Women and Passiontide

Sunday 21st March 2010
Year C, The Fifth Sunday of Lent
St Francis, Hassocks

Today used to be called Passion Sunday which marked the commencement of Passiontide, the 12 days between reading about the anointing of Jesus as Messiah by Mary sister of Lazarus and the same Mary and her women friends anointing the  body of Jesus before committing it to the tomb. After the customary procession of palms and the reading of a full account of the Passion there is hardly time for a full consideration in a sermon; and on good Friday itself I find it more appropriate to consider Christ's death in silence rather than descending into my own simple thoughts on a subject so profound; but it seems to me that the evening of Passion Sunday is a good time to think about the suffering and death of Jesus and, because of who you are, I want to concentrate on the role of women in the story.

First, from the principal reading for today, note that it is a woman, Mary sister of the revived Lazarus, who anoints Jesus as Messiah and King and it is her sister Martha, the one referred to in Luke as "cumbered with much serving", who prepares the dinner to thank Jesus for bringing her brother back to life. And surely it is the same sisters and the other women followers of Jesus who prepare the Last Supper; and whether it was a Passover meal or not, they were surely present, although the Gospels do not mention this, when the first Eucharist was celebrated; women might have played what we would think of as a subservient role in First Century Jewish society but meals were family occasions; and no doubt when Jesus and the disciples went to the Garden of Gethsemane, the women were left with the washing up.

There then follows a series of shameful incidents: the Apostles fall asleep in the Garden; Jesus is arrested and they run away. Then Peter, who at least has the courage to follow at a distance, is challenged by a little serving maid and he denies Jesus; and afterwards, while the male rulers, the religious authorities and Pilate, are wrangling over the life or death of Jesus, Pilate's wife warns him to keep out of trouble and spare Jesus, after which he goes through the apparently cleansing, but actually cowardly, gesture of washing his hands.

On the hill of Calvary Jesus is greeted by weeping women and this is surely the origin of the charming tradition, preserved in the Stations of the Cross, of Veronica wiping the face of Jesus with a towel. And then we see the women again, present at the death of Jesus and, when he is taken down from the Cross, the women prepare his body for the tomb; and, let us not forget, when they return on Easter morning, they are the first to see their risen Lord.

Now apart from the sheer courage of the women, their refusal to be frightened into running away, we need to note their constant service. They have followed Jesus from the beginning and they are there, right at the end; and at the new beginning.

But to realise their true importance, we need to take a little excursion into Biblical Hermeneutics, into the way in which we understand Scripture. During the 20th Century there were two major fashions concerned with our understanding of the Gospels. The first was called Form Criticism which said that Christian history developed in the same way as folk tradition so that the Gospels, written some time after the death of Jesus, were the product of a communally evolving tradition. The second fashion was called Redaction Criticism which, again, said that the Gospels were written many years after the death of Jesus and reflected the different theological agendas of the evangelists. But in recent years a new wave of scholarship, led by Richard Bauckham, has argued that the Gospels are the recording of the testimony of eyewitnesses to the events of the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus. If this is correct - and I believe that it is - then we no longer only owe admiration to the women for their courage and service, we owe them thanks for their eyewitness accounts; for it is quite obvious that it must have been their accounts of some episodes of the Passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus that informed the Gospels; after all, as we have noted, they were present at some parts of the passion and death when the men had run away; and all the Gospels attest to their being first to see the risen Jesus. So without the women our accounts of the most important incidents in the death and Resurrection of Jesus would be fatally flawed.

We might, then, wonder wryly how it has all gone wrong, how the role of women in the Church was down-graded for almost two thousand years and why we are still struggling, at the beginning of the 21st Century, to obtain parity for women within the Christian Church.

Sad to say, the chief reason is that the vocation of women, to reflect Christ in their service, has been overshadowed by the male tendency to exercise power. In our society power, political power, the power of wealth and patronage, physical and psychological power, counts for more than service; and the male obsession with justice and fairness are valued much more highly than service.

I sometimes think this is why churches are predominantly attended by women, with honorary women like me allowed in; women instinctively understand Christ the servant, Christ the compassionate, Christ the advocate and embodiment of God's infinite love.

Now before we get too sentimental and carried away, let us recognise that even women have their weaknesses; but these are nothing to their so often overlooked strengths. So when you listen to an account of the events from today until the Resurrection of Jesus, look for the women and note carefully what parts they play. You might also care to note - and perhaps smile just a little - that they don't say much. Scientific research shows that women talk far more than men; but life experience teaches us that they also know better than men when to keep their counsel.