I’ve heard “it was the women who stayed . . .” advanced as an affirmation of the superior character of the women who followed Jesus. “It was the women who stayed” and watched and bore witness to the horrors of the crucifixion, who were there at the deposition from the cross, who embalmed Jesus’ body quickly just before the beginning of the Sabbath, who went to the tomb early on the first day of the week. This affirmation has been on my mind in the last few days, perhaps understandably as we are heading right up to Easter. It’s on my mind today, on what will be Easter Vigil for many Christians, including the ones at the Corydon Presbyterian Church. [This year,
sunrise comes uncommonly early it seemed wise as well as Great Traditional to the Worship Committee to organize an Easter Vigil instead of the customary Sunrise Service.]
When I Googled “it was the women who stayed,” I came up with a number of sermons and talks that used this fact as ammunition in an argument for some kind of structural change in the church. It has seemed worth mentioning in support of ordination of women, for instance (as in this article by Elizabeth Johnson in Boston College magazine, 2004), or of GLBT folk (as in this sermon in Whosoever, an online magazine for GLBT Christians).
I confess: I have my doubts about this appraisal of the meaning of the women’s actions. I don’t want to suggest that the women weren’t courageous or devoted, of course. I don’t want to suggest that they didn’t love Jesus, or that they weren’t out early on Sunday morning with spices and so on as part of some routine. But I do wonder whether it wasn’t paradoxically less dangerous for the women to have stayed than it would have been for the men, and less surprising.
I wonder whether, then as now, soldiers of the occupation army weren’t more likely to profile men as candidates for suspicion, search, and seizure, while being more inclined to dismiss and ignore women, at least while on the job. This attitude would have made it safer for the women to stay.
And I wonder whether, then as throughout history, women did not have some special responsibility for the care of the body after death. Although this has been obscured in a culture that relies on professionals to make the visage of death presentable, the care of the body after death has been women’s work in most cultures for most of history. The women may have had a special responsibility to stay precisely because they were women.
If that is the case, it could mean, as well, that the power structures of the ancient world, which included some quota of domination along the lines of sexual difference, contributed to a situation in which women, rather than men, not only could become but were bound to become the signal witnesses to the crucifixion and ultimately the first witnesses to the resurrection. Women not only could become, but might have been bound to become, the first tellers of the foundational story of the Church. Like the Psalmist said a long time ago, “The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” (Psalm 118:22) It stands to reason. Whatever one they hadn’t rejected was already being used, to stabilize a world that needed (and still needs) to be turned upside down, in which the first are becoming last and the last are becoming first and everything is being made new.