Easter is a time when we commemorate the death of Jesus and celebrate His resurrection. It is also a time when we reflect on what it means to be a Christian. We do this by looking closely at Jesus’ journey leading up to the cross. Most of the traditional Easter stories and pageants celebrated in churches remember the male disciples and their supporting roles. We think of the all-male Last Supper, Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial and the thieves’ redemption. We often don’t hear about or even think about the women that played a role in Jesus’ life and the events surrounding His death and resurrection too. Unfortunately, too often women’s stories have taken second place to the interests and needs of male biblical writers and male leaders in Christian churches over the centuries. But their stories are just as important. These three women were named Mary and played a significant role in the Easter story.
Mary of Bethany
Mary of Bethany is one of the most beautiful characters in all of Scripture, preparing the way for the Lord’s burial. Mary was the sister of Martha, and her brother was Lazarus from whom Jesus raised from the dead. We see Mary three different times in the Bible, beginning with the incident in her home of her sister, Martha referenced in Luke 10:38-42, where Jesus, and presumably the disciples who traveled with Him, were being entertained. This is probably her most recognized feature. Martha was so distressed, distracted with serving and frustrated that her sister wasn’t helping that she actually rebuked Jesus, accusing Him of not caring that Mary sat at His feet while she did all the work. Jesus’ response gives us our first insight into Mary of Bethany. Jesus commended her for “choosing the better,” meaning that Mary’s desire to be near her Lord and hang onto His every word was far more beneficial than running herself ragged with preparations for a meal. Jesus further said that choosing the better thing, learning of the Lord, would not be taken away from Mary. Her priority in life was Christ, the knowledge of Him, and the nearness to Him has chosen what will last through eternity.
We also see Mary of Bethany just days before Christ’s crucifixion, referenced in Matthew 26:1-6, Mark 14:3-9 and John 12:1-8. A meal had been prepared at the home of Simon the leper, probably a leper who had been healed by Jesus and had become one of His followers. Martha was again serving while the resurrected Lazarus reclined at the table with Jesus and the disciples. At some point, Mary broke open an alabaster jar, poured a pint of very expensive perfume on Jesus’ head and feet, and wiped them with her hair. In spite of criticism from the disciples about the wasting of the costly perfume, Mary said nothing. Just as the first incident, Mary allowed Jesus to defend her, which He does, saying that she has kept this perfume for His burial and has done a beautiful act of service to Him which would be memorialized through the ages. We can learn valuable lessons from studying her connection to Jesus in those key moments.
Mary, Mother of Jesus
Jesus’ mother, Mary of Nazareth, remained by Jesus’ side from His first breath to His last, her loyalty unwavering. As is true with Jesus, we know nothing of Mary’s physical appearance or demeanor. But the historical sources give us a rather detailed picture of Mary’s character. Mary seems on the surface to be an ordinary Jewish woman whose life was indistinguishable from many others. She cooked, sewed and cleaned. She prayed, conversed and served the needs of her family. Yet, what we see in her biblical stories of Jesus’ birth shows that Mary’s life was extraordinary. This didn’t lie in herself; it was a divine gift. By the free choice of God the Father, she was predestined to be the mother of the Redeemer. By His mercy, God filled her soul with His grace and His presence.
There are indications throughout the Bible that show that Mary, as a mother, was interested in what her son was doing. At the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, she was among the group of disciples who followed Him. What was she thinking as she watched her son die in such an excruciating manner? Did she remember Simeon’s prediction just after Jesus’ birth? Simeon said, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35). As Jesus hung on the cross, His hands and feet pierced, her soul was being pierced by the sword of grief. His words meant that God knew Jesus would be crucified and had a plan to use Jesus’ suffering. Even though she didn’t completely understand His call, she remained by His side because of her unconditional love for Him.
Mary Magdalene was the most important woman disciple in the movement of Jesus and continues to be one of the most mysterious and controversial figures in religious history. Many popular depictions of Mary Magdalene don't do her story justice or speak her truth as a true disciple of Christ. When Mary and the other women, along with the twelve joined Jesus, they were taking a serious risk. Jesus was spurred into action after the arrest of John the Baptist. Much of John the Baptist's ministry took place on the east bank of the Jordan in Herod's territory of Parea. When John was imprisoned, Jesus took up his ministry in Herod's territory of Galilee which was viewed by Herod, not only as a challenge but also a threat. Despite the risk, Mary Magdalene was committed to Jesus' ministry. Mary Magdalene, delivered of seven demons, bravely supported her Teacher through His darkest hours during the resurrection, then proclaimed His glorious resurrection. She was committed to Jesus and His mission, no matter the costs.
This Easter, remember these three biblical women who had very close encounters with Jesus. Their intimate encounters with Jesus will deepen your faith in God who so loved the world that He gave His only Son.