The Women of Holy Week, Part 1: Why the Women Matter

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

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 are the dozen Jewish men chosen by Jesus to be his closest companions and first apostles, symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Women are an unspecified number of female disciples who also followed Jesus, welcoming him into their homes, financing his ministry, studying his teachings, and often instructing the Twelve through their acts of faithfulness and devotion. 

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.  It is during Holy Week that the stories of these women really shine. 

So for the duration of Holy Week, I’ll be reposting a series I first published in 2012 about the women who loved Jesus through his Passion. The series has been updated and edited, and I’ll include some fresh art and ideas. We will reflect on the woman who anointed Jesus at Bethany (Thursday), the suffering of Mary of Nazareth (Friday), the women who waited through a long Sabbath before heading out to the tomb on Sunday morning (Saturday), and the story of Mary Magdalene (Sunday). 

It is easy to dismiss the women of Holy Week, to say their presence at critical moments in the Easter story is inconsequential, holding no significance in modern-day conversations about gender equity in the Church.  But I’m not convinced it’s an accident that the first person to declare that Jesus had risen from the dead (to a group of skeptical men!) was a woman. I’m not convinced it’s unremarkable that God chose a woman to anoint the Messiah with oil and a mother to hear his cries from the cross. 

When the rest of the world had given up on Jesus for failing to look like the liberator they expected, the women stuck around.  They stuck around because before Jesus was a king, Jesus was their friend. And friends love one another through uncertainty, pain, fear, disappointment and even death. 

Jesus inaugurated his new kingdom in the presence of women. And yet in many of our churches, women are still treated as second-class kingdom citizens, prohibited because of their gender from being the first in their congregations to stand at a pulpit and declare, “He has risen!” 

So it’s as important as ever that we tell these women's stories. 

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Dorothy Sayers’ essay, “Are Women Human?”  

"Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as ‘The women, God help us!’ or ‘The ladies, God bless them!’; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious.

There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and Jesus that there was anything ‘funny’ about woman’s nature. But we might easily deduce it from His contemporaries, and from His prophets before Him, and from His Church to this day. Women are not human; nobody shall persuade that they are human; let them say what they like, we will not believe, though One rose from the dead."

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