Women’s Work


Tissot, “Woman behold thy son”

Mary Magdalene

The squabbling soldiers gone, the women got
What fell to them. Beneath the drooping eyes
Of Pilate’s guard (the afternoon was hot)
They laid him out and shooed the stinging flies,

Rubbed linen strips with myrrh and aloes, rinsed
The dust from limbs whose wounds no longer bled.
As if the crown still pressed there, Mary winced
When, with a separate cloth, they wrapped his head;

And she recalled the pressure of his palm,
The scent of spikenard, Simon’s baleful stare,
And how, the whole house filling with the balm,
She wiped his wet feet with her loosened hair.

Days later, at the empty tomb alone,
She thought first of his pierced and broken feet
And wept, incredulous. But he was gone,
The wrappings, neatly rolled, still faintly sweet.

A gardener was bending in the shade
Among the gravestones. Trembling with dismay,
She cried, “Where is he? Tell me where you’ve laid
His body. Who has taken him away?”

He didn’t answer. When she called again,
The stranger stood and took a step or two.
Her fear became bewilderment. And then
He said her name, and suddenly she knew.

 —Catherine Tufariello

I’m not surprised one bit that it was the women who were with him at the cross until the end, who prepared his body for burial and waited at the tomb, even after the other disciples had fled.

When I gave birth to Eva Ruth, the entire team of doctors, nurses, and surgeons in the operating room happened to be female. In fact, of the sixteen people there (including the baby in utero), the only male was my husband, Edwin. It was a powerful thing to experience; being led into motherhood, just as my daughter was led into the world, at the hands of women. Later, when I reflected on it, something about it felt ancient and tribal—all the women huddled around me doing the difficult and messy work of bringing forth new life. I felt so taken care of, so seen and safe.

No, I am not surprised that it was the women who were left standing by at this terrible hour. I know many women with that particular fierceness and fortitude, and not just a high tolerance for pain, but endurance. My mother-in-law immediately comes to mind. She swoops in and cares for me in ways that I hadn’t realized I needed; making food, sweeping floors, taking night duty with Eva—not just for me, but other women of the tribe who need help. She pours herself out in service of others, a selflessness that never seems to waver. Some might call these things “women’s work,” but after the events of Maundy Thursday, when Jesus had washed their feet and reminded the disciples that he had come to serve and not be served, it might make more sense to call this, not women’s work, but Christ’s work.  

Today, I find myself wondering if I would have stayed with the women at the cross. Could I have watched the gruesome and horrific death of someone I loved, someone I had believed would change everything? Would I have remained at the cross with someone who had included me when everyone else just pretended I didn’t exist, someone who made me feel seen and safe, but who’s death seemed to confirm my deepest fears about the world? Could you stand by and watch? 

As we see the Marys and others there at the foot of the cross, risking their lives to be with Jesus in his darkest hour, I’m so moved that the writers of the Gospel included this detail; I’m so grateful to those women—Jesus’ female tribe— refusing to leave him.

As Eva left the womb by women’s hands, so Jesus entered the tomb by these hands, too.

These acts of service that, as the poem above says, “fall to us,” give us each an opportunity to be like Christ. These women remind me of my own innate fierceness, the power of vulnerability, and of the importance of showing up for our tribe.

They soothe my agitated, knee-jerk, feminist reaction to so many stories in the Bible; helping me believe what the Gospel writers say is true. Why include details about women when their presence as key players in the story and as witnesses of the resurrection could only discount the credibility of the story to begin with? (Historical note: women’s testimony was not admissible in court at this time.) Jesus’s ministry was inclusive and ours should be too.

They give me hope that when we stand by each other in times of trial and desperation— as painful as those moments can be— if we are willing to see him, we find Jesus calling our name, confirming our identity as brothers and sisters, beloved children of God. 

The women remind us, as someone once said, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross”—that forgiveness and grace are offered to everyone. From the Garden of Eden to the dark and dusty hill of Golgotha, it was the women who would first receive the Good News, and I am not surprised one bit.