Along with countless other Christians, the church where I serve celebrated Easter on Sunday. The Gospel reading for this year comes from Matthew. It’s an account of two women who go to the tomb where Jesus has been buried. Upon arriving, they find themselves in the midst of an earthquake and in the presence of an angel—a fact, we’re led to believe is causally related. The angel tells the two women that Jesus isn’t in the tomb, because he has been raised up. The angel proceeds to tell the women to go and tell Jesus’ disciples about his resurrection, and then to journey on to Galilee, where Jesus will meet them.
Easter can be a difficult Sunday to preach. For one thing, everybody already knows how the story ends, having most likely heard it multiple times over the years. And for another thing, it’s easy for the preacher to despair, thinking that everything that can be said about Easter has already been said. The whole thing can be rather dispiriting.
But a couple of things struck me about the Matthew reading this year. First, the women, who are major players in Matthew’s version of the Easter story, don’t have any lines to deliver. They don’t speak at all in the text. But if you think about it, in a 2,000-year-old text written in a decidedly patriarchal culture, it makes a certain amount of sense that the author of the Gospel wouldn’t have the women say anything. They’re women, after all. What could they possibly have to say, right?
On the other hand, though, it’s even more interesting to note that the story includes women as the first witnesses of the resurrection—and not men. Matthew also records that it was women who gathered at Jesus’ execution, after Jesus’ main disciple, Peter, had already denied even knowing him. Given the patriarchal nature of the culture in which Jesus’ story takes place, it is stunning to realize that in Matthew’s telling none of the male disciples are anywhere near the tomb either.
That Matthew chose not to give any lines to the women in his version of the Easter story is quickly overshadowed by the fact that Matthew places women … and not men … at the center of Christianity’s most important narrative. That is to say, women are the first bearers of the good news of Easter, when the men are nowhere to be found. Those who follow Jesus would do well to remember that women aren’t just set pieces in Jesus’ little drama. In Matthew’s case, the story turns on the faithfulness of women as a contrast to the faithlessness of men.
The second thing that jumped out at me was that the two women who go to the tomb while the men are cowering in various hideouts, nursing their Bud Lights and wondering how they ever got talked into this whole Jesus-thing in the first place are named Mary—“Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” (28:1). Hot take: How crappy would it be to be known as “the other Mary?” Who, while in middle school, dreaming about all the possibilities for vocation and identity in the world, aspires to being “the other Mary?”
Still, being the other Mary, at least in this case might not be such a bad thing—at least when we consider the awful treatment Mary Magdalene has had at the hands of church historians through the millennia. Traditionally, Mary Magdalene has been falsely accused of being a prostitute. The bible never calls Mary Magdalene an ancient Near Eastern sex worker, but that connection has apparently always felt too narratively juicy to pass up: Jesus’ bona fides as a world-class forgiver are surely bolstered by his mercy toward a woman of the evening. The story takes on even more dramatic tones when taking into consideration the massive swing from wayward woman to devoted convert. It’s like news stories that are too good not to be true.
Understood from a purely narrative standpoint, Mary Magdalene’s transformation from ugly sex caterpillar to beautiful pious butterfly is compelling. It would be understandable—though still historically inaccurate—on just that basic level. Bad history, but good theater.
But the whole issue becomes more sinister when we take into account the apparent need to sex up a central figure in the Gospel account—just because of her gender. Notice that historians seem not to take such a prurient interest in any of the male characters in the Gospels. Men in the traditional telling of Jesus’ story may be crooks and bastards, but they’re honest crooks and bastards—which is to say, they’re awful in non-sexual ways. But think for a moment how often it is that women, throughout the bible, are portrayed as fallen, or temptresses—always implicitly posing a risk to male purity and virtue. Eve, Hagar, Rahab, Bathsheeba, Jezebel, Gomer, Mary Magdalene … to name a few. We call it “slut-shaming” today.
But here’s the thing: The way we talk about women in the bible informs how we see the women in our lives. If they are but potential stumbling blocks to otherwise principled male rectitude, women don’t possess the dignity most people believe is inherent in human life. Consequently, women can be abused, or underpaid, or ignored, or exploited, or any one of a hundred other thing that makes the stories men tell themselves more palatable and self-aggrandizing.
How we tell the story is sometimes just as important as the story itself. Among other things, Easter ought to signal a rebirth of women as heroes of our sacred narratives, not always as antagonists.
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