During his final week of his life, Jesus world was savagely ripped away from him. And it all happened so quickly. He was arrested by the Roman troops in a security sweep of Jerusalem during the Passover celebrations. He was charged with sedition, convicted and sentenced to death as a criminal. He suffered an utterly humiliating death on a cross. It was an utter disaster for his family and followers.
His mission had failed and all but a few had given up on him. Most had simply caved into the stupor of confusion, defeat and simply walked away.
Another confronting reality for Jesus’ followers was the embarrassing fact that the men who had been chosen as Jesus’ trusted inner circle proved, when their loyalty was tested to the limit, to be either cowards or apostates. The events of those days sorted out the faith and loyalty of all his family and followers. If the catastrophe of Jesus’ brutal death flattened and bewildered the disciples, then the empty tomb and the strange appearances stressed the limits of belief even further.
Embarrassments like this have been preserved and valued in the Christian tradition because they point to uncomfortable historical realities and serve as a permanent invitation to more faithful discipleship. At the critical moment, the men chosen by Jesus to be his trusted inner circle fled, left him when he needed them.
Despite the stylized scene in John’s Gospel depicting Jesus’ mother, her sister the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene and the nameless ‘beloved disciple’ standing together at the foot of the cross. However, the condemnation of Jesus and his execution probably happened so quickly that no family or friends were with him at the end. But Jesus was not entirely alone. There is reference in the Gospels to a small group of women who were witnessed his dying: “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome who, when he was in Galilee, followed him; and also many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.” (Mk 15:40-41).
These women, and others, provided important financial support for the Galilean ministry of Jesus. (Lk 8: 1-3) They were the faithful ones. Not only that, the women disciples fitted all three criteria for apostleship: to follow him; to be with him and to proclaim the Resurrection. And they were the finest of all.
The early Christian community rightly acclaimed Mary of Magdala as ‘the Apostle to the Apostles’ but by late in the first century CE, most of the women who held prominent positions in the Christian community were being written out of the narrative. Mary of Magdala received special attention, being identified by early writers as the town sinner who washed the feet of Jesus (Lk 7: 36-50).
In his Easter homilies in 591 CE, Pope Gregory 1st referred to her as a prostitute! In 2016 Pope Francis solemnly corrected the centuries-long vilification of Mary of Magdala when he proclaimed a new universal liturgical observance ‘in the memory of her’ as the Apostle to the Apostles.
Just a few years after Mary proclaimed the risen Jesus, Paul of Tarsus began his ministry as the Apostle to the non-Jewish world. In those first years, Paul struggled with finding ways for his converts to ‘make sense’ of Jesus not just for his fellow Jews but for all human beings. Paul came to realise that through the Resurrection, Christ and the ability to imitate him became possible for all of humanity and for all time through baptism into the community of his Body, the Church.
In his letter to the Christians in Galatia, Asia Minor Paul quotes a Baptismal refrain and crafted it into the foundational charter and constitution of the Church: “As many of you who have been baptised into Christ, have put on Christ (his humanity). There is neither longer Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male and female for you are all one in Christ.” (Gal 3: 27-28) ‘Knowing one’s place’ in a degraded humanity and being stuck in a hopeless treadmill of determinism have no place in new the new society of Christ’s Body.
In this last Easter before the Plenary Council, Australian Catholics are invited to learn anew the lesson taught by Paul, If the Church they desire is to be the place of genuine inclusion and belonging and one that will be magnetically attractive then they will have to embrace Paul’s revolutionary charter of Church spelt out so clearly to the community in Galatia.
Finally, in the vision of John the evangelist, the last moment of Jesus’s life, his Resurrection and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost are all compressed into one great moment of creation. A friend once expressed it this way: The last breath of the dying Jesus became the first breath of the Church.