Women played an important role in the closing events of Jesus’ earthly life – his crucifixion, death, and resurrection – and we overlook the fact all too easily. These women are presented in the gospels as Jesus’ compassionate and courageous followers.
Foremost among them was the dauntless Mary Magdalene.
This element in the gospels is noteworthy because in Jewish life of the first century AD women held a lowly place. There was a rabbinic saying, “Let the words of law be burned rather than delivered to women.” That is, sacred Jewish law ought not to be wasted on women.
A daily prayer in the Jewish prayer book thanked God, King of the Universe “for not having made me a Gentile … slave … or woman.” Women could not even appear as witnesses in a Jewish court of law.
Yet, of the women highlighted in the accounts of Jesus’ final days, Mary Magdalene “out of whom Jesus had cast seven demons,” is given a leading place.
Luke gives us the background: “After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support Jesus and the apostles out of their own means” (Luke 8:1-3).
Writing of Jesus’ crucifixion itself Matthew says: “Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons” (Matthew 27:55,56).
Mark tells the same story, identifying Mary Magdalene but adding “Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there” — at the cross (Mark 15:40,41). We can imagine that from the elevation of his cross Jesus drew comfort from them at a distance, even as the crowds milled about, jeering and mocking. But their being present as women would have been dangerous.
According to Mark, after Jesus expired and his body was laid in a borrowed tomb, “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid” (Mark 15:47). This can only mean that during that whole perilous time the women kept themselves close to the action.
And, according to Mark, they were diligent in attending to some unfinished business with regard to the burial of the dead: “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so they might go to anoint Jesus body” (Mark 16:1). This was apparently after sundown on the Sabbath, and they hoped to finish their ministrations at sunrise the next morning.
Mark also reports the resurrected Christ’s first appearance, keeping Mary Magdalene in the spotlight: “When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons” (Mark 16:9).
And Luke reports that Mary Magdalene was the first one to report to the Apostles thus: “When (the women) came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the others with them who told (of Jesus’ appearance) to the apostles” (Luke 24:9,10).
Most striking of all, John gives exclusive credit to Mary Magdalene for carrying the good news of Jesus’ resurrection back to the apostles: “Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: ‘I have seen the Lord’” (John 20:18). That made her the first bearer of the good news of the gospel.
We can’t sidestep the message all four reporters of the gospel must have intended as they told their story: These were noble women, and in their actions at least, fearless in following Jesus. And they stood steady when the test of loyalty confronted them.
Foremost among them was Mary Magdalene whom Jesus had delivered from the torments of the realm of darkness and had given her the freedom to serve. How can any Christ follower forget that she showed her gratitude in living out a bold loyalty to her Master and she put that loyalty into venturesome action?