I grew up hearing the Bible stories surrounding the resurrection of Jesus. Of doubting Thomas, and the Emmaus road encounter. Of the final ascension. I remember the women—Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome—who discovered the empty tomb while delivering spices to Jesus’ grave (Mark 16:1-8). And the fact that Jesus first revealed himself to Mary, a woman, was constantly emphasized my wonderful mom.
It showed that Jesus was different. And it meant something to our treatment of women in leadership.
I remember those thoughts being ingrained in my head from the age of nine. I had years of Bible stories behind me at this point. But that wasn’t all—my family, along with a few others, had recently separated from our church over the issue that women were not allowed to use their gifts in all capacities. Within this confusing situation, my young brain most resonated with Jesus’ first reappearance to Mary. I could go back to this, and reimagine, stepping into Mary’s shoes and seeing Jesus myself. She was a woman, and I would be one in time. Somehow, this story helped me understand the hard and confusing decision about church that my mom had to make.
Years of further Bible stories, now in the form of youth group settings, books, and church services, went by. Although the general idea of Jesus’ treatment of Mary and others persisted, it grew vague. I didn’t know how to read my Bible very well in my high school years. I also continued to be confused about many concepts, most especially in regards to Biblical gender roles. While my friends, some authors, and a few leaders interpreted scripture mostly to exclude women in leadership, a select few (including my mom) consistently advocated for egalitarianism in church.
And for those in the first group, Mary’s visit with Jesus was never significant enough.
It was utterly bewildering at times, but eventually these confusions led me onto the path of deep searching—of my own soul, and for my God. This journey has led me through a multitude of peaks and valleys, of songs and tears. I’ve read Ephesians so many times that it’s literally falling out of my Bible (how’s that for unity?) and 1 Corinthians is pretty weathered, too. In fact, most of the New Testament, from Romans to Revelation, contains fragile pages. But all in all, I’m led back to the simple or not so simple story that started it all…
When looking up to people of faith, I find that we often use the male patriarchs to encourage. It is often highlighted that while Jesus had female friends, the select twelve were comprised only of men. However, the resurrection shows us that his “female friends” were just as disciplined—arguably even more so—as the select twelve.
Each of the four gospels makes it clear that the women were visiting the grave faithfully. Even Luke, which doesn’t highlight Jesus’ revelation to Mary, allows us to see women leading the way to the risen Lord through their tomb visits. This shows us that women can lead in faith as well as men can—and that sometimes, they are placed in situations in which they must lead men. For instance, in every account, the male disciples are skeptical of the women’s story. In this way, we see God choosing to give women important revelations because of their faith instead of excluding them due to gender.
Furthermore, we see one being chosen for her gifts, and not her gender. Mark describes this point best as he clearly notes that “[Jesus] appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons” (16:9). He then relates that while she diligently informed the others, they did not believe it.
This isn’t the first time that Jesus’ disciples haven’t understood the resurrection properly, yet I wonder if their responses might have differed if Peter or James had seen Jesus instead. Would they have been less reticent to believe? Yet perhaps Jesus chose Mary specifically, knowing that she would be quicker to accept his presence, and spread the word most carefully. We don’t necessarily know a lot about Mary’s gifts and strengths, but Jesus did. He knew her heart and soul intimately, and wouldn’t have chosen her if she wasn’t up for the task. Evidently, her being a woman didn’t change his mind either.
Jesus is also allowing for a manifestation of oneness to surface. Men and women are receiving the gospel together as the men, regardless of their initial disbelief, are quick on the women’s heals to encounter the risen Christ. It could be questioned as to why Jesus did not appear to both genders at the same time in order to achieve this oneness. However, because of the higher rights that men held in this culture, it made absolute sense for Jesus to appear first to a woman. Women needed a significance of their own within the realm of the gospel. I believe that Jesus had already been working towards such significance, but this encounter was an acknowledgement for the future.
The greatest feat of oneness was Christ’s death on the cross. While that is enough to save us from sin, our Lord wanted more than that. God desires that humans have oneness with each other—in our marriages, parent-child bonds, our friendships, spiritual lives, and in everything we do. Such relational oneness can only be found when the genders are also united as one.
I used to hope that this event meant something for my story. I pondered what God truly intended with his treatment of women in the Bible, and doubted my own female significance a lot. But these days, I like to look at Mary’s encounter with the risen Lord as a symbol of God’s true and not yet fulfilled plan for gender.
You see, there’s a definite shift in gender roles during the era of the Apostle Paul, which occurred in the aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection. Yes, Jesus spent his career on earth transforming lives, and shocking spectators. He was already vastly different in a thousand ways, including his treatment of women—he offered Mary and others dignity, and friendship, in contrast with the patriarchal society.
But within Paul’s letters, further chapters to Christ’s wonderful gender epilogue come about. He proclaims that no matter what one’s race, freedom status, or gender, that believers are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28). Despite a few sermons I’ve heard on the matter, in actuality, Ephesians 5:21-33 is a picture of complete mutuality between husband and wife. While the wife is instructed to submit (Ephesians 5:22), the husband is to treat his wife as his own body, loving her as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25-28). Thus, mutual submission is really the take away point here! In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul speaks of spiritual gifts without differentiating between male and female. Even the once dreaded passage on head-coverings expresses deep mutuality (1 Corinthians 11:2-16). While we often focus on women being told to cover up, Genesis’ implications of oneness show that there is much more to the story. And Paul addresses women, along with men in his letters, expressing their part in the ministry. In Romans, for instance, Paul goes so far as to “commend [their] sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea,” asking the people to receive her graciously (16:1). Thus, women are discovering new freedoms in light of the resurrection. This occurs beautifully alongside the formation and development of the early church.
But of course, none of this is perfect. Patriarchy still reigned supremely in Paul’s day. You may think I’m extreme in saying so, but I believe that the 21st century Western world remains influenced by such patriarchy, both in secular society and church. Sure, we’re a lot more progressive—women can work outside of the home and vote. But as long as women carry their keys between their fingers while walking home at night, we are still in a society that entitles men and victimizes women. And as long as women aren’t always allowed in the church pulpits, we remain in a place that calls people out of sheer biology instead of gifting. These spaces do not and will not allow for oneness in the body of Christ.
So where does that leave us? Can Mary’s story still provide hope?
Yes. Certainly. Absolutely!
In his book, Finally Feminist, John Stackhouse writes of the egalitarianism seen in the New Testament as a gentle in-breaking of the Holy Spirit. We are on a journey to a place in which all things will one day be restored. This is the already but not yet. It doesn’t come all at once, yet the implications are clear.
When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. Mark 16:9
I am certain now that this is no longer just a hopeful story. It is a clear message. It is a symbol that Jesus has indeed come and produced redemption. It reflects the faith, gifting, and oneness meant for both genders. This is a strong indication that Jesus is a healer, that the cross had the power because in Jesus seeing Mary first, we also see the stones of patriarchy beginning to crumble.