Seven of the sixteen women named in the New Testament are named Mary. Nearly half of them share that name. It is not as strange as it seems ; [see note below]. In Jesus’ day, around one in five Jewish women bore the name of Mary, so it is not that much of a coincidence that the two women named returning to Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning share the same name.
They were named after Miriam, the sister of Moses. They were named for a woman who had helped her brothers, Moses and Aaron, to lead the people of God out from under Pharaoh’s jackboot to freedom and the promised land; Miriam who sang and danced after the rout of Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea.
Calling every fifth girl child Mary was a subtle and somewhat safe way of sticking it to the Romans, and their Caesar; Pilate and his ilk.
These women were named and ordained to be leaders of the resistance.
So these are the women who return to the tomb of Jesus, and its soldier-guards, carrying the weight of their names. In the Sabbath day between the crucifixion and this morning, in the Passover feast, commemorated rather than celebrated, I suspect, in the house filled with disciples, they had rehearsed the stories of their ancient namesake, Miriam and her brothers, and the faithfulness of God towards them, when God led them through the waters of the Red Sea, under the shadow of death, and released them into a new life of freedom and a new covenant of faith.
Resurrection always begins in the darkness: under the iron rod of the Pharaoh, in the night of plagues and terror. The Pesach was remembered even in the death camps of the Holocaust, among men and women who wondered why they still prayed to a God who would allow such horrors to be visited upon God’s people, and not pass them by. Now, the disciples of Jesus marked the feast in the shadow of the cross, and the unimaginable loss of their Messiah: Yeshua, Joshua, Jesus.
We do not know what these women named Mary expected to find when they arose early in the morning after the Sabbath feast and returned to the tomb. In some of the stories, they come bearing spices to anoint his body, as though resurrection were the last thing on their mind. In the darkness of the night of the plagues, the hell of the Holocaust, the refugee camp, the field hospital; it is difficult to imagine God doing a new thing.
And yet they continued to tell the stories of God’s faithfulness, even of miracles. There must have been some hope left alive.
We come to the empty tomb in a time when the Passover is celebrated by our sisters and brothers in the shadow of bomb threats and swastikas. We come under the shadow of our own political intrigues, evil empires, nuclear nightmares, and the chronic concern of how to feed the five thousand.
But resurrection always begins in darkness.
If these disciples had not come to the tomb, with or without their burial spices; with or without hope; still, Jesus would have risen. He is risen whether we come with spices to bury him or palms to praise him. He is risen, because the crucifixion, the murder of the Son of God; our putting God to death is only one of many terrible mistakes that we humans have made; and none of them, nothing we have done or we can do upends God’s promise to stay with us, to lead us out of slavery and exile, to breathe new life into dry bones, and to set God’s people free.
None of them; not even this.
But the women did come, because they knew the story of their name, and they knew the faithfulness of God, and whether they believed it yet or not, still they hoped, they hoped that God’s grace would show them some new mercy in the morning.
As the women carried the defining hope of their names, so we bear the moniker of the risen Christ. They call us Christians – little christs – named and ordained to continue the remembrance and the promise of Jesus, embodied in his life of love and sacrifice, his death willingly endured for the sake of God’s kingdom of peace and life; his resurrection, that razed all previous expectations to the ground and established once again, once for all the promise that nothing, no one can separate us from the love that God has for God’s people.
When we are named and claimed as Christ’s own for ever, ordained to become leaders of women and men, proclaiming that God’s grace is more powerful than any force on earth. Pharaoh’s will fall, and even death is defeated by the Spirit of God, who is always ready to breathe new life into our world.
We know it because of the Resurrection. We proclaim that Christ is risen, and that we are risen with him, because God’s mercy endures forever.
Names and numbers
I took my first sentence from class notes penned during a whirlwind intensive studying Mary Magdalene several years ago. I failed to check my work. Having been called to account for the women mentioned above, this is what I found out:
My list of seven Marys comes from a class handout from the same source:
1 Mary of Nazareth, mother of Jesus (Matt. 1:18-2:23; Mark 3:20-35 & 6:3; Luke 1-2; Acts 1:14; unnamed in John)
2 Mary Magdalene (Matt. 27:55-28:10; Mark 15:40-16:8; Luke 8:2 & 24:1-11; John 19:25 & 20:1-18)
3 Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus (Luke 10:38-42; John 11-12)
4 Mary the mother of James and Joses (Mark 15:40 & 16:1; Matt. 27:56; Luke 24:10)
5 Mary the wife of Clopas (John 19:25)
6 Mary, mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12)
7 Mary “who has worked very hard among you” in Rome (Romans 16:6)
Assuming that these are, in fact, each a unique Mary, the number in dispute is sixteen. And there seems no doubt that it is wrong. I truly apologize.
If we count women’s names in the Gospels, we find Rahab, Ruth, and Tamar (in the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew); Elizabeth and Anna (in the opening chapters of Luke); Joanna and Susanna who support Jesus; Herodias wife of Herod; Martha, sister to Mary; and Salome, who was with the other women at the cross (Mark 15:40).*
Here’s where it gets tricky. If we add these ten names to our seven Marys, we find that seven out of seventeen share the name of the Mother of our Lord. BUT, two of our Marys are drawn from beyond the Gospels; so now we have five out of fifteen. If we decide to eliminate the women invoked from ancient history, and concentrate on the characters within the Gospel story, we end up with five Marys out of twelve named women in the Gospels. And either way, the number sixteen is toast.
*It is the morning after Easter, and I am more than willing to be corrected, again, on this quick survey; but it is presented in good faith.
To restore the fullness of seven Marys, we need to look beyond the Gospels. When we do, we find more women: Sapphira, Tabitha, Dorcas, Priscilla (also called Prisca), Phoebe, Typhaena and Tryphosa, Nympha, Claudia, Hermas, Persis, Lydia, Euodia, Syntyche, Chloe, Apphia …
Again, it gets a little tricky; we aren’t altogether whether some names belong to women or men. Julia/Junia, for example, mentioned in Romans 16:7, is in some translations named Junias, a man’s name. Still, even a conservative count yields more than sixteen more named women (not counting Sarah, the wife of Abraham).
So we are left with seven Marys, and an approximate and incomplete count of women with other names; but certainly more than twenty, and maybe even thirty of them.
Again, my sincere apologies for leading anyone astray.