Shawna Atteberry

Writer, Editor, Researcher

The Last Shall Be First: The Women at the Cross and Tomb

footofthecross2The 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 women at the cross and tomb in Mark.

Women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. They had followed him and ministered to him when he was in Galilee. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there. That evening, because it was the Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath), Joseph of Arimathea came. He was a prominent council member who was also looking forward to the reign of Godde. He dared to go to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate was amazed that he might already be dead. He called the centurion and asked him whether Jesus had been dead long. When he confirmed it with the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph. He bought a linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been cut from rock. He rolled a stone to the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Joses’ mother Mary saw where he was laid (Mark 15:40-47, New Testament: Divine Feminine Version [DFV]).

Mark’s Passion Narrative began in chapter 14 with the female prophet who anointed Jesus as king and prepared him for his burial. Mark’s Passion ends with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Salome, and “many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem” bearing witness at the cross, and the two Marys holding vigil in front of the tomb. Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, denial, trial, and crucifixion are held in the embrace of the women who “had followed him and ministered to him when he was in Galilee” and followed him to Jerusalem.

In Mark those who follow Jesus are disciples. Minister comes from the Greek word group from diakonos, which means to serve (and the word we get our word deacon from). Originally meaning “table service,” in the New Testament it becomes a specialized term which means ministers of the Word and Eucharist. In Mark the only other times minister is used are when the angels minister to Jesus after his temptation, when Peter’s mother-in-law ministers to Jesus and the disciples after Jesus heals her, and when Jesus says “the Son of Woman came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life to liberate many” in Mark 10 :45 [DFV] (which means the only man serve or minister is used for in The Gospel of Mark is Jesus. The other times the words are used refer to angels or women). Elizabeth Struthers Malbon notes “Not only does Jesus take up women’s work, but women take up Jesus’ work. Women, from near the bottom of the hierarchy of power, have served and remained faithful followers to the end–although even they are ‘looking on from afar’….It is striking that Mark chooses to emphasize the presence of women followers in the absence of the male disciples at the crucial moment of Jesus’ death. Those with power can learn from those with less power” (“Gospel of Mark,” Women’s Bible Commentary, 491).

Mary Magdalene, Mary, Salome, and the other women continued to faithfully minister to Jesus until the end. The did not run away, they did not hide. Even if it was at a distance, they stayed with Jesus. They bore witness to his death, and they made sure he did not die alone. Mary Magdalene and Mary watched Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus then remained at the tomb holding vigil. On Sunday morning they would be the first ones back at the tomb to finish anointing Jesus’ body for burial. We come full circle: at the beginning of the Passion Narrative the female prophet anointed Jesus to prepare him for the days ahead, and now Mary Magdalene and the other women who followed Jesus from Nazareth (and the prophet could have been one of their number) now come to finish anointing Jesus’ body.

Their tenacity, perseverance, and faithfulness is rewarded: they are the first to hear of the resurrection and see the risen Jesus. As they bore witness to the death and burial of Jesus, they now bear witness to the resurrection of Christ and are commissioned to tell the rest of the disciples that God has raised Jesus from the dead.

The Last Shall Be First: The Women of Holy Week

james-c-christensen-the-widows-mite1

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?

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.

Vigil Saturday: The Long Wait

“Some women were there, watching from a distance, including Mary Magdalene, Mary (the mother of James the younger and of Joseph), and Salome. They had been followers of Jesus and had cared for him while he was in Galilee. Then they and many other women had come with him to Jerusalem. . ..Joseph [of Arimathea] bought a long sheet of linen cloth, and taking Jesus’ body down from the cross, he wrapped it in the cloth and laid it in a tomb that had been carved out of the rock. Then he rolled a stone in front of the entrance. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where Jesus’ body was laid” (Mark 15:40-41, 46-47).

