In his three-volume masterpiece, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI helps us understand more fully than ever the role of women during Jesus’ suffering, death and Resurrection. To accomplish this, Benedict mines deeply the Biblical narratives; as a world-class theologian, he carefully avoids non-Biblical legends and references.
Thus, very special, believing women appear in all four Gospel narratives of Jesus’ Passion. Mark, whose account is probably the oldest, and which is based on Peter’s sermons and catecheses, names Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses, and Salome. John, of course, focuses on the Virgin Mary, whom Jesus handed over to the Apostle’s care – “Behold your Mother!” There Jesus addresses his mother as “Woman,” a term that reflects the story of creation in Genesis. (2:23)
John the Evangelist is therefore interpreting “the Woman” in the context of Jesus’ being the new “Adam,” as St. Paul explains in his Epistles. However, Mary is more than a historical figure. As the Woman of Scripture, she is a “type” (a dynamic figure) of the Church. In Pope Ratzinger’s words: “the early Church had no difficulty recognizing in the Woman, … Mary herself, and … transcending time, the Church, bride and mother, in which the mystery of Mary spreads into history.” (Ibid., 222)
Isn’t this also part of John’s mystery; isn’t he “both an historical figure and a type for discipleship as it will always exist and must always exist?” Isn’t every disciple, like John, called to remain “in loving communion with the Lord,” through the Church, represented by the Woman, Mary? (Ibid.)
Apposite to the foregoing analysis is the Scriptural text about Jesus’ words to his mother at the Wedding Feast of Cana. On that occasion, Jesus also addressed Mary as “Woman.” With this very terminology, Pope Benedict affirms, he is anticipating “the definitive marriage feast – of the new wine that the Lord wanted to bestow.” At Cana, “Woman” was meant as a “prophetic sign”; the reality is realized in the same title spoken from the Cross of Calvary.” (Ibid., 221) This, we know for certain, emerges as truth in the illumination offered by the New Testament Book of Revelation, wherein we read of “the great sign of a Woman appearing in heaven” and “representing all Israel, and indeed, the whole Church.” (Ibid., 222)
In the light now of what is so evident as well as mysterious, one can readily reassess the references to all the women who stood by Jesus on Calvary. Surely the Biblical references to the women who were there are highly significant. It was these women who mitigated the especially agonizing prospects of the Passion and Death Narratives. In the very midst of the Savior’s intense suffering, these women tried to be signs of consolation, not only along the Via Dolorosa and Calvary, but in still continuing to remind us of Christ’s sacrificial love for us, across the centuries even to the present day.
Pope John Paul II, whose reverence for women was repeatedly stressed in sermons and Papal documents, specifically contemplates the women at Calvary in his Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatem (Aug. 1988). Therein he recalls that several heroic women “were in the forefront at the foot of the Cross, at the decisive moment in Jesus of Nazareth’s whole messianic mission…Not only the Mother of Christ and ‘his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene’ (Jn 19:25), were present, but ‘there were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him.’” (Mt 27:55)
St. John Paul goes on in these extraordinary terms:
“As we see, in this most arduous test of faith and fidelity, the women proved stronger than the Apostles.”
Earlier, he further adds, “there were the women on the Via Dolorosa.” Moreover, one should not forget Pilate’s wife, who had cautioned her husband: “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream.” (Mt 27:19)
Not only were the above-cited women at or near Calvary, but they were also first at Jesus’ tomb, which they found empty. They were the first to hear those astonishing words: “He is not here. He has risen, as he said.”(Mt 28:6) “They are also the first to be called to announce this truth to the Apostles…”
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.