Sitting here in the dark of my living room the early morning on Easter, Resurrection Sunday, with my infant son, I can’t help but think of Mary Magdalene and her friends as they surely were desperate for dawn to be able to properly prepare the body of Jesus, their beloved teacher and adored friend, for burial.
I’ve not noticed before this year just how insignificantly the women of Holy Week are regarded in our collective retelling of the story. Even to the point of Jesus being described as “abandoned by everyone” he called friend, when in reality, John was there, and with him was “the women.”
The gospels often refer to the earliest followers of Christ in two groups: “the twelve,” and “the women.” “The twelve,” being the twelve Jewish men we commonly know as the Apostles, who represented the twelve tribes of Israel, and “the women,” was an unspecified number of female followers of Jesus. These women opened their homes, studied his teachings, financed his ministry, and through their many acts of loving devotion and faithfulness and friendship, can in tun teach us so much.
They’re so easily overlooked, these women. But they’re significant, not only to me or modern day feminists (or feminazis, if you’re extra rude), but to Him. They mattered to Jesus. Think about it: do we really think it’s an accident that it was a woman who first proclaimed the good news of a risen savior on Sunday morning? To a group of skeptical men, no less. Or that it was a women chosen by God to anoint Jesus, the Messiah, with her oil, tears, and hair? Or that it was his mother by His side as he cried out from the cross?
No. God makes no mistakes. There were no accidents in who Jesus called, what He did with His ministry, and the words He spoke. He inaugurated this new kingdom in the company of these women. He chose them for remarkable roles in His greater story. So, as we do so often with the place of “the twelve” in the earthly ministry of Christ and beyond, so should we stop and reflect on “the women,” to learn from them, as well.
The Woman at Bethany
So we all agree on the facts here: there’s a woman, there’s some oil, there’s an anointing, and there’s a protest. But despite our olfactory sense being the most closely tied to our memory, the four gospel writers vary on their accounts about this event.
Matthew and Mark mostly agree that there is an unnamed woman from Bethany, in the home of Simon the Leper, who anoints Jesus with her oil, and the collective disciples complain that this oil could have been used more effectively if sold and the money used for the poor. John writes that Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, is the woman, but says only Judas complains. Luke, on the other hand (a cool hand, perhaps? Sorry, my dad watched a lot of westerns) only identifies this woman as a sinner, and states that it is a Pharisee who complains, even calling into question if Jesus was a prophet at all because He allowed this sinning woman to touch Him.
Matthew and Mark are the most widely accepted and retold versions of this story, and whether it’s one, two, or three separate events, the whole thing is offensive and every bit of it symbolic.
Starting with just the simple fact that she interrupted their meal, culturally, the task of anointing was reserved for priests and prophets – a position women did not traditionally fill. Furthermore, the touch of a woman was taboo and largely considered forbidden, and yet, here she is, cradling his feet in her hands as she weeps, applying her oil and washing His with her hair. And, too, it’s not as if she used a small amount of oil; she broke the bottle and poured it out. A strong aroma filled the room as she used every last drop to anoint Jesus, the Messiah (fun fact: Christ Christ comes from the Greek word “christos” which means “Messiah” or “anointed one”).
The oil she used was likely being saved for her own burial. Obviously, being on this side of history, we know this is foreshadowing His death, but at the time, the disciples would have none of this talk of their savior/king dying. They completely missed it, despite His teaching often about His death.
In this single act of adoration and worship, she becomes the very first disciple to acknowledge His impending demise. Jesus praises her highly for this: “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Rachel Held Evans invites us to imagine it: every communion, every Easter service – the story of this woman told alongside the story of Christ, in remembrance of her. Jesus wanted us to remember her, and yet, we can’t even be certain of her name.
Mary suffered greatly as the mother of Jesus. They talk of her seven “official” sufferings (fleeing to Egypt, Simenon’s prophecy about her pierced heart, panic when she thought she lost a young Jesus in the crowd, walking with Jesus to Calvary, witnessing his crucifixion, holding the lifeless body of her son, and placing him in a borrowed tomb). But it seems ridiculous to think she felt no pain as Jesus faced temptation in the wilderness, or as He taught His disciples by dismissing her, saying, “who is my mother?”
As a mother myself, I can attest to the shared suffering of mothers that Mary undoubtably knew quite well: every tear, every scrape, every bruise, every disappointment… they pierce our hearts, don’t they?
What I cannot fathom or relate to personally, though, is Mary at the cross.
She was there, in the presence of other mothers, as her son was hoisted up to die. She’s described as bearing witness to her son’s agonizing execution both “at a distance” and close by, but at one point, Jesus speaks to His mother, saying, “woman, here is your son,” so she must have been close enough to hear Him.
