April 14, 2017
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Sue Wallace on Friday 14th April 2017, Good Friday.
A number of mystery, adventure and spy stories over the years have relied on the plot device that many people don’t notice a person dressed in a uniform; the waiter, the traffic warden, the doctor or nurse. People in a uniform can melt into the background, especially in a busy place where lots of people are dressed the same.
A number of scholars believe that this is exactly what happened at the foot of the cross. Have you ever wondered why, even after most of the male disciples had run away, the women were able to stay, and even as St John says, to move forward and to stand near the cross itself. Was it because they were rendered almost invisible by what they wore and and how they were treated by Jewish society? Or was it because they were exceptionally brave. Perhaps both of these things.
Most scholars seem to agree that Jewish women in first century Jerusalem were veiled. Some say they wore black, some say they may even have worn face veils outside the home. Images of the women of Saudi Arabia may come to your mind. A story was told by rabbi’s of the virtuous woman Kimhit who had seven sons, all of whom served as High Priest. The sages sent and said to her, “What good deeds have you done to be so blessed?” She said to them, “May ruin come upon me if the rafters of my house have ever seen the hair of my head or the hem of my undergarment.” Thus it was that some women even remained fully veiled at home.
As well as being invisible, there were times when these women were also considered inaudible. A hundred women may have seen a crime take place, and yet, as a Jewish court of law only accepted the testimony of a man, there would have been no witnesses. It must have been a very hard time to be a woman. Yet there was hope. Jesus of Nazareth offered these women standing at the foot of the cross, and has offered all hidden and silenced people since, hope.
Jesus was strict about divorce because in those days women divorced by men suffered extreme poverty as they had no other means of family support if they were deserted by their husbands. He listened to women, and spent time with them. He taught them and encouraged them to listen and learn. In the case of Mary and Martha, he encouraged Mary of Bethany to sit at his feet as if she was studying to be a rabbi. These women travelled with Jesus on his journeys with the other disciples. They even paid for the upkeep of the group. And, most preciously, and surprisingly (given that her testimony was invalid in court) Jesus made his first resurrection appearance to one of them, Mary Magdalene, the woman who had had seven devils cast from her. This first of these women at the foot of the cross has had many lies written about her. We have no evidence that she was a prostitute or an immoral woman and Jesus most certainly did not have any sort of inappropriate relationship with her. What we do have evidence of is her faithfulness because each and every account of the crucifixion has her stubbornly standing and staying at the foot of the cross with Jesus.
There may be a number of theories as to why Jesus chose to reveal himself to Mary Magdalene in particular at the time of his resurrection, but I believe that it was to reward her for her loyalty at this most desperate hour, as he hung in agony. I also believe that she wasn’t the only one who was rewarded. Let us have a look at another faithful woman standing by Jesus in his agony this day; Mary the wife of Clopas or Cleopas. Perhaps that name might ring a bell. Cleopas was one of the disciples Jesus met on the road to Emmaus after he rose from the dead. The other is un-named. Might that other mysterious disciple be this Mary? Perhaps the two disciples on the way to Emmaus were husband and wife. What if…. what if this other Mary’s faithfulness was also rewarded by being able to walk with her master and be taken through the reasons why he had to die in the psalms and the prophets.
Jesus would certainly have shared this scripture from Isaiah on the road to Emmaus, written a few hundred years before Jesus birth.
“We all like sheep had gone astray but the Lord had laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter”
Or the text from psalm 22 written 2000 years before Jesus birth.
“They divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots. They have pierced my hands and my feet. They have numbered all my bones.”
Yet, if this woman on the road to Emmaus is this Mary, Luke does not even mention her name. Once again, this other disciple is incognito, hidden – and there are, of course, many other possibilities as to who this traveller was.
Yet there are other women here, standing at the foot of the cross. Jesus’ mother is here, but, as many things have already been written about the Blessed Virgin Mary I shan’t say too much about her today. Another woman is Jesus’ mother’s sister, an intriguing shadowy figure. Who was she? Looking at parallel passages may give us a clue.
The gospel of Mark 15:40 has this “There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.”
and Matthew 27:55 has this “Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.”
Both mention Mary Magdalene. Mary the wife of Clopas is the same person who has two sons James and Joses (or Joseph). But we also have a person called Salome in Mark and a person who is the mother of Zebedee’s sons in Matthew. Perhaps they are the same person. Perhaps Mary had a sister and her name was Salome. If this is true then it is possible that James and John were Mary’s nephews.
However the thing that really strikes me about the mother of Zebedee’s sons being in this place of horror is that she was the one who previously appeared so worldly and ambitious. She was the one who wanted special places for James and John in the kingdom. “When you are glorified can my sons sit at your right and left hand?” And now she is here at the foot of the cross and she witnesses who gets the places at Christ’s right and left hand at his coronation. Two thieves have those places, yet Salome is faithful too. Faithful even after being rebuked by Jesus.
Matthew also reminds us that there are many women here, not just these four which makes it hard to be accurate in our assumptions about the names of the women and their relationship to Jesus and to each other. A whole guard of honour is there, watching and waiting with Jesus, at the sun gets higher in the sky, as the heat builds up and the shade disappears and then as the world suddenly grows strangely and eerily dark. They faithfully wait, watching his unbearable agony, watching him slowly die. And just because they were invisible to society doesn’t mean that they didn’t take risks being there. Being incognito doesn’t stop you being physically arrested for being associated with a known insurgent. What incredible women these are.
For Jesus’ mother, aunt, Mary wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene to have stood there over the six hours it took for Jesus to die, expressing their undying love and faithfulness, is indeed remarkable both physically and psychologically. I’m not sure I could have managed such a feat myself. It would simply be too painful. We naturally shy away from contemplating horror, from experiencing pain, from difficult situations and people who make us feel uncomfortable. As a society we are notoriously bad at longterm commitment, the statistics tell us so and society also tries to hide the hard and very real reality of the inevitability of death.
The challenge of these women to us is the challenge to remain, to stubbornly stay with the challenging situations and hard places, to stubbornly confront the reality of even death, yet by our very presence to transform the lives of others and ourselves. For it is only by experiencing the reality of death that we truly understand the wonder that is the promise of resurrection to come.