Shawna Atteberry

Writer, Editor, Researcher

Women of Holy Week: At the Cross & Tomb

women of holy week
The Two Marys by James Tissot

The women of Holy Week frame the Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. 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. The stories of women embrace Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, denial, trial, and crucifixion. They followed “him and ministered to him when he was in Galilee,” and they followed him to Jerusalem (Mark 15:41).

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]).

At the Cross

In Mark those who follow Jesus are disciples. Minister comes from the Greek word group from diakonos, which means to serve. Diakonos is the word we get our word deacon from. Originally meaning “table service,” in the New Testament it became a specialized term for ministers of the Word and Eucharist. Mark uses minister when the angels ministered to Jesus after his temptation and when Peter’s mother-in-law ministered to Jesus after he healed her. Jesus used minister when he said “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).

The only time serve or minister is used for a man in The Gospel of Mark it describes Jesus. The other times the words are used they 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).

At the Tomb

Mary Magdalene, Mary, Salome, and the other women continued to faithfully minister to Jesus until the end. The women of Holy Week 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 Galilee now come to finish anointing Jesus’ body.

God rewarded them for their tenacity, perseverance, and faithfulness: 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. The messenger at the tomb commissioned to tell the rest of the disciples that God has raised Jesus from the dead.

It is time for the church to stop overlooking the women of Holy Week, and to tell their stories in the context of Holy Week. These women show what Christ-like service looks like. Unlike the male disciples, they did not let their own ambitions blind them to Jesus’ teaching that he would die. They listened and understood. They ministered to him, and they bore witness. The women of Holy Week did not leave him alone during his darkest hours. The church needs to recognize and praise these women for their great faithfulness instead of pushing them into the shadows and forgetting them.

The is part two of my Holy Week series on The Women of Holy Week. The first post on The Widow and Prophet can be read here.

Women of Holy Week: The Widow & the Prophet

women of holy week
The Widow’s Mite by James C. Christensen

The women of Holy Week have always fascinated me. Apart from a passing glance at the foot of the cross, the church ignores them. It doesn’t help that The Revised Commentary Lectionary places some of their stories outside of Holy Week, and rips them out of their theological context.

When I did my own study of the women of Holy Week, 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. 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 destruction of the Temple and what would happen before his second coming. Big stories with lots of drama are on either side of this humble, generous widow.

The Widow

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 stewardship campaigns praise this woman as a person who gave unselfishly to God. She trusted God would 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 her life the same way he called his disciples to live–is the last thing Jesus said before he left the Temple for the last time. Her offering of everything she had foreshadows Jesus’ own offering of his life on the cross. We praise this woman for pointing the way to Christ and for living the same kind of life, that Jesus himself lived: an all-encompassing sacrifice to God. The stewardship campaigns need to tell her full story instead of simply praising her for giving her last two cents.

The Prophet

After Jesus praised this woman and left the Temple, he described the future destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. In chapter 14 we discover this end of times discourse 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. This happened the day before he celebrated the Last Supper (for her story see my sermon, Anointing the King).

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 is 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. As the people in the Temple ignored the widow, Jesus’ fellow dinner guests criticized this woman’s offering as wasteful. Jesus rebuked the critics and praised the woman for preparing him for his burial. Jesus knew his road to kingship led to the cross, and he promised this prophet would be remembered wherever the Gospel is preached.

The First Two Women of Holy Week

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 close Jesus’ public ministry in Mark and begin his journey to the cross. They foreshadow Jesus’ coming death. They also live the life of sacrificial faith that Jesus will live through his arrest, crucifixion, and death. These two women won’t be the last women we meet this Holy Week. In Mark, stories of women surround the entire Passion Narrative: The prophet who anointed Jesus opens the Passion Narrative and the women who stood vigil at the tomb close the narrative. The women who followed Jesus embraced him in this narrative as he lived through his betrayal, arrest, denial, and death on the cross. They obeyed him, and they did not forsake him.

