She’s his mother!” [Here’s a theological reflection on the women at the cross to balance out the melodrama of this show: The First Shall Be Last: The women at the cross and tomb.]

Oh. My God. Jesus was being flogged at Golgotha, and as it was happening he crawled to the cross then laid on it. Can we say Predestination taken to the melodramatic nth degree?

Oh the melodramatic substitutionary theory of atonement in all it’s gory detail!

Not just the curtain in the Temple tears in this version of the Crucifixion. Oh no, the entire Temple shakes and things fall over and break! Judaism wrong! Christianity good!

Because Mary of Magdala’s word was not enough, Peter must proclaim that the resurrection happened at the tomb when he entered and suddenly believed without seeing Jesus! That’s right boys and girls in this version of the “gospel” Peter believes without seeing Jesus! Jo, I think you’re right. We need a Bechdel test for women in the Bible.

OK I am quite literally laughing my ass off as a breeze blows Mary of Magdala’s hair off her face while she speaks in tongues in slow motion about the resurrection of Christ. Oh Mary, I’m so sorry for this hokey depiction of your apostleship and leadership in the Early Church. Forgive them for they know not what they do.

In the wrap up one of the biblical “scholars” just said that Jesus “states very clearly for him it’s neither male nor female, Greek nor Jew.” Sigh. That was Paul “biblical scholar” that was Paul.

Thank God it’s over. Thank you Facebook friends for sharing my pain and my horror. I owe all of you a drink of your choice at your favorite watering hole.

Yeah for an NCIS marathon! Leroy Jethro Gibbs save from bad theology and shoddy “biblical scholarship”!

And there you have it dear readers:  Women of the Bible live blogged in excruciating detail, so you don’t have to suffer. You’re welcome.

If you would like to get to know your spiritual foremothers as they actually appear in the pages of the Bible, and with far more historical accuracy, buy my book What You Didn’t Learn in Sunday School: Women Who Didn’t Shut Up & Sit Down. It makes a great gift! (I am a biblical scholar, and I have the degrees to prove it.)

Blogging Advent: Preparing the way for God

Isaiah 40:1-11;  Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
Year B, Advent 2

Photo by Olga Lednichenko, Flickr

Photo by Olga Lednichenko, Flickr

I chose a very hard time to decide to start blogging again. I thought Advent would be a wonderful time to ease back into writing non-fiction (the last two months have been spent on fiction), and picking up blogging again. When I made this decision two grand juries had not decided that police officers murdering unarmed civilians did not need to be held accountable for their actions. When I made the decision protests against systematic racism and the abuses and injustice that comes out of our refusal to see how white privilege and the systematic structures we white people have built to make sure we stay at the top of the food chain had not started. I was living in my nice, quiet, white, middle-class bubble, and that was where I planned on writing from. And oh how I tried to stay there. Tried to “spiritualize” this Sunday’s lectionary readings for my own private, personal use. Anything to admit that I am not part of the problem.

But I am part of the problem. I am white. I am educated. I am privileged. I live a very privileged life. As an Episcopalian, I am well aware of the social injustices in our world. I hear about them every week at church. We talk about them most weeks at church. Then I go home. And I do nothing. And that’s what this week’s Scriptures are about: what needs to be done to make way for God coming into our world. In Isaiah, our Psalm reading, and according to John the Baptist, God does not just come. We have to make God’s path ready for her to come into our world. We have to flatten mountains and fill in valleys. We have to make the wide road that God will march into our lives on. It’s not enough to sit and wait for God to show up in our lives. We have to do the work of preparing the way for her to show up in our lives.

In her well thought-out and timely reflection on Isaiah, Rachel Held Evans writes:

If paying attention to the prophets aligns our dreams with the dreams of God and drives us to prophetic action, then the cries of Isaiah today are a reminder that sometimes this means getting in the demolition business. Sometimes this means flattening the mountains of privilege and power, clearing away the obstructions of legalism, and leveling the uneven ground of racial, economic, and religious inequity.  After all, the sages have long told us that there is a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to mend and a time to rend, a time to build and a time to tear down.

