Women at the Cross
by Elaine Storkey
There were many bystanders at the public execution on that first Good Friday. Some came for the experience; the spectacle of human torture and death is magnetic for those with an appetite for cruelty. Others came because it was their job. They were not phased by the ugly business of crucifixion, and settled down to vie for the leftover clothes; dead men wouldn't be needing them. Others came out of hatred, or guilt, or fear, needing to be sure that there was no question here of survival. But separate from the noise, the jeering, and the bureacracy of death a group of women came to wait and mourn the death.
It seems that the women were the last at the Cross and first at the tomb. Even after it was all over, and the corpse was pulled down off the gallows, the women still kept watch, still waited, doggedly following the soldiers to see where the body would be laid. For when the Sabbath rest was over they would come to embalm and pay their last loving respects. So something very significant must have marked the relationship between them and Jesus. They had always been utterly tenacious in their loyalty. They had given whatever they had, whether it was financial support, friendship, hospitality, even companionship on his travels. Several of the women had left their homes and followed him on the arduous final journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. Their unswervering commitment was the more marked when we compare it with that of the men disciples. For all theirhardiness and brave declarations of love, the men had showed less fortitude. None of them had even managed to stay awake when Jesus had asked for prayer on his night of greatest loneliness; they had slept whilst he struggled with terror and sweated fear like blood. And when one man had betrayed him, another had denied ever having known him, and all had left him, the women remained, taking great risks to be with him to the end.
There is something here which needs an explanation. It is not enough to suggest that the women were merely being characteristically dutiful and supportive. They were stepping outside many cultural expectations. Women took their identity from a strong male religious tradition. They had few personal religious obligations. They weren't required to learn Torah. They didn't go past the Gentile porch in the temple. They weren't obliged to attend synagogue worship. Instead, their vital contribution to the religious way of life was its upkeep and continuance in the home, and this was highly respected. So why would a group of ordinary women break with such a powerful and honoured domestic tradition to hang around with a preacher and a group of fishermen? What, brought, Joanna, for example, the wife of King Herod's household manager to be part of the travelling company of this itinerant rabbi? And on this day of all days there was the coming Sabbath to prepare for, the family meal to organise, the purification rites to observe. But instead the women go together to unholy ground, outside the City, and mourn at the Roman execution of a convicted criminal.
Why was it that Jesus inspired in them such loyalty?
Many of the women near the Cross had long been drawn to Jesus. For as a religious leader he was quite extraordinary. He had never been too proud to be vulnerable, to ask for help from women, or to listen to their needs. He had readily taught them, encouraged them, publicly honoured them, even when they were despised by others. One woman who had been taken in the act of adultery had been saved by him from being stoned, when he had urged her accusers to first look carefully at their own lives. He had asked a five-times married Samaritan woman at a well for a drink, heedless of the race and gender divisions that separated them. His conversation so inspired her that she became the first evangelist. He had healed a woman with menstrual problems who in desperation had ignored the restrictions placed upon her and joined the crowd to get close. Many of those who wept now would have remembered his compassion then; how there was no embarrassment at this woman's period problems, nor any rebuke for the fact that by touching his clothing this woman had made him ritually unclean. He simply affirmed her faith.
Some of the women by the Cross had already made public demonstration of their love for Jesus. Like the Mary who had become very emotional when she saw him at a dinner.To the consternation of all she had stroked his feet; sobbing and massaging them with perfume, before letting down her hair to dry them. Her action caused great offence to the company, but Jesus refused to spurn her generosity. For she had done a beautiful thing for him, he said; she had prepared his body for buriel. Yet even she could have had no real inkling then of the tears she would be weeping now. She could not have guessed that the body she had so lovingly caressed would have to endure this agonising death.
The women who stayed close to Jesus represented all those whose lives had been changed by him; Mary of Magdala, Mary his mother, the Cyro-Phonecian woman, the Widow of Nain, Martha and Mary of Bethany, the woman crippled from birth, Salome, Mary, the mother of Joses and James. They represented those mothers of Salem who had brought their children to Jesus with the disciples' disapproval but his blessing. Jesus had shown them all consideration not only in his actions but also in his teaching. His parables were illustrated by cameos from women's lives: baking bread, looking for lost coins, sharing with neighbours, grinding corn. And as his life drained away his last thoughts were for the wellbeing of a woman, his mother, as he gives her into the care of his friend. So the women were loyal for good reason. Dorothy L Sayers, that perceptive observer of human character summed it up:
Perhaps it was no wonder the women were first at the tomb and last at the cross. They had never known a man like this Man - there never has been such another. A prophet and a teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized, who never made sick jokes about them , never treated them as "The women, God help us!" or "The ladies , God bless them", who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them...'
On a human level we can see why on that first Good Friday the women stayed faithful to the man who had accepted them as they were. But there was more to it than that. For the women had seen beyond Jesus the man- to the very Christ for whom they were waiting. The Samaritan woman at the well recognized him as Messiah. His dear friend Martha, the one who has given her name to domestic anxiety, made her own powerful confession of faith: 'I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God who was to come into the world.' This Jesus was not only friend he was also Saviour.
What kept those women by the Cross was certainly not duty nor defiance. Yet at the end nor was it loyalty. It was love: the love of God which Christ embodied, which had brought them freedom and forgiveness. It was the love which spoke to their hearts and gave them courage; the love which would take them beyond death, beyond the hell of this hour, into resurrection and eternal life. To the women the choice was easy. For once they had experienced that love there was nowhere else to go.
Elaine is a writer & broadcaster, lecturer and author. She was President of Tearfund from 1996 to 2014, has lectured in many continents, is a member of Newnham College, Cambridge and an Ambassador for Restored. She served on The General Synod of the C of E for 28 years, until 2015.. Her most recent book is “Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and Overcoming Violence Against Women”. elainestorkey.com