Hearts of Prayer- Lenten Season
"And there were also
some women there..."
Good Friday Sermon
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFMCap, Pontifical Household Preacher
April 6, 2007
“Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother and his mother’s sister,
Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala” (Jn 19: 25). Just this
once, let us not be thinking of Mary, his mother. Her presence on
Calvary has no need of any explanation. She was “his mother”, and
this says it all; mothers don’t abandon a son, even one condemned to
death. But why were the other women there? Who, and how many, were
The gospels give us the names of some of them: Mary of Magdala, Mary
the mother of James the younger and Joset, Salome, mother of
Zebedee’s sons, one called Johanna and a certain Susanna (Mk 15: 40;
Lk 8: 2-3). They had followed Jesus from Galilee; they remained by
his side, weeping, on the way to Calvary (Lk 23: 27-28), on Golgotha
hill they stood watching “from a distance” (in other words, they
were as close as they were allowed to be) and in a little while they
would accompany him from there, downhearted and sorrowful, to the
tomb, with Joseph of Arimathea (Lk 23: 55).
This fact is too well attested, and too much out of the ordinary,
for us to pass it over and hurry on. With a certain male
condescension we refer to them as the “pious women”, but they are a
great deal more than “pious women”; they are, rather, “Mothers of
Courage”! They despised the danger of showing themselves so clearly
in favour of one condemned to death. Jesus had said: “Happy the one
who does not lose faith in me” (Lk 7: 23). These women were the only
ones who did not lose faith in him.
For some time there have been lively discussions about who it was
that wanted Jesus dead: was it the leaders of the Jews, or was it
Pilate, or perhaps both. One thing, in any event, is quite certain:
they were men, not women. No woman was involved, even indirectly, in
his condemnation. Even a pagan woman – Pilate’s wife – mentioned in
the accounts, distanced herself from the sentence (Mt 27: 19).
Certainly, Jesus died for women’s sins too, but from the historical
point of view they are the only ones who can truthfully say, “we are
innocent of this man’s blood” (see Mt 27: 24).
In this, we have one of the surest signs of the honesty and
historical credibility of the gospels; the pitiful figure they
portray of the authors of the gospels and of those who provided its
details, and the wonderful picture they paint of the women. Who
would have allowed the ignominious story of his own fear, flight,
denial, made so much more shameful by the contrast to the very
different behaviour of a few poor women, to be preserved, in
imperishable memory – who, I say again, would have allowed this, if
he were not constrained to remain faithful to the story of something
that was seen to be infinitely greater than his own miserable
We have always asked how it was that the “pious women” were the
first to see the Risen One and to be given the task of taking the
news to the apostles. This was the surest way to make the
resurrection hardly credible at all. The testimony of a woman
carried no weight whatever in a judgment. Perhaps for this very
reason no woman is mentioned in Paul’s long list of those who had
seen the Risen Christ (see 1 Cor 15: 5-8). The apostles themselves
at first took the women’s words as pure womanly “nonsense” and gave
them no credence (Lk 24: 11).
Authors of antiquity thought they knew the answer to the question.
The women, said Romanos Melodus, were the first to see Christ Risen
because a woman, Eve, was the first to sin! But the true answer
is quite different: the women were the first to see Jesus risen,
because they were the last to leave him in his death, and even when
he was dead they came to bring spices to the tomb (Mk 16: 1).
We need to ask ourselves why this was so: why did these women remain
firm despite the scandal of the cross? Why did they remain close
when all seemed to be over and even those who had been his most
intimate disciples had abandoned Jesus and were getting ready to go
It was Jesus himself who gave us the answer, in anticipation, when
he replied to Simon, saying of the sinner who had bathed and kissed
his feet, “she has shown great love!” (Lk 7: 47). The women followed
Jesus for his own sake, out of gratitude for the good they had
received from him, and not for any hope of making a career out of
following him. No promise of “twelve thrones” was made to them, nor
did any of them ask for seats on his right and his left in his
kingdom. They followed, it is written, “to look after him; to
provide for them out of their own resources” (Mt 27: 55; Lk 8: 3);
they were the only ones, after Mary his mother, that truly made the
spirit of the gospel their own. They followed for reasons of the
heart, and these did not deceive them.
