We have spent the last several weeks of Lent looking at the Passion narrative from the perspective of various characters in the story. When you consider each of the different perspectives, you can see how the situation got out of control through sin (Caiaphas), difficult circumstances (Pontius Pilate), or how God still provided blessings in the midst of the pain and chaos (Veronica, Simon of Cyrene, the Centurion, and the good thief). When we consider other perspectives, we can get a clearer sense of the big picture. It is a skill that we can employ, not only when we read the gospel stories, but also in our own lives, today, to give us empathy and understanding when approaching a difficult situation that is imbued with the effects of sin.
Now, with Easter upon us, we will look at the Resurrection narrative from the point of view of the first people to experience this miracle – Mary Magdalene and the other women.
We live in a time and culture where equality between the sexes and what that means exactly is a hotly debated topic. The Catholic Church has often been accused of holding women back or of even being anti-woman under the misrepresented guise of “oppression.” The truth is, while recognizing equality does not mean uniformity, the Church has held women in the highest regard since the beginning, as shown by the disposition of valuing women for their unique God-given gifts, which was demonstrated by Jesus Himself. Women have their own particular and beautiful gifts to offer the world according to their own feminine genius, which the Church acknowledges, embraces, and promotes. Lest there be any doubt, read the litany to our Blessed Mother in which she is given titles like, Queen of Saints, Queen of Angels, Queen of Peace, Queen of Heaven, Queen of the Universe, etc. We also have several highly regarded female saints which have been declared “Doctors of the Church” such as, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. These women are just a small sample of those held in high regard by the Church for their contributions to humanity and to the Faith.
The four gospel accounts vary a little bit in describing the discovery of Jesus’ Resurrection. However, one thing that they all agree on is that the first people to come upon the empty tomb were women. Mary Magdalene and the other women were the very first witnesses to this historic and salvific event, which was an honor and privilege not even granted to Jesus’ apostles. What is notable about women being the first witnesses to the Resurrection is that it is one of the details that circumstantially proves the veracity of the Resurrection. At that time and place in human history, women were not considered credible witnesses to important events. Had the gospels been written by men trying to convince the masses that a mere fairytale was true, they would have had seemingly more credible and important male figures as witnesses. As a matter of fact, scripture itself reveals how incredibly unique this situation was. “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:10-11). The very men who spent three years following Jesus, listening to His teachings, and promising to continue His mission, did not initially believe the women who brought the good news. If the account of the resurrection was fabricated by the “creators” of a false religion, this may not have been the best way to go, especially in that time. So, we can see from this perspective, that Jesus cared a lot less about the apparent lack of credibility these women brought to the story, and a lot more about their dignity and discipleship, which earned them a valuable and treasured place in the story of human salvation.
As we consider women as witnesses to the resurrection, a very important question arises, which is, “Why isn’t Jesus’ mother, Mary, mentioned as one of the witnesses?” This seems amiss considering the other extremely important events at which Mary was present – His birth, His first miracle at Cana, His Passion, His crucifixion, and the descent of the Holy Spirit in the upper room. On May 21, 1997, in his general audience, Pope John Paul II addressed this question in detail. He said, “The Gospels mention various appearances of the risen Christ, but not a meeting between Jesus and his Mother. This silence must not lead to the conclusion that after the Resurrection Christ did not appear to Mary; rather it invites us to seek the reasons why the Evangelists made such a choice” (#1). He goes on to explain that the gospel writers were charged with spreading the gospel message to specific audiences in order to communicate the knowledge necessary for their salvation. It is plausible to think that, in this particular part of the narrative, Mary’s witness may have been considered bias in light of her closeness to her Son.
The pope goes on to explain the probability that Mary was, most likely, the very first person Jesus appeared to after He rose from the dead. In the first place, Mary is notably absent from the group of women who were going to the tomb to anoint His body. Mary had a front row seat to her Son’s tremendous suffering and excruciating death and she stood before the cross to the very bitter end. Of all the women who had been faithful disciples to the Lord, was she not the most faithful woman of all? It does not make a lot of sense to assume that after all of that, she left the care of His body to others without her presence. So, Pope John Paul II surmised that she did not join the other women for the anointing because she had already been reunited with Jesus and knew His body was no longer present in the tomb. Given the special and intimate nature of their relationship, it seems more appropriate to assume that their reunion was special and intimate as well. The pope wrote, “The unique and special character of the Blessed Virgin’s presence at Calvary and her perfect union with the Son in his suffering on the Cross seem to postulate a very particular sharing on her part in the mystery of the Resurrection” (#3). Her unique role in the life of her Son in bringing about the salvation of the whole of humanity seems to point to a unique role in her witness of the entire Paschal Mystery, from beginning to end, rather than having Jesus leave her out of that very last part. So, to give this very special woman private access to this very special gift seems more fitting of the man Jesus revealed Himself to be, and yet again, another illustration of the true place of honor women hold in the Church.
To provide more evidence that this theory was not Pope John Paul II’s alone, here is what a few other saints have to say on the matter.
Since Scripture says, ‘Honor your father, and forget not the groaning (birth pangs) of your mother,’ (Sirach 7:29), Christ most perfectly kept the law of honoring parents. It follows that he appeared to his mother first, who was stressed more than all the others. If indeed someone were overseas, and his mother had understood that he had died, and he nevertheless healthy returned and would visit first other friends, and only last come to his mother, this would not be a good son, nor would he seem to have honored his mother.
- St. Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419 AD)
First, he appeared to the Virgin Mary. This, although it is not said in Scripture is included in saying that He appeared to so many others, because Scripture supposes that we have understanding, as it is written: “Are you also without understanding?’”
- St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1541 AD)
At the Annunciation, Mary submitted her will by faith to the word of God. At the Resurrection, her faith was rewarded by actually seeing and speaking with her glorified Son. At the Annunciation, Mary represented the human race still needing to be redeemed. At the Resurrection, she represented the human race already redeemed.
- Servant of God John Hardon (1914-2000 AD)
This week, think about good women of faith in your life. How have their feminine gifts been a Christian witness to you? If you are a woman, how do you respond to the gift of Jesus presenting Himself to your feminine dignity in a very particular and special way?
Once again, “Happy Easter everyone!”BACK TO LIST