How will we follow these women’s Christlike examples through Holy Week? What do the widow and the prophet have to teach us about living Christlike lives?

The second part of this series, The Women at the Cross and Tomb, will be posted on Wednesday.

Maundy Thursday Sermon Podcast: Anointing the King

I preached this sermon Maundy Thursday, 2012 at Grace Episcopal Church.

(Click  the link “Anointing the King” to hear or download the MP3.)

 

Anointing The King
Mark 14:1-11

(This sermon is told from the view of the woman who anointed Jesus’ head in Mark. Props: head covering, white jar or container.)

(Place container on the altar or pulpit)

By that night I had been following him for a long time. I started following him in Galilee. I saw all of his miracles, heard his teaching. I knew who Jesus was. And God had been telling me to do something. Something I knew women didn’t do—or just any man for that matter. This was a job for prophets and priests. But not common people and definitely not a woman. I told God this. I reminded him of his own actions in the past. And then passages from Isaiah came streaming through my mind: “Behold I am doing a new thing—things you could not even dream of—I will make ways where there are no ways. What I’m doing is new. No one has ever seen it before.”

On our way to Jerusalem at a little market in one of the little towns we passed through, I bought the oil, and I hid it among my things.

(Look at container)

Who’d think that such a little container could weigh so much. And how it weighed on me.

At some point Jesus started talking about what would happen in Jerusalem. How he would be betrayed and handed over to the religious authorities. How he would be crucified, and die. Then somehow how three days later rise.

At this point the Twelve’s bickering ratcheted up. “But he said he was the Messiah! The Messiah doesn’t die!”

“We have to be going to Jerusalem for him to finally make his move.”

“This dying and rising stuff must be more of his riddles. People will die, so we can raise him up to power. To be our King!”

“But is he really the Messiah? He hasn’t even started raising an army. Is he hoping the people in Jerusalem will get behind him?”

“But he says we should love our enemies—that’s the Romans, you know? What if he really does get himself killed in Jerusalem? What then?”

“What about us? Three years of our lives and for what?”

And it went on and on and on. Be glad those who wrote your gospels cut so much of their bickering and fighting out. Oy Vey they could go on forever. [PAUSE] But then the gospellers were good at editing their stories to suit their communities and what they thought was proper.

That’s what they did to me. My deed will always be remembered. But not my name. And the reason for my action was changed to suit what a woman could do. Not what I did.

Now I understand my story has come down to you in several stories and is confusing. Different women. Different times in the story. Different reasons. Luke even watered my act down to a penitent sinner thanking Jesus for forgiving her many sins. He removed it entirely from the Passover and Passion all together. At least John put it a week before Jesus’ death and resurrection, but then he had Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet for a whole other reason.

But, you see, I didn’t anoint Jesus’ feet. I didn’t do the womanly thing—anoint him for his burial. That was women’s work back then—anointing a body for burial. Anyone who touched a corpse was considered unclean. We women were unclean for a whole week during our periods, so what’s a few more unclean days to us?

It was the night before the Passover, two days before the Crucifixion. Tensions were running high all around Jerusalem as they always did during Passover. There were Roman soldiers everywhere to squelch any uprisings or rebellions that might start. We already drawn their attention with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. There had been crowds of people cheering Jesus as he rode into the city. They called him the King of the Jews and Messiah. Then there was the fracas in the temple. Jesus’ prophecies of Jerusalem and the Temple being destroyed didn’t sit very well with anyone either. The religious leaders were trying to catch him in his words, trying to find a way to arrest him without making the crowds go crazier than they already were. The Twelve were bickering about who was the greatest, who would sit at his right and left hands when Jesus ruled.

It wasn’t hard to see where all of this was leading. And I knew. I knew when Jesus said he was here to die, he meant it. I knew it in my bones. But I also knew what God commanded me to do. Jesus was the Messiah, the King of the Jews. And a king must be anointed.