Maybe this Advent season should be a season of rending and uprooting, of tearing down and leveling the ground. Maybe this year we prepare for Jesus not simply by hanging up wreaths but by pulling down the broken, unjust systems that tend to obscure God’s presence among us by obscuring God’s image in our brothers and sisters. Maybe we prepare for God-with-us by marching with the protestors rather than watching TV, by “shutting it down” rather than lightning it up.

I often hear people lament about where is God in our world. I think we Christians need to remember our gospel reading from two weeks ago, The Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25. God is in our world when we feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit prisoners, and work for justice for everyone and not just people who look and act like us. The church is the body of Christ–God–in our world. If we wonder where God is, then we only need to look to our own lives to see where we are not being Christ to those who need the good news.

In her commentary on this year’s lectionary readings, Theology from Exile: The Year of Mark, Sea Raven gives an alternate translation for our Psalm reading that drives this point home as well. She points out that Priests for Equality in The Inclusive Bible translate Psalm 85:10-13 this way:

Because love and faithfulness have met; just and peace have embraced, fidelity will sprout from the earth and justice will lean down from heaven.  Our God will give us what is good, and our land will yield its harvest. Justice will march before you, Adonai, and peace will prepare the way for your steps.

God comes when we have prepared the way with love, faithfulness, justice, and peace, working for the good of all and not the few.

With the prophet in Isaiah 40 when told to “Cry out!” I also ask: “What shall I cry?” (Isaiah 40:6). Then I ask: What shall I do? I don’t have an answer yet. But I will find one. I will be marching in a peaceful protest with my brother and sister Episcopalians tomorrow, and I’m going to be asking what can I do beyond that? I will be calling my diocese headquarters and seeing where I can, not just pray for peace, but work for peace in my city, in my country, and in my world. Because in the end it’s not enough to cry out. It takes a lot of work to level mountains of hatred, suspicion, privilege, and racism, and it takes even more work to fill in the valleys of poverty and inequality.

This Advent instead of waiting for God to just show up and make your life magically better, ask yourself: what can I do to make a way for God to come into my world? Instead of simply praying “Your will be done on earth as in heaven,” ask yourself how you can help God’s reign be realized in this world right now? God is waiting for us to build that highway. Pick up a shovel and start digging.

The Feast of St. Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard_von_BingenToday is the feast day of one of my personal patron saints: St. Hildgard of Bingen. I first met Hildegard in college when I discovered her and a host of other medieval women theologians who were ignored in academia because they were nuns and mystics and not teachers and theologians like the big-named men were. Matthew Fox correctly observed that if Hildegard had been a man she would be famous and everyone would know who she was just as everyone knows who Thomas Aquinas is. I had been hoping to write my own reflection on Hildegard, but between The Novel and classwork, that is not going to happen. But that is OK because the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church (my presiding bishop) Katharine Jefferts Schori has written an incredible sermon on Hildegard:

Hildegard lived from 1098 to 1179, in what is now Germany. When she was a small child, her parents sent her to be educated in the Benedictine convent, and she stayed and joined the order when she was 15. If she had lived a few centuries later, we would call her a Renaissance woman. Matthew Fox noted that if she had been a man, Hildegard would be one of the most famous figures in history. She was a mystic, poet, theologian, prophet, preacher, scientist, physician, composer, dramatist, abbess, ecclesiastical politician, as well as correspondent and advisor to popes, archbishops, and royalty.

Hildegard helped to expand the church’s vision – as a theologian, woman, mystic, scientist and healer. She reminds us that we may see God intimately in the myriad and seemingly mundane works of creation – the heavens, clouds, and the signs of abundant greenness that surround us. She and her spiritual siblings remind us that God is never bound up in traditional images or names, and that God is known as mother as much as father. Perhaps most importantly, Hildegard and other mystics open a window into the blazing fire of creativity at the heart of God. Their experience is never the fuel of private contemplation, but rather it is given for love of all God’s body, for all seekers of the sacred, and for right relationship among the parts of creation – that each might show forth the goodness of its own creation. Those visions propel their seers into the world with creative wonder, joy, and divine possibility.

