I am my church’s delegate to our town’s ecumenical Clergy Association. Among many other things this means I’m one of the seven “preachers” in the ecumenical Good Friday service today. This year I was assigned the topic “Women waiting at the tomb,” and am preceded by the following reading from the Bible. Almost all of my professional preaching is done one-to-one, and this coupled with the fact that I believe Good Friday’s meaning is inexorably linked with the exalting rebirth of Easter, makes this occasion a bit awkward for me. Everyone lines up in their vestments and regalia and there am I, the plainclothesman in the bunch. But I believe staunchly in ecumenical solidarity of all types, especially among us Christians, so there I am. And to everyone’s credit, I am received with respect. I appreciate that! So below my assigned Bible verse find my twelve minute speech for today. I am up last in the two hour service.
“And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him: among which was Mary Magdeline, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s children… And there was Mary Magdeline, and the other Mary sitting over against the sepulcher.” Matthew 27:55,56,61
As Jesus’ mother Mary was the first to receive Jesus in her heart and faithfully serve him, these Marys are the last to stay with him, still faithfully serving him, with hearts overflowing in love. As that initial Mary accepted Jesus’ entry in this world with the amazing comment, “be it unto me according to your will,” I imagine these Marys, leaning against the dismal sepulcher, found this situation even harder to accept. How was this possible? How could they go on without him?
Many women who have grieved graveside can understand how they felt. Jesus knew that despair too, which is why he made a point of raising the only son of a widow right during a funeral procession on the road. Jesus knew women, and could read them clearly, like the Samaritan woman by the well with five husbands. He trusted women; he began his ministry when his mother told him to, by turning the water into wine. He defended women, like when he told the crowd that, “he that was without sin could cast the first stone” at the adulterous woman. And he honored women as the ones that leaven “the whole lump.”
So it is no surprise that it is these woman that remain fast at his side after seeing their fondest hopes buried. Besides excruciating hand wringing, what were they thinking about? Were they swapping reminiscences of his profound witness among them?
Mary Magdeline had much to remember about why she loved him so. I would like to quote what another dutiful Mary with a bursting heart wrote 2000 years later about Mary Magdeline’s experience with Jesus. Permit me to provide a flashback as written in the Christian Science textbook, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, by Mary Baker Eddy:
“It is related in the seventh chapter of Luke’s Gospel that Jesus was once the honored guest of a certain Pharisee, by name Simon, though he was quite unlike Simon the disciple. While they were at meat, an unusual incident occurred, as if to interrupt the scene of Oriental festivity. A “strange woman” came in. Heedless of the fact that she was debarred from such a place and such society, especially under the stern rules of rabbinical law, as positively as if she were a Hindu pariah intruding upon the household of a high-caste Brahman, this woman (Mary Magdalene, as she has since been called) approached Jesus. According to the custom of those days, he reclined on a couch with his head towards the table and his bare feet away from it. It was therefore easy for the Magdalen to come behind the couch and reach his feet. She bore an alabaster jar containing costly and fragrant oil, — sandal oil perhaps, which is in such common use in the East. Breaking the sealed jar, she perfumed Jesus’ feet with the oil, wiping them with her long hair, which hung loosely about her shoulders, as was customary with women of her grade.
Did Jesus spurn the woman? Did he repel her adoration? No! He regarded her compassionately. Nor was this all. Knowing what those around him were saying in their hearts, especially his host, — that they were wondering why, being a prophet, the exalted guest did not at once detect the woman’s immoral status and bid her depart, — knowing this, Jesus rebuked them with a short story or parable. He described two debtors, one for a large sum and one for a smaller, who were released from their obligations by their common creditor. “Which of them will love him most?” was the Master’s question to Simon the Pharisee; and Simon re‐plied, “He to whom he forgave most.” Jesus approved the answer, and so brought home the lesson to all, following it with that remarkable declaration to the woman, “Thy sins are forgiven.”
Why did he thus summarize her debt to divine Love? Had she repented and reformed, and did his insight detect this unspoken moral uprising? She bathed his feet with her tears before she anointed them with the oil. In the absence of other proofs, was her grief sufficient evidence to warrant the expectation of her repentance, reformation, and growth in wisdom? Certainly there was encouragement in the mere fact that she was showing her affection for a man of undoubted goodness and purity, who has since been rightfully regarded as the best man that ever trod this
planet. Her reverence was unfeigned, and it was manifested towards one who was soon, though they knew it not, to lay down his mortal existence in behalf of all sinners, that through his word and works they might be redeemed from sensuality and sin.
Which was the higher tribute to such ineffable affection, the hospitality of the Pharisee or the contrition of the Magdalen? This query Jesus answered by rebuking self-righteousness and declaring the absolution of the penitent. He even said that this poor woman had done what his rich entertainer had neglected to do, — wash and anoint his guest’s feet, a special sign of Oriental courtesy.
Here is suggested a solemn question, a question indicated by one of the needs of this age. Do [Christians] seek Truth as Simon sought the Saviour, through material conservatism and for personal homage? Jesus told Simon that such seekers as he gave small reward in return for the spiritual purgation which came through the Messiah. If [Christians] are like Simon, then it must be said of them also that they love little.
On the other hand, do [we] show [our] regard for Truth, or Christ, by [our] genuine repentance, by [our] broken hearts, expressed by meekness and human affection, as did this woman? If so, then it may be said of [us], as Jesus said of the unwelcome visitor, that [we] indeed love much, because much is forgiven [us].” (SH 362-364)
So we are reminded by this reading that Mary Magdeline knew before that fateful Friday that Jesus forgave her sins. He had already gone out on a limb for her so to speak, and she must have loved him all the more for it. Now he had similarly stood up for everyone, to the point of being nailed to a cross.
Sitting there despondently, she might have also been thinking of Pilate’s question, “What is Truth,” which Jesus had not answered. The women, huddled at the sepulcher, could have answered that question. They knew what had made their hearts burn by the way, they knew what caused and cultivated their faith, and what their eyes had seen. They had seen the sick healed, devils cast out, and understanding enlightened. These women comprehended the import of the Christ. They knew that the Christ must be Truth itself! This is why they held such a somber, grief stricken vigil at the grave. Oh, how could Truth be dead?
And where was everyone else? Where were the eleven disciples, and the original seventy that Jesus had sent forth? Was fidelity left only in the hands of these inconsequential women?
On this mournful occasion, we are reminded by the humble witness of these women lingering at the sepulcher, what the face of devotion looks like. There is wrenching pain in the fact that our sins are forgiven at much too high a price. We can only respond by loving much, as the Magdeline is commended for doing. We too must stand by the Christ always, but especially through any disheartening gloom. At least we know that the darkest hour is before the dawn.
And with every dawn, may we be as loyal as those that sat with him during his darkest hour. And may we do more than that. Let’s accept the duty and privilege of fully and faithfully following the Christ’s commands in word and deed, with devotion in every breath. Is our fidelity keeping presence with the Christ? Is our reverence unfeigned? If so, than we too, indeed, love much.