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 they?

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 behaviour?

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![1] 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 home again?

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 caritas est!

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 service.

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”[2]. 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 savagery”[3].

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”[4]. 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 for life…

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[5]. 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”[6].

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”[7], and Pascal wrote that “Christ will be in agony until the end of the world”[8]. 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: 40).

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 creature”.

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[9].

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[10].

“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.[11]

[English transl. by Denis Barrett]

[1] Romanos Melodus, Hymns, 45, 6 (ed. a cura di G. Garib, Edizione Paoline 1981, p.406)
[2] In Ermanno Olmi’s film “Cento chiodi”.
[3] Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, 22, v.151 (Mandelbaum Transl.).
[4] W. Goethe, Faust, finale of part II: “Das ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan”.
[5] See Coptic Gospel of Thomas, 114; Extracts from Theodotus, 21, 3.
[6] Simone de Beauvoir, The second Sex (1949).
[7] St Leo the Great, Sermo 70, 5 (PL 54, 383).
[8] B. Pascal, Pensées, n. 553.
[9] Gregory of Antioch, Homily on the Perfume-Bearers, 11 (PG 88, 1864 B).
[10] St Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, XX, 2519.
[11] Magnificat antiphon, Common of Virgins.


Fr. 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 and Lent.


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