What We Learn from the Women at the Tomb

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

I don’t know about you, but I get to this season of the liturgical year and I’m often surprised when looking at the lectionary to be reminded of how long the Easter season lasts. It’s a bit baffling that this ever shocks me, given the fact that the length of the season is unchanging and I’m a cradle Catholic who has been experiencing seven-week Easter celebrations for over three decades…and yet, here we are, with me once again pleasantly surprised and delighted by the fact that the Easter season is longer than the Lenten one.

One reason that I am especially glad the Easter season lasts 50 days is that it gives all of the faithful plenty of time to not only celebrate the resurrection of Christ but also to learn from his words, actions and teaching during this time. It also gives us time to learn from the words, actions and teachings of Christ’s followers during these precious weeks that they had with their risen Lord. Indeed, the Acts of the Apostles forms a large pedagogical focus during the Mass readings of the Easter season.

Even before we get to the Acts of the Apostles, however, we have much to learn from a particular group of Christ’s followers: the women at the tomb.

The women at the tomb refer to the women who returned to Jesus’s tomb to lovingly anoint his body in the aftermath of his crucifixion and death, only to find him missing. As in many stories found throughout the Gospels, each of the evangelists tells a slightly different account of Easter morning, including who found the tomb empty. In Matthew, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” travel together (this other Mary could have been Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, or Mary the wife of Clopas), while in Mark three specific women are present: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. In Luke, “the women” are named generally but not specifically, and in the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene visits the tomb alone. 

Some people might be troubled by the discrepancy in the accounts, but I’m not. As Catholics, we take the Bible seriously but not literally; our aim when reading Scripture isn’t to gain an exhaustive court transcript of the events and circumstances exactly as they happened, but rather, to receive an overall picture of what occurred in the story of Jesus and his followers. We want to learn from their ways of being in the world, and we don’t necessarily need all the stories to line up exactly to achieve such an end.

For instance, we have much to learn from the women at the tomb as a collective group, because despite being identified differently in each Gospel, they display consistent attributes through all four versions of the Easter story.

Here are three important lessons from the women at the tomb:

Carry On

Let’s face it: it probably felt like hope was lost to Mary, Mary Magdalene, Salome and the other women approaching Jesus’s tomb on Sunday morning. Here, they had not only just witnessed the brutal crucifixion of their friend, son, and rabbi, but they also had to be wondering what would happen to his message. They believed him to be God, and now he was…dead?! In hindsight, with the whole story in our minds – life, death and resurrection – it’s easy to forget how confused, scared and sad the women must have felt before witnessing the risen Christ. Even still, they carried on. They didn’t hide in their houses; they didn’t isolate themselves from the world; they didn’t stop loving Jesus. They woke up, donned their cloaks, and headed to the tomb. In this way, the women show us that no matter what trouble we face, we can put one foot in front of the other and just keep doing what we know to be right.

Keep Loving

Much like it would have been easy for the women to be paralyzed by despair and retreat to their homes, it also would have been easy for them to turn their focus inward and prioritize attending to their own grief over attending to the needs of a deceased body. As far as they knew, that’s all Jesus was at that point, after all. But even as Jesus’s human body clearly died on Good Friday, the women continued to love his physical form and put caring for it above all the other tasks that faced them on a given Sunday morning (which was probably a lot of tasks, given the manifold tasks that faced women in a pre-running-water, no electricity era). The women demonstrate that, when in doubt, we can keep engaging in loving action.

Speak the Truth

Even as they were overjoyed at having heard of the risen Christ from the angel in the tomb, the women had to have been at least a tad bit afraid to share the news with others. Maybe they questioned what they saw (I mean, an angel?! Could they have been hallucinating, or imaging things?). Maybe they worried that no one would believe them. Maybe they worried that Jesus’s male disciples would resent not having received the news first. I think that all these thoughts would have crossed my mind. But even if they crossed the women’s minds, the thoughts didn’t stop them from speaking the truth, from telling others what they had witnessed. Let this be a reminder to all of us to use our voices, even when we are scared.

The women at the tomb witnessed to Jesus, our risen Lord, back in ancient Jerusalem. Now, nearly two thousand years later, they witness to us, showing through their consistent, loving, truthful action what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus in truly the darkest moments. We would do well to listen.     

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