The gruesome and broad pain Jesus felt on the cross connects us to God. Because of Jesus’ facing every imaginable suffering, He understands the pain we feel as we inflict ourselves on one another and when circumstances are heavy and dark.
As a mother, myself, to kids aged nine years, three years, and three and a half months, I know full well what it’s like to look at a child and see their former selves. I imagine Mary saw her son on the cross, not only as the 33 year old man He was then, but also as the baby she nursed and hushed to sleep, the toddler she tickled as he squealed with laughter and lifted off the floor as he toppled over learning to walk, and the boy she watched learn his father’s trade as he grew into a young man, and the young man she undoubtedly kissed goodbye before releasing him over to the hands of God alone as he embarked on his earthy ministry.
He was the Savior and Messiah, He was fully man and fully God, which she knew as soon as she knew she’d conceived. But he was also her boy.
She was not the first and would certainly not be the last mother to hold the lifeless body of her child in her arms and lay him to rest. But as we were united in suffering in that moment with God, every mother can run to a God who knows her mother’s heart and pain so intimately and so deeply. We can take our pain to a God who weeps with us, not because He sees that we’re sad. But because He knows.
The Women in Waiting
Oh, how much chaos must have ensued once Jesus’ body had been taken down from the cross. It was a Friday evening, and sundown meant Sabbath. If Jesus was to be buried, it had to happen, like, now.
Being that it was mostly the women who stayed, it was left up to them to figure this out. For a long time, I assumed it was them because it was somehow safer for them than for their male counterparts. But in the culture in which they lived, that just wasn’t the case. It was, if anything, riskier for them because they were women.
Joseph of Arimathea stepped up to offer his tomb, carved into the stone. Nicodemus, a Pharisee who’d met with Jesus prior to His death, came through with some myrrh and aloes to temporarily preserve Jesus’ body until the real work of preparing Him for burial could be completed.
Culturally and traditionally, this was the Women’s work. They prepared the bodies of loved ones to be buried. But for these women, the friends and followers of Jesus, they were forced to wait.
Sabbath was serious business. You could not work. Even the meals for Saturday needed to be prepared on Friday, or you didn’t eat.
It’s them that I think of this morning the most. Sitting in incompleteness and desperation, just antsy and waiting to be able to head out and honor their friend and teacher, and to try to begin to find the closure they surely lacked.
Only Mark gives us a glimpse into what their Saturday looked like, and he only indicates a conversation being had about logistics. They were wondering who they may need to take with them to roll the stone away.
And yet, as the first light of dawn broke, them women set out for the tomb themselves, without help, in a radical act of faith and of friendship.
It’s not clear who all the women were that headed for the tomb that Sunday morning, but all of the gospel writers agree; Mary Magdalene was among the women, first to witness the empty tomb.
There, they were met by divine messengers who told them that Jesus had risen, just as He said. Matthew says that, from there, they fled with fear and great joy. Luke notes that, on their way, they discussed what they remembered Jesus had taught them about resurrection. This proves that these women were present for some of the most intimate and important teachings.
As they recounted their experience about the empty tomb and a risen Lord to the men, they were not believed. Women then (and sadly even now) were not considered to be reliable witnesses.
A few of the men were curious though, according to John, so Mary took Peter and another disciple (commonly believed to be John) to the tomb. Once they saw it empty, they still did not realize the resurrection had happened, so they returned to report His body being missing/stolen and left Mary behind.
This is when Jesus appeared to Mary, revealing His resurrected self to her, and as John 20:18 tells us, she ran back to tell the others, “I have seen the risen Lord!”
Stephen J. Binz, in his wonderful book The Women of the Gospels, notes that, “her announcement, ‘I have seen the Lord,’ is the same credential used by Paul to insist on his own authority as an apostle: ‘Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?’ (1 Cor. 9:1). The church’s belief in the resurrection originated with the evangelical witness of this woman.”
As Rachel Held Evans writes, “Christ ushered in a new era of life and liberation in the presence of women and sent them out as the first witnesses of the complete gospel story…” perhaps making his boldest and most apparent display of the affirmation of His valuation and purpose for women in His ministry.
In conclusion, I submit to you this passage from Dorothy Sayers’ essay, Are Women Human?:
“Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as ‘The women, God help us!’ or ‘The ladies, God bless them!’; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious.
There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and Jesus that there was anything ‘funny’ about woman’s nature. But we might easily deduce it from His contemporaries, and from His prophets before Him, and from His Church to this day. Women are not human; nobody shall persuade that they are human; let them say what they like, we will not believe, though One rose from the dead.”
This week, this holiday is a time of remembrance, and a time to ask if we will stay with Jesus, embodied in the suffering of God’s marginalized people, whether in my own corner of the world or the world at large.
It would be easy to run for the shores of Galilee, but since my sisters stayed, so too will I.