Bearing Witness: The Women of EasterApr 04, 2023
Artwork by Harlem Renaissance painter, William Johnson
When we endure suffering, to have someone truly see, and to remain with us in the midst of it, is a powerful thing.
Life and living is a joyful thing, and we celebrate that during Holy Week. The season of Easter arrives in the midst of blooming flowers, the sparkle of the sun on raindrops in trees, decorated eggs, and the arrival of the headiness of spring. Yet even in the most joyful of all seasons on the liturgical calendar, we remember the week leading up to Easter. We honor the truth that life and living is also a painful thing, and that to live and to love is to suffer.
The focus of Good Friday and the days leading up to Easter is on the suffering of Jesus born of Mary and to Joseph, and the meaning of the crucifixion for Christian faith. Also central to the narrative and its meaning were those who bore witness to the crucifixion and who remained to watch to the suffering of Jesus.
Matthew and Mark observe that “many women were there looking on from a distance” and go on to name those witnesses: Jesus’s mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and John, and Salome the mother of the sons of Zebedee. (Matthew 27:55-56; Mark 15:40-41). The Gospel of John also names four women and additionally includes the “disciple whom he (Jesus) loved” among the witnesses. (John 19:25-26). Luke notes the presence of some women watching but excludes their names altogether.
These women offered their embodied presence to Jesus as a final act of ministry and love. Matthew and Mark include the detail that the women who remained at the scene of the crucifixion “had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided (diakonein) for him.” This verb (diakoneo) often refers to humble tasks of serving, tending to the physical needs of someone, such as offering food or drink. Yet in the Scriptures, it is also a divine form of embodied love. In Matthew 4, after Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, angels came and took care (diekenoun) of him. Likewise, Mark states that the Son of Man came not to be served (diakonethenai), but to serve (diakonesai).
During Holy Week, we remember and offer thanks for the incarnational love of God that embraced both the joy and the suffering of living. Who bore witness in the body of the Son of God to human suffering and pain. And we also remember and offer thanks to the women who offered themselves and their service (diakonein), bearing witness with their full selves.
While holding no formal liturgical role, these women offered to Jesus and to each other one of the most powerful forms of love and service: bearing witness. And it seems that women often are those called to this special form of ministry, the service of accompanying others through their suffering.
When we endure suffering, to have someone truly see, and to remain with us in the midst of it, is a powerful gift. To hold our gaze steadfast and not look away from suffering takes grit and love. And while bearing witness does not remove the suffering, it does perhaps ease the worst of it when others stand by to shoulder it with us.
For those who find Good Friday especially painful to contemplate, it is a comfort to know that Jesus was not alone in his hours of suffering. The women were there to bear it with him, just as they were during Jesus's earthly life. And perhaps it is part of the wonder and the joy of Easter to know that we are not alone in our own suffering. That God truly sees, remains with us, and does not look away. And I find it no surprise that women were called to the special service of remaining with God’s son during his time of suffering, to bear witness with their physical presence.
Who are the women who have borne witness to your life and shouldered your suffering with you? Perhaps this week we can offer thanks for them also.