That night, the night before we celebrated the Passover in the Upper Room, God’s command came. We were at the house of Simon the Leper. I quietly left the feast and went to my things.

(Pick up the container)

I retrieved the alabaster jar that had weighed so heavily on me the last few weeks. I returned to the banquet and walked to where Jesus reclined. I stood behind him, raised the bottle, broke its seal and let the oil pour over Jesus’ head.

(Take off the top of the container and act like your are pouring all of the contents out.)

It ran through his hair, down his face, and it rolled through his beard. His shoulders were drenched from the nard. The smell filled the room. He was anointed: Jesus: The King! Jesus: The Messiah!

(Return container to altar or pulpit.)

For a moment there was dead silence in the room. Then all hell broke loose. “Who are to anoint the king!” yelled Peter.

“We’re his inner circle!,” thundered James. “One of us should’ve anointed him!”

No!” Judas jumped into the fray. “The anointing means nothing if a prophet or priest has not done it! We have to take Jerusalem first. Then Caiaphas will have to anoint Jesus as King of the Jews! It is time to fight!” Judas yelled, pulling out his dagger and raising it in the air.

“Enough,” said Jesus. His authoritative voice rising above all of their yelling. “Leave her alone! Why are you troubling her? She has proclaimed the truth! She has done a good deed for me. Wherever the Good News is preached in the whole world, what she had done will be told in memory of her.

“Judas put that thing away. Whoever lives by the sword dies by the sword. Have I not taught you to love your enemies and pray for them? Have you learned nothing in these last three years, any of you?”

Silence reigned in the room once again. The Twelve were horrified Jesus allowed a woman to anoint him King after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple. Judas was seething. I could see him grinding his teeth to keep from saying anything. People began to pick at their food, no one quite looking at another.

None of them saw that there would be no triumphant overthrow or Messianic reign. None of them saw Jesus’ way, his way of reigning, was going to lead to very different places than what they were imagining. All they could do was fight about who should have anointed Jesus king.

I think Judas was beginning to see Jesus would not be the king he wanted. I saw him slip away from Simon’s house later that night.

I’m not sure when changes were made to my story. Changes like me anointing his feet as well as his head then just his feet. I don’t know when the anointing became just about his burial and not his kingship. I don’t know when or why the anointing story got moved first a week before the Passover then a few days before that. I don’t know when Mary of Bethany became the anointer. I don’t know when the argument became about the waste of money and not that a woman anointed Jesus as King of the Jews. Although I’m sure that’s the first part of the story that was changed. Then there’s Luke. Luke moved it entirely out of the Passion narrative and Jerusalem. His anointing takes place it in Galilee. There the woman who anointed Jesus was a sinner, nudge nudge, wink wink, a whore, and the anointing of the King was lost entirely. For the record: I was never a whore.

I was one of those women of means like Mary Magdalene and Joanna who followed Jesus in Galilee and then onto Jerusalem. I was one of Jesus’ disciples. I heard his teaching. I saw his miracles. And I saw things the Twelve didn’t see because they ran away. I saw his trial. I saw Jesus crucified. I watched him take his final breath. I stood vigil with his mother and Mary Magdalene and Salome, as we watched Joseph and Nicodemus lay him in the tomb. We held that vigil for hours until the Roman soldiers made us leave.

“Where ever the Good News is preached—in all the world—this story will be told in remembrance of her.” In memory of me. I know it’s a bit ironic my name was forgotten. But does it matter? No, it doesn’t. Because all of us are anointers. All of us in our daily lives anoint Jesus as king. When we help someone, when say kind words, when we love our neighbor we anoint Jesus as king. In a small act of giving change to a homeless man or a large act like marching through our city holding vigil against the violence in our city, we anoint Jesus as king. All of us by our lives, our words, and our acts of love anoint Jesus as King and Messiah. This story is told in memory of us.