You can read Expanding Apostolic Imagination here.

Let us pray: “Creator God, your whole creation, in all its varied and related parts, shows forth your verdant and life-giving power: Grant that we your people, illumined by the visions recorded by your servant Hildegard, may know, and make known, the joy and jubilation of being part of this cycle of creation, and may manifest your glory in all virtuous and godly living; through Jesus Christ whom you sent, and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen” (Forward Day by Day).

Pentecost: Blowing Where She Wills

Pentecost over Nature by Farid De La Ossa

This sermon was originally published on June 1, 2009.

She has been here from the beginning, stirring, creating, bringing form to chaos, and life to dust. In the beginning she brooded over the watery chaos waiting for God to give the word. In the fire, thunder, and smoke of Sinai she guarded the holiness of God and showed that approaching this god should not be taken lightly. When Elijah looked for God in fire, earthquake, and a storm, she came in sheer silence to show that she didn’t always appear with the flash and panache that human beings expect.

She gave birth to the church and is the One who gives us our unity, giftings, and words. But we don’t talk about her that much. In fact, the Church has never talked about the Holy Spirit much at all. She gets brushed to the side. She’s the runt of the Trinity no one wants to claim. And there’s a reason for this. The Holy Spirit scares us. We can’t control her. We can’t put restraints on her. We have our nice neat boxes for the other two members of the Trinity. God the Father and Mother is categorized with all of the attributes of God and put in the appropriate box. God the Son is neatly categorized by word and deed and placed in his box. For centuries theologians, scholars, teachers, and preachers have tried to do the same thing with the Spirit. But how do you put wind into a box?


Women's History Month: Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale

Today is the feast day of Florence Nightingale. This was originally posted in March 2012 for Women’s History Month.

I often say that Brigid of Kildare was my first patron saint, and she is because I chose her as my patron saint after I knew what they were as an adult. But as a child I chose another woman. I would have never called her a patron saint: the religious environment I grew up in didn’t have those. But looking back now I realize that Florence Nightingale was my first patron saint. I found a biography of her in the school library when I was in grade school. I’m not sure how old I was. I think third or fourth grade. I fell in love with her. She immediately became a twin spirit. I read everything my public school library had then went to the public library. I was dismayed that most of the biographies there were for adults, and I tried to read them, but they were over my head.

Florence was a fighter. She didn’t settle for the life everyone else wanted her to have. She heard God’s voice, and she knew God had a calling on her life, but she had to wait many years to realize that calling (so did I). I admired the way she made her own decisions and her bravery in going to be a nurse during the Crimean War. I drug out our huge Atlas to find out where Crimea was then I had to find a history book to know why there was a war there. I read in awe of how she invented modern nursing and treated the soldiers as men and human beings and not “the hopeless brutes. You cannot expect anything from them” that one of the officers told her (James Kiefer). Realizing the men spent their pay on alcohol because there was nothing else for them to buy, she set up a writing room for them where they could write their families and send money home. The authorities at the hospital wouldn’t let her do it, so she appealed to Queen Victoria and got her writing room. British soldiers “sent home 71,000 pounds sterling in less than six months” (Kiefer).

Conditions in hospitals at the time were appalling, with sheets not being changed nor bandages being washed and used again. Florence earned the doctor’s trust and instituted new sanitation guidelines with regular changing of sheets, using new bandages, and making sure blanket’s were not rotting away in a storehouse when they were needed in the hospital. She also started sanitizing the equipment needed for operations and procedures.

When I was eight or nine years old, I wanted to be Florence Nightingale. I started checking out books on being a nurse. Not long into that reading spree my mother gently told me, “Shawna, you can’t stand the sight of blood, and nurses see a lot of blood everyday. I’m not sure nursing is right for you.” (She was right: to this day when I have a blood draw, I have to look away. No way I would’ve made it through nursing school). I was devastated. But like the typical eight or nine year old, I quickly found something else I wanted to be.

