The women at the Passion and Resurrection

Taken by surprise

Sometimes, when you’re listening intently to the readings at church, a sentence bounces out in front of you and demands new attention and a fresh look. In my experience it tends to happen more often when you’re listening than when you’re reading, though this may be because my hearing’s not wonderful and I have to concentrate quite hard when I don’t have subtitles, but if you are lucky enough to have a good reader, it’s worth putting the missal away and just listening, as everyone stresses things differently.

This happened to me twice last week, and I was sufficiently intrigued to go away and look things up.  The first time was during the reading of the Passion at Palm Sunday, which was Matthew’s version this year (but I checked, and something similar, with only slightly different wording, is in Mark and Luke also; it’s not in any of the ‘shorter versions’ offered as alternatives).  We’re used to the idea that only the women are still there for Jesus at the Crucifixion.  Matthew says, almost off-handedly,’They had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him’, and he goes on to name three of them (27, v 55). As so often when we’re talking about women in the Bible, you have to think about what that covers, the travelling, the looking after, the laundry, the cooking and so on.  But that wasn’t the verse that stood out for me.

The women at the tomb

It’s later, after the Body has been begged for by Joseph of Arimathea, taken down, wrapped, and laid in the new tomb.  Then Joseph ‘rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, and departed’ (60). Now this verse : ‘Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb’ (61).

I don’t think I’d ever really heard this verse before.  All the Gospels are quite explicit about none of the disciples understanding any of what Jesus had told them about the Resurrection, and we have no grounds for thinking the women were any different.  But they just sit and wait.  For how long?  What are they thinking?  They are cold and wet, after the storm and the earthquake, they can’t have eaten since morning, if then.  I don’t think they are expecting or even hoping for anything to happen.

Loving longest when hope is gone

There is a wonderful and most moving conversation in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, where Anne Elliot and Captain Harville are discussing the relative constancy of men and women (in Chapter 23).  He is sore because his friend who was to marry his sister (who has died) is now in love with someone else who Capt Harville naturally feels is inferior to his much-loved sister.  He rails, most unfairly in the circumstances, against the fickleness of women, and quotes ‘all stories, prose and verse’.  Anne agrees with him when he has the grace to admit that ‘these were all written by men’, and says they will never be able to prove it either way, and both sexes are indeed capable of great love.  But then she says :’All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one; you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.’  And this is what I think is happening in the hearts of these two loving and faithful women.

The first witnesses

They must have gone back to the others after a while, because it was the Sabbath and I imagine they had to feed everybody.  Whatever family crisis occurs, people still need to eat, and it would have been the women cooking.  These same women come to the tomb on Sunday morning and receive the Good News. The story starts getting confusing here, with the different Gospels having different women doing different things in different sequences.  Some things are straightforward though : the women discover the Resurrection and even see the Lord before the men do; the men don’t believe them when they tell them, ‘these words seem to them an idle tale’, so it all takes longer than the Lord might have hoped, and he has to tell them himself, incidentally upbraiding them for their hardness of heart in not believing the women.

Attitudes take a very long time to change, and by the time the Gospels were written down, exactly how many women, and who they were, is still clearly not important enough to worry about;  but the Lord made the women the first witnesses to the Resurrection, even if the men have been trying to write them out of the story ever since.

Mary Magdalene and the gardener

The other verse that arrested me was not even in church.  I was washing up on Sunday morning after breakfast and singing along to the Easter Service on the radio, and they had the account of Mary Magdalene taking the Lord for the gardener, but because my hands were busy with something mindless, I was paying proper attention, and I realised why she doesn’t recognise him.  She’s crying, she bends to look into the tomb, the angels talk to her.  Obviously she goes in a little further to answer them, and then she turns round (still crying, because she has just explained that she doesn’t know where the body has gone), and sees ‘Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus’ (John 20, 14).  She’s inside the tomb, and he is against the light.  He repeats what the angels said, so she thinks he must be just some other person around for no obvious reason  —  and then he says her name, and she clearly leaps towards him.

