Put women back into Holy Week

Last year I vowed “never again.” As the guest preacher on a Palm Sunday service in a huge Episcopal cathedral … Continued

Last year I vowed “never again.” As the guest preacher on a Palm Sunday service in a huge Episcopal cathedral in the pacific Northwest, I found myself sitting through-for probably the five hundredth time in my many decades as a church-going Christian-the long Passion narrative from the Gospel of Matthew, in which for the entire 20-minute rendition the word “love” is mentioned not even once, and Mary Magdalene remains voiceless and silent, even though all four Gospels report that she, uniquely among Jesus’s followers, was present with him throughout the entire Holy Week ordeal.

Channi Anand


A Christian woman carries a crucifix and participates along with others in a Good Friday procession in Jammu, India, Friday, April 6, 2012. Christians around the world are marking the Easter holy week. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)

This year I am doing it differently. I have spent the entire Holy Week leading a meditation retreat in a small retreat center tucked away in central Minnesota, and as part of our Holy Week commemoration we have added a new liturgy- which rightfully should have been there all along. It re-enacts the loving anointing of Jesus, shortly before the crucifixion, by a woman whom tradition remembers as Mary Magdalene. I first witnessed a version of this ritual in France many years ago and brought it home with me (in a slightly revised format) to the states. This is the second Holy Week now that I have experienced through the launch pad of anointing, and I am more convinced than ever that without it, our understanding of what Jesus was up to in his Holy Week self-offering is incomplete–in fact, it is badly distorted.

This anointing ceremony, based on an episode recounted in all four Gospels, focuses on Mary Magdalene and rightfully restores her central place in the Holy Week mystery- a place explicitly accorded to her in the Gospels themselves but deliberately down-played (or eliminated altogether!) in traditional Holy Week liturgies. As historian Bruce Chilton observes, in the Gospel narratives, anointings bookend the entire Holy Week ordeal. It is through his anointing at the hands of Mary Magdalene that Jesus is sent forth to his death, sealed in the fragrance of love. And it is this same fragrance–borne in the same anointing oils, by the same set of loving hands–that awaits him in the garden on the morning of the Resurrection.

View Photo Gallery: In “Way of the Cross” processions and crucifixion reenactments, Christians remembered Jesus’s death on Good Friday.

With the anointing ceremony repositioned as the opening act in the Holy Week drama, the entire shape of Holy Week shifts subtly but decisively. In this reconfiguration the meaning of anointing is itself transformed. It emerges as the sacramental seal upon all our human passages through those things which would appear to destroy or separate us, but in fact draws us more deeply toward the heart of divine love.

Thematically, this restoration of the central place of Mary Magdalene in the Holy Week cycle also shifts the emphasis away from the traditional liturgical presentation that Jesus died alone and abandoned, to the scripturally attested witness of Mary Magdalene’s loving accompaniment at every stage in his journey: crucifixion, entombment, resurrection. The theme shifts from abandonment (with its accompanying emotional stances of guilt and accusation) to sacrificial love: not a death imposed from the outside, to appease an angry God, but a course of action voluntarily chosen as the consummation of all that Jesus had lived and taught. This latter message-so difficult to tease out of the traditional Holy Week liturgies-accords much better both with the message of Jesus’s own teaching and with the ultimate meaning of the resurrection in its mystical unfolding: as an act of cosmic reconciliation through which “all heaven and earth are brought together in unity through Christ.” (Ephesians 1:10)

This shift of the emotional epicenter of Holy Week from blame and guilt to freely offered transfiguring love is a message that we all need to hear today in our bitterly divided churches and bitterly divided world. I believe that this is why Mary Magdalene’s voice is once again speaking so loud and clear in our own times. “Love has overcome; Love is victorious.” These beautiful words (written by Thomas Merton) capture the essence of the Easter message. And who better than a beloved to proclaim it?

Modern day mystic, Episcopal priest, writer, and internationally known retreat leader, Cynthia Bourgeault divides her time between solitude at her seaside hermitage in Maine, and a demanding schedule traveling globally to teach and spread the recovery of the Christian contemplative and Wisdom path. She is author of “The Meaning of Mary Magdalene.” 