Because of that, their presence at the side of the Crucified and the
Risen One contains a lesson that is vital for us today. Our society,
dominated by technology, needs a heart if humankind is to survive
without becoming totally dehumanized. We need to give more room to
“reasons of the heart” if, while the globe is physically warming, we
do not want the planet to fall into an ice-age of the spirit. The
big crisis of faith in our modern world is rooted in the fact that
people don’t listen to the reasons of the heart but only to the
twisted reasons of the mind.
In this respect, quite differently from many others, technology has
very little to offer that is helpful to us. For some time people
have been working to develop a type of computer that can “think”,
and many are convinced that they will succeed. But so far no one has
aimed to develop a computer that “loves”, that can be moved, that
can relate affectively to us, helping us to love, as computers have
helped us calculate the distance between the stars, study the
movement of atoms, and remember more and more data…..
The enhancement of intelligence and of humankind’s cognitive powers
has, unhappily, not been matched by any enhancement of our capacity
for love. It seems, in fact, that this capacity for love counts for
nothing, even though we know that to be happy or unhappy depends not
so much on whether we know or don’t know, as on whether we love or
don’t love, are loved or are not loved. It is easy to see why this
is so: we are created “in the image of God”, and God is love. Deus
It is not difficult to see why we are so anxious to increase our
knowledge and so unconcerned about increasing our capacity to love:
knowledge automatically translates into power, but love into
One of the modern idolatries is the idolatry of the “IQ”, the
“intelligence quotient”. We have found many ways to measure it. But
who is there that has any concern for measuring the “quotient of the
heart”? Yet it is love alone that can redeem and save, while science
and the thirst for knowledge, on their own, can lead to damnation.
We see this in the closing words of Goethe’s Faust, and hear it
echoed in a recent film that shows, symbolically, the precious books
of a library being nailed to the ground, while the leading actor
cries out, “All the books in the world do not match the worth of a
single caress”. Long before either of these, Paul wrote,
“‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8: 1 RSV).
After the many ages named after man (homo) – homo erectus, homo
faber an era of the heart, of compassion, when the earth can finally
cease to be “The little threshing floor that so incites our
On all sides the need is arising for us to give more scope to women.
We don’t believe that “the eternal feminine will save us”.
Everyday experience shows that woman can “lift us to the heights”,
but can also plunge us into the depths. Woman too needs to be saved
by Christ. But it is clear that once she has been “set free”, on the
human level, of all the old subjections, she will be able to do much
to save our society from certain inveterate evils that threaten us:
violence, the will to power, spiritual aridity, the lack of regard
We need only to avoid a repetition of the ancient Gnostic error
according to which woman, to be saved, needs to cease to be woman
and become man. This prejudice is so rooted in our culture that
even some women have ended by giving in to it. To affirm their
dignity, some have believed it necessary at times to imitate men’s
behaviour or to minimize the sexual difference, reducing it to a
mere product of culture. As one of their famous representatives
said, “Woman is not born, she becomes”.
How grateful we ought to be to the “pious women”! On the way of the
Cross, their sobbing was the only friendly sound to reach the ears
of the Saviour; while he hung on the cross, their eyes were the only
ones to rest on him with compassion and love.
The Byzantine liturgy honours the pious women, dedicating a Sunday
in the liturgical year, the second after Easter, to them; it is
known as “Sunday of the Perfume-Bearers”. Jesus is happy to see them
honoured in the Church, the women who loved him and who believed in
him while he lived among them. About one of them, the woman who
emptied a jar of perfumed oil on his head, he uttered this
extraordinary prophecy, one that has proved true all down the ages:
“I tell you solemnly, wherever in the world this Good News is
proclaimed, what she has done will be told also, in remembrance of
her” (Mt 26: 13).
