On more than one occasion, Jesus explained to His disciples that He would be rejected and killed — but that He would rise again after three days. The disciples did not fully understand this, as they were never introduced to the concept of a suffering and dying Messiah. Not surprisingly, when Jesus was arrested, “… all the disciples left Him and fled” (Matthew 26:56).
While the male disciples deserted Jesus at His death, several women followers and supporters from Galilee followed Him to the cross. Matthew and Mark highlight Mary Magdalene and a certain Mary, the mother of James and Joseph/Joses as well as of Jesus Himself (cf. Mark 6:3). Matthew further gives prominence to the mother of Zebedee’s sons (cf. Matthew 20:20), while Mark makes a mention of Salome.
Now these women followers did not understand the full import of Jesus’ teaching about His death and resurrection either. But they followed Him anyway. They are featured in the narratives as the primary witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and the empty tomb, and were commissioned to report the news of the resurrection to the other disciple.
It is of vital importance, then, to look at some of these women in their relentless commitment to Jesus, and draw out a few significant lessons for our Christian lives. Obviously, we cannot truly know their thoughts, emotions or words as they witnessed the crucifixion and burial of their Lord — but we can probably put a few pieces together to see how these enormous events affected their lives.
The women who followed Jesus did not understand the full import of His teaching about His death and resurrection, but they followed Him anyway
For the sake of brevity, we will look at just three of them.
Mary of Nazareth, wife (and most probably, a widow by then) of Joseph the carpenter, probably considers it the saddest day of her life as she witnesses what the Roman soldiers are doing to her son. She is unable to take her eyes off Him.
Her mind drifts over the many memories of the past 30 plus years. From the moment the angel revealed to her that she would be pregnant, to that magnificent night in the stable in Bethlehem, we can imagine that she replays the entire journey. All of it seems to be ending at the cross!
As she stands by, unable to help, her mind goes back to the time she lost her Son among the pilgrims, only to find Him debating with the scholars in the temple. She weeps bitterly as she remembers what her 12-year-old lad had said then: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). These words that were etched into her memory would often send shivers down her spine.
From a distance, as she watches her Son die, she perhaps understands, now more than ever, what those words mean. In the midst of all of the grief, the prophecy of Simeon from years ago crosses her mind ― alas, it was like a sword had pierced her soul (Luke 2:35).
Mary’s journey to the cross is about her coming to terms with the fact that her Son has always been about His Father’s business — not least on the cross.
Salome, the wife of the wealthy fisherman Zebedee and the mother of James and John, is probably not looking at Jesus as she stands close to the site of the crucifixion. Her eyes, rather, focus more on the two men hanging on either side of Jesus as she recalls the question she had asked him.
Not too long ago, she had mustered up all her courage to ask Jesus if her sons could have the special privilege of sitting on Jesus’ right and left in His Kingdom (Matthew 20:20-28). But now, the essence of that question is graphically displayed before her eyes. Jesus had warned her that she could not fathom what she was asking.
Now, as she sees the two men crucified on Jesus’ right and left, she wonders whether she is truly willing to allow her sons to follow Jesus, especially if it means the same suffering. The words of Jesus’ response to her sons would’ve hit her like a ton of bricks as she recollects them, “You will drink my cup…” (Matthew 20:23).
Mary had to come to terms with the fact that her Son has always been about His Father’s business — not least on the cross
Salome’s journey to the cross is about her coming to terms with the fact that she must surrender the lives of those she holds most dear.
Mary Magdalene, the woman from whom Jesus cast out seven demons, probably keeps staring helplessly at Jesus hanging on the cross. The One who saved her life and for whom she had given her all is being snatched away from her.
It is not hard to imagine her standing, with her heart gripped by fear, that she will once again have nothing in life. She cannot believe what she is seeing. She sees Jesus take His last breath, and when everybody goes home, she stays behind to see where they will place Him.
Mary Magdalene watches closely as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus give Jesus an honourable burial. With the Sabbath fast approaching, she goes home to begin her own time of rest and worship. She cannot help but think only about Jesus’ body and resolves to return to the tomb to properly care for the body. She can hardly wait for the sun to rise on the third day and rushes to the tomb very early in the morning.
But when she finds it empty, her hopelessness turns into utter despair (John 20:13). It is only when she hears Jesus call her name — “Mary” — that she recognises Him. This is when she stops weeping and turns to her Lord and Saviour.
Mary Magdalene’s journey to the cross and the empty tomb is about her coming to terms with the fact that she need not see mere death and loss anymore, but hope and life beyond as well.
As you read the gospel narratives about the death and resurrection of Jesus, place yourselves with these women who watched these epoch-making events. What would your story be?
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