Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of James and Joseph witnessed Jesus’ sufferings and death (Mt. 27:33) along with many other women. Then they emerged onto the scene as present in a unique way before and after Jesus’ resurrection. The women stand out from the men around them, in three ways, in Matthew’s gospel.
1. They Stayed
When evening fell…Joseph wrapped [the body] in fresh linen and laid it in his own tomb….Then Joseph rolled a huge stone across the entrance of the tomb and went away. But Mary of Magdala and the other Mary remained sitting there, facing the tomb. (Mt. 27:57-61).
Though the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea had the courage to ask Pilate for Jesus’ body, he came in the evening to place Jesus’ body in the tomb, and immediately went away under cover of night. There was danger and risk in being seen. Any one lingering could be identified as a follower to the religious leaders who spurred Jesus’s crucifixion.
The male disciples also disappeared, as Jesus predicted they would during the Last Supper (Matt. 26:31).
Yet, the two Marys stayed, and Matthew implies they stayed a while even past sunset, in the darkness, among tombs. The next day, the Sabbath no less, the religious leaders asked for a guard to be posted by Jesus’ tomb to keep the disciples from stealing Jesus’ body.
2. They Remained Standing and Listened
After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary of Magdala came with Mary to inspect the tomb. Suddenly, there was a severe earthquake, and an angel of God descended from heaven, rolled back the stone, and sat on it. The angel’s appearance was like lightning, with garments white as snow. The guards shook with fear and fell down as though they were dead.
The angel spoke, addressing the women: ‘Don’t be afraid. I know you are looking for Jesus the crucified…’ (Matt. 28:1-5)
In this passage, we see the Marys returning to the tomb at the end of Sabbath. Matthew points out that the male guards shake with fear and apparently faint due to the earthquake and the sight of the angel.
The women, however, remain upright. It’s to them the angel speaks, promising they will see Jesus in Galilee. Matthew writes, “the women hurried away with awe and great joy….” (28:8).
The women’s reaction is not to hide at home like Joseph or the male disciples, or fall down in fear before the angels like the guards. Rather, they joyfully respond to a new and deep understanding of the divinity of Jesus, as though this truth were, comparatively, all that mattered in the universe.
3. They Worshiped Him Without Doubting
Suddenly, Jesus stood before them and said, ‘Shalom!’ The women came up, embraced Jesus’ feet and worshiped. (Mt. 28:9).
Jesus Himself shows up, not to the male disciples in Galilee, but to the two Marys who are still on their way. He could have gone on to Galilee first, as the angel had said He was doing (“He now goes ahead of you to Galilee.” Mt. 28:7). But instead, Jesus finds the women as they journey to tell the good news of His own resurrection.
Why did He go to them even though that wasn’t the plan the angel had articulated? Jesus saw the women’s grief, courage and loyalty as they sat across from the tomb in the dark the night they watched him crucified. Did He want them to be the first to see Him in His new body?
Perhaps, just maybe, He was as excited as they were, as filled with “great joy.” Maybe He wanted to see them first.
Jesus encourages the women as the angel did, with “‘Don’t be afraid!’” He then gives them a mandate to tell the other disciples to “go to Galilee, where they will see me.” (Mt. 28:10). The Marys continue to have courage. They go “on their way” to do as Jesus has said (28:11).
When Jesus does appear to the eleven male disciples on a mountain in Galilee, they too fall down in worship as the two Marys did, “though some doubted what they were seeing,” says Matthew (Mt. 28:17). (Mark’s gospel shows Jesus “scolding [the Eleven] for their disbelief and stubbornness,” in Mark 16:14). In contrast, the Marys remain full of expectancy, hope and faith, from the first night after Jesus’ crucifixion, until their meeting with the resurrected Jesus. In fact, the two women were the first recorded to worship Jesus in his resurrected body.
The Two Marys Did Not Fall Away Because of Jesus
In chapter 26, Matthew has explained in length how the Twelve disciples failed Jesus in His most difficult moments (see last week’s post). They betray Him (Judas), deny Him (Peter), and fall asleep three times when Jesus nearly begs them to stay awake with Him in his grief. Then, for a time, they disappear.
Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph are the main actors after that in Matthew’s gospel. We do not hear about the male disciples again until Jesus appears in Galilee. They have, as Jesus said they would, “scattered,” perhaps doubting Jesus’ divinity to the point of temporarily “falling away” as Jesus predicted (Matt. 26:31).
In every way, the two Marys who stayed at the tomb showed themselves stellar disciples of Jesus, and most of all, His loyal, faithful friends.