URC Daily Devotion Wednesday 26th April St Wilgefortis
Wednesday 26th April 2023 St Wilgefortis
Saint Wilgefortis in the Museum of the Diocese Graz-Seckau in Graz, Austria. Photo by Gugganij, Creative Commons Licence.
Also known in Britain as St Uncumber, St Wilgefortis became a popular saint in the fourteenth century. A daughter of a pagan Portuguese king and a Christian mother, the saint endeavoured to stave off marriage by taking a vow of chastity. When her father nevertheless betrothed her to a Moorish king, St Wilgefortis prayed that she would be made repulsive. Her prayers were answered, and she grew a beard which caused her fiancé to break off the marriage and her father to have her crucified. Never officially canonised by the Church, she became popular among women desiring to be rid of abusive husbands. An image of St Wilgefortis is to be found carved in the Henry VII chapel in Westminster Abbey where she sports an impressive beard. Images of her elsewhere show her typically tied to a cross. Her feast was celebrated on 20 July.
Reading St John 20: 17
“Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said, “for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
The name ‘Wilgefortis’ is believed to come from the Latin virgo fortis, ‘strong virgin’. There is a historic tension in Christianity between two traditions, one in which men are valourised over women and another in which women claim authority and equality as disciples of Christ. Throughout Christian history many women have done the latter by eschewing marriage and entering into monastic life. For most of its history Christianity privileged the monastic over other types of life and it is only in relatively recent history that marriage has come to be almost identified with Christian discipleship. Yet, Jesus’ own life and ministry did not focus on marriage, and it is possible to read in his post-resurrection encounter with Mary Magdalene, the first witness of his rising, a deliberate reversal of Genesis 2.24, where a man leaves his father and mother and ‘clings’ to his wife, and they become one flesh. In the resurrection there is no clinging, no marriage, relationships between men and women are changed. It is unwise then to invest marriage with too much theological significance, as it is equally unwise to over-valourise the celibate life. In truth, both forms of life can be holy and a powerful witness to God’s love, and both forms of life can be sinful but identifying either too closely with discipleship risks failing to see the sin when it occurs and trapping people in destructive relationships. St Wilgefortis reminds us that God wants women (as well as men) to flourish in whatever life they are called to and to be free of the expectations and structures of patriarchy.
Wilgefortis’s bearded face on her crucified woman’s body also reminds us that ‘in Christ there is no male and female’ (Galatians 3.28), that something radical happens to gender in Christ, it has no ultimate status, it is not determinative of our relationship with God and therefore it should not be used to treat men and women differently in Church or wider society.
We give thanks this day for strong women and we pray for strength for all those trapped in destructive relationships. We pray that the day will come when all no matter what their gender will enjoy the glorious liberty of your children. Amen.
The Rev’d Professor Elizabeth Stuart, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost, The University of Winchester and Associate Priest in the Parish of St Matthew with St Paul in Winchester