When referring to the earliest followers of Jesus, the Gospel writers often speak of two groups of disciples: the Twelve and the Women. The Twelve refer to the twelve Jewish men chosen by Jesus to be his closest companions and first apostles, symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Women refer to an unspecified number of female disciples who also followed Jesus, welcoming him into their homes, financing his ministry, and often teaching the Twelve through their acts of faithfulness and love. Just as Jesus predicted, most of the Twelve abandoned him at his death (John 16:32). But the women remained by his side—through his death, burial, and resurrection. This is the second installment of a four-part series about the women who surrounded Jesus during his passion. (See Part 1: The Woman at Bethany Anoints Jesus, and Part 2: Mary’s Heart is Pierced Again.) The final installment will run on Easter Sunday.
“The women who had come with him from Galilee followed,
and they saw the tomb on how his body was laid.
Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.
On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.”
– Luke 23:55-56
The final hours of crucifixion day had been frantic ones.
The Twelve had abandoned Jesus, leaving the Women with a body to bury. According to Jewish law, no work could be done once the sun set, so they had to hurry.
Thankfully, Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus, donated a tomb for the burial, and Nicodemus, a Pharisee known to engage in the theological discussions with Jesus under the cover of night, donated myrrh and aloes to cover the stench. Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb, but the important job of anointing it with spices would have to wait until the Sabbath was over.
Anyone who has observed a traditional Jewish Sabbath knows the strange tempo of hurriedness followed by stillness that fills the hours just before and after sunset. All meals must be prepared ahead of time, all tasks completed before the day of rest begins. Whatever one has left undone at sunset must remain undone for a full 24 hours. During the Sabbath, one cannot cook or lift or mend or conduct business, and so without adequate preparation, one can feel displaced, incomplete, even helpless.
What a terrible Sabbath this must have been for the women who followed Jesus! It was their traditional role as women to anoint a body with perfumes and spices, but they hadn’t had time. They had been busy finding a decent place to bury their friend and teacher so that his body would not have been left to the elements by disinterested Roman guards. They must have felt such a heavy, powerful sense of incompleteness, such a profound lack of closure. Their work was not yet done, but still, they had to wait.
Did they pray together?
Did they sit in stunned silence, eyes tired and heavy from weeping?
Did they rehash Friday’s events in agonizing detail?
Did they curse the Twelve who had abandoned Jesus?
Did they whisper about that story the rabbi once told of a temple being rebuilt in three days?
We have little information about what the women did on this, the darkest day in Christian history. Only Mark gives us a glimpse of what was being discussed in the hours leading up to Resurrection Day:
“[The women] had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?”
They were worried about the logistics.
They had no idea how, without the help of men, they could ever move away that heavy stone.
But as soon as the blue light of dawn seeped through the windows in the morning, the women rose and, in an act of radical friendship and faith, went to the tomb anyway...