“Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Matthew 27: 55-56).
They were there, as they had been there throughout Jesus’ ministry. The names of most are lost to us, with the exception of two or three.
They had supported Jesus and the other, more celebrated, disciples: provided food, shelter, shared out of what they had, whether it was much or little. And when Jesus turned his face to go to Jerusalem, they followed him to that great city.
They saw the acclamation he received as he came down the Mount of Olives and heard much of the teaching he did in the week that followed (though not all, as they would not have been allowed into the men’s court of the temple).
They both provided for him and sat at his feet in the evenings at Bethany. One of them anointed his head with oil, letting her prophetic actions speak louder than words: This Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the true King of Israel.
That the other, more famous, disciples misunderstood her actions didn’t strike any of them as unusual. Besides, weren’t prophets always misunderstood in their own country?
Jesus knew what she meant; the women understood the meaning of his words and saw the truth on his face.
They were there, these women, these other disciples, to the end. Unnoticed during his arrest, his trial and his sentencing by Pilate, their presence is attested to in all of the Gospels at the Place of the Skull, that killing field for crucifixion.
They were watching, we are told, from a distance. And in that watching they become the witnesses that God would use to proclaim that this Jesus, the beloved Son of God, truly suffered and truly died.
He was fully human in his forsaken agony, but even as he cried out his desolation to his Father in heaven, he still was not totally alone. The women, his faithful followers, were there.
The Bible is full of strong women, women who do amazing things, who give of themselves and pour out their lives for their husbands, their children and their communities.
Judges and prophetesses, queens and princesses, widows and childless daughters-in-law, we note their stories and wonder how they could have borne so much.
Some names we know, as a few come out of the shadows when their stories intertwine with that of the major male players; but most are anonymous, or only recognized as the wife or daughter of this or that man.
But the strongest women of all, I believe, must be these women who are there when their Lord was crucified. It causes me to tremble; it should cause all of us to tremble at the quiet depth of strength these women possessed, watching that most agonizing of deaths.
The men whose names we know, famous as The Twelve, they had no stomach for this watching and waiting. But these mostly unnamed women knew how to attend to the dying.
Even when all they can do is be there, bearing witness so that the truth of the matter can be told and never forgotten; even when it seems that the only story to be told will be that of a dearly beloved Teacher who was cruelly sent to a death he did not deserve; even so, they fulfill the role to which God had called them.
They watch and pray with Jesus, not for one hour, but for a whole day, until he breathes his last. And when the darkness is rapidly encroaching upon them, they watch his precious body being laid hastily in a tomb.
It is the witness of these strong women that we honor every time we proclaim the Lord’s death and resurrection, every time we open the Bible to the story of the Passion. Because they were strong, steadfast and defiant of the forces of the Empire, they could go on to tell the story of what happened on that Friday we have come to call Good.
Their witness enabled the Passion story to be told, written and passed on through the generations and centuries.
They are the Christ-bearers to the nations, making disciples as the events that they witnessed are read and told, again and again. And while it is the men who are credited with being the evangelists, it is the witness of these strong women that makes it possible to have any story to tell.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Yes, these women say; yes, we were there.
We will tell you what we saw, on that day and three days later, when the stone was rolled away and the horror of that Friday was replaced with the surprising joy of meeting Jesus on the road.
Centuries later, we who read their witness must give thanks to God for these strong women. Truly, without them, we would have no gospel story at all.
Erma Wolf is an ordained pastor seeking a call to an ELCA parish. She is also part of the adjunct faculty for the Institute of Lutheran Theology.