The women of Easter

May 1st, 2019

In early April, a meme circulated around social media that read, “In the interest of biblical accuracy, all the preaching about the resurrection this Easter Sunday will be done by women.” As the sole full-time clergyperson at my parish, the gospel is preached by a woman nearly every Sunday, but it does feel more significant on Easter — that day when our pews are flooded with family members and others who might not regularly attend church. A quote from Dr. Anna Carter Florence that nearly a quarter of young men and women in her Mainline denomination (PCUSA) had never heard a woman preach a sermon generated some conversation on social media and prompted the realization that, for me, there had never been a time in my life before I remembered hearing women in the pulpit.

Every gospel’s account of the resurrection begins with women discovering the empty tomb and encountering some sort of supernatural being that tells them what has happened. Outside of the bizarre and contested ending of the Gospel of Mark, the women then go and tell the male disciples. In John, Mary Magdalene announces to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” Luke’s gospel tells us that the disciples considered the women’s report to be “an idle tale,” but Peter goes and checks anyway. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ first post-resurrection appearance is to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, where he tells them to tell the disciples that he’ll meet up with them in Galilee.

Without the women doing the work of tending the dead, of preparing spices and ointments to care for Jesus’ body and taking them to the tomb, Easter would look quite different. And it is these women who are the first ones to proclaim the gospel, the good news that “Christ is risen!” There is much about that first Easter that is unexpected, starting with the dead not staying dead, but that women, considered unreliable witnesses, would be the first ones to encounter the empty tomb is also significant.

Nonetheless, for much of Christian history, women have been forbidden from proclaiming the gospel in ways that were sanctioned by the institutional church. Most Mainline Protestant churches have ordained women for decades now, so Dr. Florence’s recounting of the experience of her students is jarring. Even with institutional backing, many young people still have not had the experience of hearing a woman preach the gospel.

It does not take long in the narrative of Christian history for the various male disciples and apostles to upstage the first proclaimers of the good news, to create rules and regulations for this new world inaugurated by Jesus’ resurrection. In the Revised Common Lectionary this year, we quickly turn from the women to the witnesses of Thomas, Paul, and the other disciples. During the celebration of Eastertide, I keep coming back to the women who were the first witnesses, the first preachers, despite their confusion and astonishment. Every time I stand up in the pulpit and proclaim, “I have seen the Lord!” I walk in the footsteps of Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, Salome, Joanna, and the others in their company.

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