At sunset the Sabbath began; the first Vigil Saturday. What did they do that Sabbath? How did the mother of God, who had just watched her son die, and these other women who had followed him right up to the cross spend that Saturday? Did they go to synagogue? Did they say the prayers? Did they take part in the joy of the Exodus? Would they go to the Temple? Would they worship side-by-side with the people who had condemned and cheered her Son and their Savior to death? Would they too pray Jesus’ prayer, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do?” Or was their grief and anger too great? Did they just stay inside, holding on to each other, comforting each other as best they could? They saw where Joseph buried Jesus. They knew he did not have the time to properly anoint and wrap the body of their Beloved. They knew what they would do the first thing Sunday morning. But what did they do that long, long Saturday?

I know the Resurrection happened. I know tomorrow I will celebrate the Resurrection with my brothers and sisters in Christ. And this day is a long day for me. The waiting. Living an entire day between the last breath of death and the first breath of resurrection. It is hard. It is long. My first reminder is during morning prayers when I see there is no Gospel reading. There will be no Gospel reading tonight when I pray Compline. This is the only day of the year, we do not read the Gospel. The Gospel is in the grave, and we feel that loss, that void. Today the Church lives between life and death. And we long for, anticipate, and hope for Sunday morning. We live in anticipation and expectation of waking up Sunday morning to the creedal cry of the Church: “HE IS RISEN!” “HE IS RISEN INDEED!” I long for tomorrow when the silence of death will be broken. When I will walk into the sanctuary and see the cross draped in the victorious white of the Resurrection. We will sing ALLELUIA! Our first Alleluia since the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.  We will hear the Gospel. We will renew our baptismal vows. We will take communion. We will pass the peace. We will worship our risen Lord and Savior. But today is one of silence and waiting–vigil.

I will always wonder what the women who watched Joseph place Jesus’ body in the tomb did on that first Saturday. They didn’t have our hope. They thought Jesus was dead, and the kingdom he proclaimed was destroyed with him. What did they do on that day between death and life?

Originally posted April 7, 2007.

Holy Week Happenings at Chicago Grace Episcopal Church

If you’re in the South Loop area and need a place to celebrate the events of Holy Week, consider yourself invited to Grace Episcopal Church at 637 S. Dearborn St (Bus lines 22 and 62 Polk/Dearborn, Red Line Harrison/Polk exit, LaSalle Blue Line, LaSalle Metra Station).

Wednesday, April 8

Sandwich, Scriptures, and Sacrament, 12:15 p.m. Every week we bring a lunch and discuss a Scripture passage from the liturgy on Sunday. We will be discussing one of the Easter passages this week.

Our church helps out The Night Ministry. The Night Ministry ministers to the homeless at Humboldt Park through medical care, food and other necessities. At 5:00 p.m. will be making sandwiches and bag lunches for Thursday night. At 6:00 p.m. there is a centering prayer practice.

Thursday, April 9

Our Maundy Thursday service will be held at Humboldt Park (California and Division). If you would like to help hand out the lunches, we will be meeting at the church at 5:45 p.m. We will load up the van then head out. After we feed everyone, we will begin the liturgy for Maundy Thursday with whomever would like to join us. The liturgy will begin at 7:30 p.m. Our minister of music, Wayne Maas, will be leading the service. After we return to the church, we will strip the sanctuary for the observance of Good Friday.

Friday, April 10

There will be two liturgies on Good Friday: 12:15 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Our seminary intern, Elizabeth Molitors, will be preaching at both services and leading us through a modern version of the Stations of the Cross. A special offering will be taken up for The Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East.

Saturday, April 11

We will be going to St. James Cathedral (Red Line Grand exit) at Wabash and Huron to observe the Great Vigil, 8:00 p.m.

Sunday, April 12

There will be two Feasts of the Resurrection, 8:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. Our parish priest, Rev. Ted Curtis will be presiding.  After the 10:00 a.m. service, we will be enjoying an Eastern luncheon. There will be a special offering taken up for the Night Ministry on Easter and the following Sunday.