I hadn’t thought about Florence for years then I picked up Edith Deen’s Great Women of the Christian Faith, and there in its pages, I once again found my childhood heroine. And I found out my path had actually run pretty close to Florence’s. At the time I was in college preparing to be a pastor: a doctor of souls. A lot of the reasons Florence felt called to be a nurse, I felt called to be a pastor. I found out we were both 17 when we were called into Godde’s service, and that neither one of us was sure what that meant. I assumed I’d be a missionary because in the Southern Baptist Church that was the only ministry that was open to me as a woman.

Edith Deen writes:

Like Joan of Arc, she heard a voice outside herself when she was seventeen. She was sure that God had called her to His service, and she was filled with confidence and faith, relates Cecil Woodham-Smith, in her biography entitled Florence Nightingale. Florence felt that God spoke to her directly four times after this, and she gave the exact dates later in her life. By the time she was twenty-four, she knew that her destiny was to serve the sick and dying (p. 214).

Godde also spoke to me after the initial calling and my calling blossomed into pastoring, preaching, writing, and speaking. Florence’s call was to care for and heal bodies. My call is to take care and heal souls. Both our calls grew and changed over the years. Florence started out in hospitals in the poorer districts of London then she went on to Kaiserwerth Germany to study with the Institute of Protestant Deaconesses, who ran a hospital. After that she volunteered to nurse in the Crimean War.

In Crimea Florence’s work did not end with her shift. Her stamina was incredible, and she was known to be on her feet twenty hours a day.

The London Times reported: “When all the medical officers have retired for the night and silence and darkness have settled down upon those miles of of prostrate sick, she may be observed alone, with a little lamp in her hand, making her solitary rounds” (Deen, 217).

The Lady with the Lamp was her affectionate nickname from the soldiers who watched for her light and some would even kiss her shadow as she passed.

She was forced to return to England after she came down with hospital fever. She served in Crimea for two years. After her return to England she revolutionized the nursing profession with her Notes on Nursing, which became a classic guide. She was given 250,000 pounds, which she used to “found the Nightingale Home for Nurses at St. Thomas’s Hospital” (Deen, 217).

I’ve watched my own call grow and develop over the years taking me places I never thought I’d go either. I will never have the influence of Florence or make any groundbreaking work and revolutionize a vocation the way she did. But my sister still holds her light and beckons me on. And I still follow.

May 18 is Florence Nightingale’s feast day in The Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion. Here is the prayer for that day.

Life-giving God, who alone have power over life and death, over health and sickness: Give power, wisdom, and gentleness to those who follow the example of your servant Florence Nightingale, that they, bearing with them your Presence, may not only heal but pain and fear; through Jesus Christ, the healer of body and of soul, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Great Women of the Christian Faith by Edith Deen, (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour and Company, Inc. 1959).

“Florence Nightingale: Nurse, Renewer of Society” by James Kiefer.

A Good Friday Reflection from Cynthia Bourgeault

All four gospels insist that when all the other disciples are fleeing, Mary Magdalene stands firm. She does not run; she does not betray or lie about her commitment; she witnesses. Hers is clearly a demonstration of either the deepest human love or the highest spiritual understanding of what Jesus was teaching, perhaps both. But why, one wonders, do the Holy Week liturgies tell and re-tell the story of Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus, while the steady, unwavering witness of Magdalene is not even noticed? How would our understanding of the Paschal Mystery change if even that one sentence that I finally heard at Vézelay [“Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb” (Matthew 27:61, DFV).] was routinely included in the Good Friday and Palm Sunday Passion narratives? What if, instead of emphasizing that Jesus died alone and rejected, we reinforced that one stood by him and did not leave?—for surely this other story is as deeply and truly there in the scripture as is the first. How would this change the emotional timbre of the day? How would it affect our feelings about ourselves? About the place of women in the church? About the nature of redemptive love?

From The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity, Kindle edition, location 367.