Few biblical narratives are as exhilarating and as affirmative of women as the resurrection story. Depending on where you worshipped today, chances are that the Gospel reading revolved around Mary Magdalene — that woman from whom Jesus ejected seven demons.
It is Mary Magdalene who, on the first day of the week — Sunday, if you please — “went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.” It fell upon her to tell Simon Peter “and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved”, about the empty tomb.
Wasn’t that interesting, given that not so far back, on Mt Tabor, the same Peter had been so enchanted by the glory of Jesus’ transfiguration that he sought to put up three shelters — for Jesus, for Moses and for Elijah. It seems that St Luke, a medical doctor, knew better about human frailty, hence his remark on Peter’s excitement: “He did not know what he was saying.”
Luke’s reading of the male psyche is one that can be applied in dissecting the Easter story, which defines the relationship of men and women to Jesus vis-à-vis their faith.
On the night of Jesus’ arrest, Luke’s statement comes to pass when Peter, who is warming by the fire as his master is quizzed, denies any links with his master. Coincidentally, it is a girl servant who pricks Peter’s conscience, persistently questioning him on whether or not he is a disciple of Jesus.
It is easy to dismiss the girl as a busybody. On the other hand, her question can be traced to the gender make-up of women, who tend to take their relationships, especially friendships, more seriously than men. This is easily evident when the behaviour of men and women in Jesus’ life is compared.
Although John describes himself as “the one Jesus loved” it is ironic that he is nowhere near the tomb on resurrection Sunday, and receives the news of the event that defines Christianity from women.
For the Reverend Dawn Gikandi, the Parish Minister of PCEA Bahati Martyrs Parish in Nairobi, the events of Easter Sunday are a story of hope for all, men and women included. She cites St Paul in his letter to the Galatians in which he says that before Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
She adds: “The resurrection story is a story of hope for everyone, despite their place in society. That it is the women who brought the news of the resurrection to Jesus’ disciples means that everyone, despite their place in society, can go out and proclaim the good news of the resurrection. God uses anyone as He wills.”
In another interview with human rights activist and retired Presbyterian Church Minister, the Reverend Timothy Njoya, he notes that the role of women on resurrection day is a reminder that they, too, were part of God’s promise.
Revisiting the Old Testament, where women did not count in covenant-making, the happenings of resurrection Sunday signal an era of a new dispensation in which women, too, are beneficiaries.
“Although men were naturally assumed to be part of the covenant, the fact that women became the first witnesses of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, meant that a new dispensation of inclusivity had dawned”.
Inclusivity is a major defining characteristic of Pope Francis’ pontificate. In his 2013 book titled Pope Francis: Untying The Knots, the author, Paul Vallely, gives a moving account of the Pope’s early days in the Vatican, when he broke all rules to ensure inclusivity in the ministry of the Catholic Church.
Although much has been written about the fact that Pope Francis included women in the traditional pre-Easter foot-washing ceremony, the resistance his action provoked has not been discussed so openly. Vallely quotes Monsignor Andrew Burnham, a former Anglican Church Minister, who has since converted to Catholicism, as having issues with the Pope’s inclusion of women in the ritual.
“The rubric says viri — men ... The Bishop of Rome setting aside the rubrics is a serious matter, with many consequences, some highly undesirable,” the cleric is quoted as saying of the Pope’s act. The author says further that conservatives lamented the Pope’s questionable example.
What this means is that although the wind is blowing in the direction of inclusivity, the forces of patriarchy within the universal church still hold sway, and it will take a while before the events of that first Easter Sunday make a difference in the way women are treated not just in the Catholic Church but within the wider Christian family.
In spite of the discrimination they continue to suffer, the resurrection story testifies to women’s spirit of service. All the women mentioned in the four gospels went to the tomb of Jesus with one purpose: to minister to him, even in death. “... Very early in the morning,” it is written, “the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.”
Apart from Mary Magdalene — the only one mentioned by John — St Luke identifies the other women as Joanna, Mary the mother of James and “the others”. That the women were at the tomb at the crack of dawn is a profound statement about the different ways in which men and women in the Bible expressed their love and loyalty to Jesus on that first Easter Sunday.
It is paradoxical that Joanna should be among the first witnesses to the resurrection, considering that she was the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household. It is clear that her love for Jesus transcends her husband’s political orientation by virtue of being in Herod’s employment.
Mark’s version of that first resurrection Sunday adds another woman — Salome. It is significant, however, that all the evangelists mention Mary Magdalene by name.
This is understandable given her special relationship with Jesus. She, it is, who is described as having been exorcised of seven demons. Now, being possessed of one demon would be already one too many; but seven! It is precisely for this reason that the Easter story drips with the love of one so grateful as to have upstaged the Apostles, including Peter, to be among the first witnesses to the resurrection.
If the resurrection is Christianity’s defining moment, it is also the moment that brings to question the different ways the Christian Church as an institution has traditionally treated women. In this regard, the patriarchal underpinnings of the resurrection story are obvious.
St Paul asserts that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile”. The upshot is that at this time when Christians celebrate the essence of their faith, it’s impossible to obliterate the gender dimensions of this beautiful story that is traceable much further back than one might first imagine.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, epitomises the ultimate in creation. God being all-powerful would have chosen any other way to send Christ on earth. Mary, the mother of Jesus, lives with the reality of her son’s death. Her involvement in the death and resurrection of her son starts right from that terrifying moment when the virgin girl, engaged — and in reality married to the Carpenter of Nazareth, Joseph — is told by the angel Gabriel that she will conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The announcement, and its import, evokes the image of a Samburu unwed girl, whose womb is trampled upon by the older women to destroy an unwanted baby.
What would have happened if the angel Gabriel had not dissuaded Joseph from sending Mary away quietly? It stands to reason that had Mary, out of genuine fear for herself, rejected the angel’s proposal, the Easter story, as we know it, might have taken a totally different turn.
Feminists have pointed out that even though Eve has been vilified as the culprit who brought about the fall and the ensuing punishment for humankind as a whole, it was Mary, another woman, who brought about the means to eternal salvation. She took the risk of bearing the stigma of unwed motherhood, when she consented to be the mother of Christ.
Ultimately, women’s showing in the New Testament far outshines their male counterparts’. Right from the moment of his betrayal, when Judas, aggrieved by the realisation that Jesus was not the anticipated political saviour, who would free them from the Roman yoke, women display an unparalleled loyalty and spirit of service in their relationship with Christ.
The resurrection story is a story of women’s sacrificial love, a love that is shown by the women of Jerusalem, who wail over Jesus on the road to Calvary. It is the love story of the legendary woman, Veronica who, oblivious of the rabid crowds swirling around Jesus, mocking him and spitting on him, dares to wipe his bruised face, leaving an imprint of Jesus’ image on her handkerchief.
It is the story of the women who stood with Mary the mother of Jesus at the foot of the cross as he breathed his last in the ultimate act of love. It is the story of the Virgin Mary who, in fulfilment of the prophecy of old Simeon, at the presentation of the child Jesus in the temple, told the Mother of God that “a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Mary represents the tail end of women in the history of Israel, who form part of the salvation history, and who are actually mentioned in the list of the patriarchs in their genealogy. What is interesting is that most of these women are foreigners: Rahab the mother of Boaz, Ruth mother of Obed, Bethsheba the mother of Solomon, Mary the mother of Jesus.