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01 March 2011

Exploring the role of women in the resurrection story

As we prepare for Easter, Ruth Valerio reflects on the role women played in the resurrection story.

Last night I sat next to my youngest daughter for a while and watched her as she slept. I looked at her face and pictured that face as a little baby, remembering what she looked like sleeping in her cot. I tried imagining her as a grown up woman, picturing in my mind what her face would look like as she grew up and matured.

And then, with this article in my mind, I started thinking about what it would be like for her to be killed at the age of 33, younger than I am now. I am sure I am not alone in looking at my child and asking God, please, to keep her safe and not take her away from me at an early age. Could I bear it? I can scarcely imagine the awful grief I would feel and am only too aware that some of you reading this will have experienced this yourselves.

Throughout the crucifixion scenes Mary is there, watching and following. We know that she is someone who thought and felt deeply. At the birth of her gorgeous little baby boy she sat in the middle of all the strange goings on, storing everything up in her heart; treasuring them and pondering on them (Luke 2:19). And now here she is, at the other end of her boy's life, watching Him being humiliated and mutilated. Did she look at His face on the cross and picture Him as a baby, lying in that dirty manger? Did she remember the times He'd fallen over and cut His knee and she had picked Him up and comforted Him? Having, presumably, suffered the grief of losing her husband, what pain was in her heart now?

At least she is not on her own. As has been the experience of women through the ages, in her moment of deepest need she is surrounded by her girlfriends. 

Courageous love 

But Mary is not the only woman in the Easter story. In fact the entire narrative starts with a woman who begins the preparation for burial of Jesus' body that the other women are never able to finish (Matthew 26: 6 - 13/Mark 14: 3 - 9/John 12:1 - 9). This woman comes to Jesus as He is eating at 'Simon the Leper's' house in Bethany and pours expensive perfume over His head. She must have had nerves of steel to walk into such a predominantly male environment and do something so outrageous. Do we love Jesus like this woman did? I wonder if I would have the courage today to show my love for Jesus in a way that attracted that amount of ridicule.

Despite Jesus' words to His disciples that the thing she had done was so beautiful that, "wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her" (Matthew 26:13/Mark 14:9), we do not even know her name. Indeed this story became one of the foundational narratives for feminist theology, highlighting the way so much of the Bible is written from a male perspective.

When I agreed to write this article, I secretly hoped (with a little twinkle in my eye) I would be able to show how the women got it right when the men got it wrong. After all, didn't the women from Galilee watch and follow Jesus while the disciples (in particular that great hero Peter beloved of preachers) ran away in fear? And was it not Pilate who finally handed Jesus over to be crucified when his wife tried to persuade him not to?

When I looked a bit deeper though I realised, of course, that things are not so simple. The crowds who turned on Jesus and called for Barabbas to be released were no doubt made up of women as well as men. And even the women only watched and followed 'at a distance' (Luke 23:49) and were presumably too scared to come any closer. When we do see them nearer the cross, we realise the men (or at least a man) are with them too (John 19:25 - 27). And then surely 'the beloved disciple' does an act as beautiful as our nameless woman does when he takes Mary into his house and looks after her? 

Universal grace

No, when it comes to our sinfulness and to our feeble attempts to follow Jesus whatever the cost, women and men equally need God's grace and His saving power.

It is often highlighted that it was to the women Jesus first appeared in His resurrection body and that they were the first to testify about this incredible occurrence when a woman's word was not considered reliable in a court of law. A good point, but to focus on that misses the heart of the resurrection story, and no-one expresses that heart better than GK Chesterton:

"On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realised the new wonder; but even they hardly realised that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in the semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening, but the dawn." 
(Quoted in Colin Gunton, Christ and Creation (Paternoster: London, 1992)) 

  • Ruth Valerio co-ordinates A Rocha's Living Lightly project and is part of the leadership of Spring Harvest. She is a doctoral candidate at King's College London.

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