Yet the pious women are not only to be honoured and admired; they
are also to be imitated. St Leo the Great said that “Christ’s
passion will continue to the end of the ages”, and Pascal wrote
that “Christ will be in agony until the end of the world”. The
Passion is prolonged in the members of the body of Christ. The many
women, religious and lay, who stand on the side of the poor, the
sick, those afflicted by AIDS, the imprisoned, the many of every
kind that society rejects, are heirs of the “pious women”. To them –
believers or not – Christ says again, “You did it to me” (Mt 25:
It was not only the part they played in the Passion, but also the
part they played in the Resurrection, that make the pious women an
example for all Christians of today. Throughout the Bible, in
chapter after chapter, we read the imperative, “Go!”, spoken by God
to those whom he sends. The word was spoken to Abraham, to Moses
(“Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land!”), to the prophets, to
the apostles: “Go into the whole world; preach the gospel to every
Yet all of these calls were addressed to men. There is only one
“Go!” spoken to women: the one Jesus spoke to the perfume-bearers on
Easter morning: “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and
tell my brothers that they must leave for Galilee; they will see me
there’” (Mt 28: 10). By these words he appointed them the first
witnesses to the resurrection, “teachers of the teachers” as one of
the ancient writers has called them.
It is a great pity that, because she has been mistakenly identified
as the sinful woman who washed the feet of Jesus (Lk 7: 37), Mary
Magdalene has ended up as fuel for an endless array of legends,
ancient and modern, and has been taken up in art and piety almost
exclusively as “the penitent”, rather than in her primary role as
witness to the resurrection, “apostle to the apostles” as St Thomas
Aquinas called her.
“Filled with awe and great joy the women came quickly away from the
tomb and ran to tell the disciples” (Mt 28: 8). Christian women all,
keep on talking to the successors of the apostles, to us priests who
are their helpers, telling them the joyful news, “the Master is
alive! He is risen! He goes before you to Galilee – which is to say,
he goes before you wherever you go! Do not be afraid!”
Keep alive the sublime exchange between the Church and Mary
Magdalene in the Sequence for Easter: Mors et vita duello conflixere
mirando: dux vitae mortuus regnat vivus – “Death with Life
contended: combat strangely ended! Life’s own champion, slain, yet
lives to reign”. Life has triumphed over death: it happened for
Christ, it will happen one day for us too. Together with all women
of good will, you are the hope of humankind.
To the first of the “pious women” and their incomparable model, the
Mother of Jesus, let us pray once more the Church’s ancient prayer:
“Holy Mary, come to the help of the suffering, support the fearful,
comfort the weak: pray for the people, assist all in ministry,
intercede for all devout women”: Ora pro populo, intervene pro clero,
intercede pro devoto femineo sexu.
[English transl. by Denis Barrett]
 Romanos Melodus, Hymns, 45, 6 (ed. a cura di G. Garib, Edizione
Paoline 1981, p.406)
 In Ermanno Olmi’s film “Cento chiodi”.
 Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, 22, v.151 (Mandelbaum Transl.).
 W. Goethe, Faust, finale of part II: “Das ewig-Weibliche zieht
 See Coptic Gospel of Thomas, 114; Extracts from Theodotus, 21,
 Simone de Beauvoir, The second Sex (1949).
 St Leo the Great, Sermo 70, 5 (PL 54, 383).
 B. Pascal, Pensées, n. 553.
 Gregory of Antioch, Homily on the Perfume-Bearers, 11 (PG 88,
 St Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, XX, 2519.
 Magnificat antiphon, Common of Virgins.
Raniero Cantalamessa is a Franciscan
Capuchin Catholic Priest. Born in Ascoli Piceno,
Italy, 22 July 1934, ordained priest in 1958.
Divinity Doctor and Doctor in classical literature.
In 1980 he was appointed by Pope John Paul II
Preacher to the Papal Household in which capacity he
still serves, preaching a weekly sermon in Advent
This page is the work of the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and