Women of Holy Week
An Easter journey in nine stories
Women of Holy Week
by Dr Paula Gooder
These nine stories about nine different, but interlinked, women were written as Holy Week, Easter and Ascension day reflections/sermons for Southwark Cathedral in 2021.
Holy Week is a time when Christians across the world travel together as companions on the way in reflection and in prayer, focused on Jesus, the one whose suffering and death, whose resurrection and new life draws us together and makes us one. It is together, as God’s people, that we accompany Jesus in this last week of his life and as we do so we join countless others who have trod this way before us.
One of the powerful features of Holy Week and Easter is that our remembrance of the events in the last week of Jesus’ life joins us with those who were there with him and invites us to imagine what it might have been like to have seen the events for ourselves.
A few years ago, I was reflecting on this task of imagination, of placing ourselves in our minds into the story of Jesus and the early church. As I reflected, I noticed something that brought me up short. When imagined Jesus and his disciples, the early church and the earliest followers, nearly everyone was a man. There was hardly a woman in sight. You may be thinking to yourself that there is a reason for this. The New Testament encourages us in this direction. The stories and discussions, the gospels and epistles have, what you might call, a strongly male cast. There not many roles for women. And yet they were there: sometimes named, sometimes not; sometimes speaking, often silent.
You may be familiar with the Bechdel test in fiction and film. To pass the test two female characters need to have a conversation of a reasonable length about a subject other than a man. Only 50% of contemporary films usually pass the test – we can, I’m sure, all agree that the Bible as a whole, let alone the Gospels would not fare well under this scrutiny. Over the course of the past few years, however, I have tried to repopulate my own biblical imagination with women. Women who were there but whom we often miss, overlook or simply forget. In these stories I have tried to draw attention to the women who were there, lurking in the background of the stories, key characters but often overlooked.
Over the course of the nine stories, I have imagined what it might have been like to accompany Jesus in this final week of his life from the perspective of nine women. Some of them we know with certainty were there because the Gospels tell us they were: the widow with two coins, the woman with the ointment of pure nard, Mary wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of Jesus. Some are not mentioned at all but someone like them was probably present: a woman journeying to Jerusalem for the Passover, the wife of a scribe and a female disciple at the last supper. I have also aimed to travel from the outside in: from people who had the most fleeting encounters with Jesus at the start of the week to his most devoted followers at the end.
With each story I have provided one or more bible passages that can be read alongside the stories and a few questions to prompt reflection and conversation. In addition, for each story I have provided a few additional notes which you might find helpful to know to aid you in your own.