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.