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    Face it, the patriarchs of the christian church don’t like women and don’t want women in their churches. It’s been demonstrated time after time, from declaring women to be the root of all evil and the originators of sin, to denying women access to birth control.

    How many times do they have to slap you in the face before you walk away? You suffering from some kind of theological Stockholm Syndrome, where you support your captors and oppressors? Are you going to bring a female child into the same kind of oppressive situation?

    Walk away and forget about christianity. It is wrong. It is bad at its root. It is a religion of hate.

  • ccnl1

    Saving Christians from the Infamous Resurrection Con/

    From that famous passage: In 1 Corinthians 15 St. Paul reasoned, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

    Even now Catholic/Christian professors of theology are questioning the bodily resurrection of the simple, preacher man aka Jesus.

    To wit;

    From a major Catholic university’s theology professor’s grad school white-board notes:

    “Heaven is a Spirit state or spiritual reality of union with God in love, without earthly – earth bound distractions.
    Jesus and Mary’s bodies are therefore not in Heaven.

    Most believe that it to mean that the personal spiritual self that survives death is in continuity with the self we were while living on earth as an embodied person.

    Again, the physical Resurrection (meaning a resuscitated corpse returning to life), Ascension (of Jesus’ crucified corpse), and Assumption (Mary’s corpse) into heaven did not take place.

    The Ascension symbolizes the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the beginning of the Church.

    Only Luke’s Gospel records it. The Assumption ties Jesus’ mission to Pentecost and missionary activity of Jesus’ followers The Assumption has multiple layers of symbolism, some are related to Mary’s special role as “Christ bearer” (theotokos). It does not seem fitting that Mary, the body of Jesus’ Virgin-Mother (another biblically based symbol found in Luke 1) would be derived by worms upon her death. Mary’s assumption also shows God’s positive regard, not only for Christ’s male body, but also for female bodies.” ”

    “In three controversial Wednesday Audiences, Pope John Paul II pointed out that the essential characteristic of heaven, hell or purgatory is that they are states of being of a spirit (angel/demon) or human soul, rather than places, as commonly perceived and represented in human language. This language of place is, according to the Pope, inadequate to describe the realities involved, since it is tied to the temporal order in which this world a

  • ccnl1

    Continued from above:

    “Reimarus (1774-1778) posits that Jesus became sidetracked by embracing a political position, sought to force God’s hand and that he died alone deserted by his disciples. What began as a call for repentance ended up as a misguided attempt to usher in the earthly political kingdom of God. After Jesus’ failure and death, his disciples stole his body and declared his resurrection in order to maintain their financial security and ensure themselves some standing.”

    p.168. by Ted Peters:

    Even so, asking historical questions is our responsibility. Did Jesus really rise from the tomb? Is it necessary to have been raised from the tomb and to appear to his disciples in order to explain the rise of early church and the transcription of the bible? Crossan answers no, Wright answers, yes. ”

    So again, where are the bones”? As per Professor Crossan’s analyses in his many books, the body of Jesus would have ended up in the mass graves of the crucified, eaten by wild dogs, covered with lime in a shallow grave, or under a pile of stones.

  • MK61

    I am glad the author is one of the people reclaiming women’s original role in Jesus’ inner circle. My denomination (United Church of Christ) always celebrates Easter by remembering the women were the ones who witnessed the empty tomb.

  • amelia45

    How wonderful to bring back the place of women in the last days of Jesus as part of His story, to give it a place in the story again and in the rituals in which we remember.

    Thank you.


    The men who run the church let you do that? How kind of them.

    It still isn’t your church. What woman is in a position of authority in your church? Wake me up if the the answer is more than none.

  • MK61

    There are no restrictions on women assuming ANY leadership role from minister to congregation moderator (lay person leading the church board). Our current minister happens to be male, the current moderator is female. When the current minister is on leave, we generally have one of two female ministers fill in for him. Not a chance I would give my $$$ to a church that was not truly committed to equal rights for all. This includes women, as well as the LGBTQ community. Maybe SODDI’s previous experiences have left her uninterested in exploring modern mainline Christianity, but the United Church of Christ is the right place for me. There are a number of women who lead parts of the national denominational ministry, as shown on our website.