The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Born of a Woman

Lodged inside Paul’s declaration of freedom and redemption to the Galatians, a mention of Mary.

by Lauren F. Winner

Epistle Reading: Galatians 4:4-7

Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012: Year B - First Sunday of Christmas

Can a lectionary blog post be dedicated to someone?

If so, this blog post is dedicated to all of those women in the pews who know that they should feel included, affirmed and inspired by Mary’s role the stories of the Christmas season, but who find themselves actually wondering “Aren’t all these sermons about Mary’s faithfulness really a sort of special pleading that winds up highlighting how women have a very secondary role in this whole story?”

It is dedicated to the student who said to me last week: “I am supposed to feel lifted up by these stories of Mary, but at the end of the day, I feel like it’s kind of condescending – yay, women get to be mothers, men still get to be gods!”

The Oldest Written Reference to Mary

We’ve been thinking a lot about Mary these last few weeks (and indeed Mary figures prominently in this week’s Gospel passage). Today’s epistle reading contains the oldest written reference to Christ’s mother: Jesus is “born of a woman.” Thus, Paul’s readers are assured of Jesus’ humanity – Jesus had a human mother; ergo, Jesus is truly human, not doceticly playing at being human.

Perhaps for us, Jesus’ being born of a woman does not provoke especially hard questions, but in the history of Christian interpretation and theology, many smart men have devoted many hours to spelling out just why Jesus was born of a woman.

To wit, Augustine.

Augustine’s Take

In sermon 51 (which may have been preached on January 1, 418), in question 11 of The Eighty-Three Questions, and elsewhere, Augustine considered Christ’s being born of a woman. Surely, wrote Augustine, had God wanted Christ to be born sans earthly mother, God could have found a way to make that happen. God chose to have an earthly mother, and that choice is full of meaning.

Among the meanings Augustine finds is the maddening, familiar notion that Mary counterbalances Eve: “Man was ensnared through a woman administering poison; let man be restored through a woman administering salvation.” Thus do women “compensate” for the sin of Eve.

Blessedly, this is not the only point Augustine makes. He also argues that Christ’s being born of a woman assures women that they are included in Christ’s life and work. Christ may have been a man, but women can feel confident that they are included in Christ’s redemption because at the moment of his birth, Christ did not disdain women – to the contrary, he chose to come to us from a woman’s womb, through a woman’s vagina. (Authorial meta-musing: I first wrote “birth canal.” I was somehow more comfortable associating Jesus with a womb and a birth canal than with a vagina. Then I realized that “birth canal” politely but precisely evades the point that Augustine is making – “born of a woman” is a robust affirmation of embodiment, of the importance of bodies in the Christian story. Who am I to replace embodiment with euphemism?)

It is as if Augustine were trying to speak to questions that would be posed sharply centuries later, by theologians like Rosemary Radford Ruether: can a male savior save women?

“Yes,” says Augustine. “Yes.”

A Female Savior?

An aside: Augustine says in his sermon that Christ had to be born male. Some later theologians, most of them commenting on a question raised by Peter Lombard, disagreed, suggesting that Christ could have been born a woman. In the 12th century, Gandulph of Bologna mused that Christ could have been female, in which case Christ would still be the Son of God, but the daughter of Mary.

Other theologians moved from the question of whether Christ could have been born a woman to the question of whether Christ should have been born a woman. Unsurprisingly, their answer was no. These theologians put forward some interesting hypotheses, such as: maybe the Savior should have been born female because women are weaker than men, so a female Savior’s triumphing over the devil would be an especially profound witness to God’s power. Yet ultimately arguments against Christ’s coming as a woman triumphed–the naked assertion that “God ought not …assume the female sex….because it is not of equal worth” (Bonaventure); the ecclesiological syllogism that Christ was sent to proclaim yet women were not to preach so Christ should not have been female (Albert the Great).

By and large, the medievals rested with Augustine: the savior was not a woman, but the savior assured women of their participation in salvation by coming of a woman.

Or is that medieval parsing really an aside?

The Hardest Question

Why was Christ born of a woman?

While we’re at it, let’s add in those medieval questions: could Christ have been born not only of a woman, but in fact a woman? Should Christ have been born a woman?

And we might pose some hard questions about Augustine’s answer to the hard question of why Christ was born a woman: does Christ’s being born male, but of a woman, indeed assure women of their place in salvation? Or does it, well, remind them of their place–in a salvation story where the role of “woman,” however important, remains secondary?

Lauren F. Winner is a deacon at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina, and an assistant professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School. Her books include Girl Meets God, and, soon, Still: Noted on a Mid-faith Crisis.


  1. TR says:

    “Who am I to replace embodiment with euphemism?” Love this. It’s perfectly stated, and it gets at a really big dynamic for Christians, I think. Thanks for a beautiful reflection.

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