I love this story, and I knew we weren’t getting it as part of our readings on Easter Sunday, so I checked to see when we might be having it.  It’s a good thing I was listening to the Anglican service on the radio.  That bit of John (20, vv 11-18), a female encounter with the Risen Lord,  is not part of the Catholic Sunday lectionary.

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Music for Easter (Saturday Vigil and Easter Sunday)

The Easter Vigil is the greatest event of the Church’s year, the celebration of the most dramatic and exciting moment in human history. So it should be celebratory, dramatic, exciting.  And it is long. Not all parishes do all seven OT readings with their accompanying psalms, but I don’t know which you will choose, so we have settings for all of them.  But even if you only do a few, with a full Mass (including the Gloria, of course) to follow, and starting at night, this is a musical marathon. I have tried, then, to give you lots of variety to keep people interested, but also not to make the music too strenuous to sing. Above all, though, I have been striving after joy, because it seems to me that it is the hallmark of the Easter readings.

Not just Psalms

We’ve got some of the best words in the Bible available to sing here, and not just Psalms but also Canticles, bits out of Exodus and Isaiah, and there are even alternatives to choose from for individual readings.  Choose early, because then you can concentrate on what you are actually singing.  I have done compacts wherever possible, to limit the sheer bulk of your folders for the Vigil, but some of the texts are too irregular to compact and I had to give up or try separating out the instruments.

Vigil Readings : salvation history in a nutshell

We start with the Creation (Pss 103/104 or 32/33) and canter through the whole of salvation history so fast that it’s not surprising we get a bit out of breath.  I love the creation psalms, there are lots of them, where we tell God all about the wonderful things he made (which he knows already, but it’s like telling your children how beautiful and clever they are, or your husband that you love him.  Just because you both know something already doesn’t stop you repeating it).  These psalms give me a chance to play with the music, to make the water ripple and the birds sing, to go up for the mountains and go down for the depths of the sea.  It may be unsubtle, but it feels right.

Then there’s Abraham and Isaac, and the ghastly choice Abraham faces, to sacrifice his son, his only son, whom he loves, as God says to him, piling up the facts which make it so ghastly… but then God stops him,  Abraham unties Isaac and they go home rejoicing.   We are left remembering how God had to sacrifice his son, his only son, whom he loved, and he had to go through with it, all because of us.  So the psalm following this reading is a more reflective one (15/16), with words of comfort in the middle verse.

Then the crossing of the Red Sea, so exciting, and the wonderful canticle after it (Exodus 15), all trumpets and triumph.  I really mustn’t go on about all the readings and psalms, or the Webmaster will make acid comments about writing a book rather than a blog, but my other favourites are the Isaiah canticle, where you can hear the water being heaved up out of the well, and the yearning deer after the Seventh Reading, where the CAN convention of using both psalm numbers means we have the longest psalm label on record (41,42/42,43).  This is a brand new CAN psalm, and I was aiming for yearning, but the rhythm of the response words was too strong, so we definitely have a leaping deer here, but still yearning as it bounds.

During Mass

After all this excitement, we have Psalm 117 with a simple Alleluia response.  This psalm comes up a lot over the Easter season, in various permutations, but this is the first time, so I’ve gone for a sober joy here, the great news is still sinking in.  It’s simple, so everyone can join in, but strongly rhythmic, and it’s a three-fold Alleluia as it replaces the usual Alleluia before the Gospel.  No more Lent Gospel Acclamations till next year!

Easter Sunday, Mass during the day

This is the same psalm as in the night, but with a different Response, although you can of course substitute the triple Alleluia version.  I do feel the mood is different now, daylight and daffodils instead of darkness and bonfires, and I would take it a bit faster now that everyone has had a sleep and is fresh again.  I have a very soft spot for this psalm response, as our youngest son was born during Eastertide, and his father had to go off to church that morning leaving me and the very new baby in the hospital, and sing it as cantor.  New life, new hope; indeed ‘this day was made by the Lord; we rejoice and are glad.’  Happy Easter (alleluia alleluia).

 

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