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Saints are part of our DNA as Catholics. They are our friends, our personal companions on our faith journey. They comfort and challenge us, they give us guidance and hope, they help us find God’s plan for our lives. Walking With the Saints passes on the stories of selected holy people who are powerful examples of Christian living.

Walking With the Saints

Women Who Knew Jesus

by Joanne Turpin

Jesus counted women among his friends and disciples. In a society that viewed females as “inferior in all things” (so bluntly put by a first-century Jewish historian), Jesus’ ways were shocking indeed. He acted as if the many restrictions placed on women simply did not exist. Such restrictions prevented them from aspiring to any meaningful role in religious life—the two primary ones being Temple priests and scribes. When Jesus offered women the chance to be part of his ministry, they responded with an eagerness that suggested they’d been waiting for just this moment in time.

Salome, mother of James and John

When life is going well, there’s little reason to change. That is surely what Zebedee thought, for he had a prosperous fishing business, the help of his two sons, and a wife to manage the household and mend nets or sails as needed. It must have been like cold water dashed in his face when James and John abandoned the family business to become followers of an itinerant teacher named Jesus.

Whether the idea originated with Zebedee or whether Salome took it upon herself to keep a close eye on their sons, she appears early, along with other women, traveling openly in the company of Jesus’ disciples. Society would have looked askance at such behavior. One can imagine the women being ridiculed or shunned, even by friends and neighbors.

Though the women in Jesus’ company came from a mix of backgrounds—one had included a member of Herod Antipas’s royal court—Salome had something in common with at least one other: Mary of Cleopas. Mary’s son James was also one of the Twelve.

Mother and disciple

Judging from the nickname Jesus gave Salome’s high-spirited James and John, “Sons of Thunder,” she must have had her hands full. Her sons (along with Peter) comprised Jesus’ inner circle. This distinction may have gone to their heads. Along the road to Jerusalem, with Salome present, they request the most prominent places in the Kingdom. Jesus tells them they have failed to understand his words about the necessity of the cross. But they would learn. (In 44 A.D., James was martyred.)

In the meantime, Salome and the other women minister to the throngs that gather to hear Jesus speak and to seek his healing. It would have been a matter of transferring skills acquired at home to a larger setting. Caring for the family’s sick, for example, was women’s customary role. Now, in marketplaces and open plains, they assist the lame, the blind and the sick who await their turn to be healed. And when Jesus teaches the multitudes on hillside or lakeshore, the elderly require help and mothers with young children need looking after. To get a sense of the immensity of the undertaking, we read Matthew’s account of the miraculous feeding of 5,000 men in which he adds “not counting the women and children.”

Faithful to the end

But the halcyon days of adoring crowds near an end as Jesus faces growing hostility from religious authorities outraged at his teachings. Plotting against him begins. Once set in motion, events move swiftly. After a sham trial, the Roman governor hands Jesus over to soldiers who march him through the streets of Jerusalem to Calvary.

Though Jesus is abandoned by almost everyone who had claimed to be his follower, his female disciples—Salome among them—stand fast. By their presence at the cross, they identify themselves with a convicted criminal, an enemy of the state. It’s risky business, for the mob surrounding them is in an ugly mood, jeering and cheering as Jesus is nailed to the cross. Surely though, worst of all, the women experience that feeling of utter helplessness as they watch a loved one suffer unbearable pain.

Late in the afternoon, Jesus draws his last breath and is taken down from the cross. Our final picture of Salome shows her and other grief-stricken women going to the tomb on Easter morning. Without a doubt, she later returned home to Galilee, to further Jesus’ mission there.


Martha and Mary of Bethany

In today’s world, theirs would be called a nontraditional household: Martha and Mary and their brother, Lazarus, all single adults. When Luke’s Gospel introduces us to the two sisters at home, Jesus is there, in a scene that suggests a close friendship. It is a picture of domesticity: Martha preparing a meal for their guest, Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet and absorbed in his words. But a first-century Jewish onlooker would find this a disturbing—even shocking—scene, for women must never entertain a male guest without a kinsman present, and Lazarus is nowhere in sight.

When Martha expresses her frustration to Jesus, it is not so much that Mary is failing to help her. Rather, she sees her sister sitting in the traditional posture of a disciple. A female might, in rare instances, receive some religious instruction, but only from a father or husband. Disregarding the prevailing view, Jesus tells Martha that it is a matter of choice: She can choose to do the same as Mary. (A later incident shows that Martha accepts the invitation to deepen her faith.)

A place apart, a stunning miracle

Whenever Jesus comes to Jerusalem, he finds a ready welcome in Bethany, a quiet village on the Mount of Olives, about a half-hour walk to the holy city. After a day of teaching and healing, Jesus needs “a place apart” to restore his spirits. In Galilee, he has only to go up into the nearby hills. But in hectic, crowded Jerusalem, it isn’t until he becomes acquainted with the family in Bethany that he finds his sanctuary.

In his last months, Jesus spends his most prolonged period of teaching daily in the Temple. When attempts to arrest him begin, he withdraws for a time to the Jordan River Valley. There he receives the sisters’ message that Lazarus is critically ill, but Jesus fails to arrive before Lazarus dies.

Upon hearing that at last Jesus is approaching, Martha rushes out to greet him, heedless of the custom that the immediate family leaves the house only to go to the tomb. (The closer to the holy city and the higher the social status, the more stringently rules are applied. Lazarus’s tomb is that of a wealthy person.) In the ensuing conversation, Martha makes a public declaration of faith, proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. After that, Jesus performs his greatest miracle—the raising of Lazarus.

Oblation and refuge

We see the family for the last time at a banquet in a neighbor’s house. Not surprisingly, Martha is serving. In Jewish culture, except for the Passover Supper, banquets were male-only affairs. Yet Mary enters the dining room, bringing an alabaster jar of a costly, fragrant ointment. What she does next leaves the disciples momentarily speechless. She breaks the jar to pour its precious contents over Jesus’ feet. To wipe up the excess, Mary unbinds her hair—something never allowed in the presence of men. When they begin complaining about the wastefulness, Jesus commends her for her beautiful deed.

In subsequent centuries, ignorant of the revolutionary actions of the sisters, Martha is commonly named a patroness of cooks. In scholarly confusion over the different Marys in the Gospel, Mary of Bethany’s identity got lost in the Western Church, though the Eastern Orthodox Church long ago assigned her a feast day. Perhaps the sisters should best be remembered for the refuge they provided for Jesus, even when he was a hunted man.

Mary Magdalene

The character of Mary Magdalene, as commonly portrayed in books, theater, film and art, is more fiction than fact. How this “apostle to the apostles” came to be regarded as a reformed prostitute is owed to a sixth-century pope. He equated the “seven demons” Mary was healed of with the seven capital sins (a new theology in his time), lust being the worst. The pope’s homilies received wide circulation, capturing the popular imagination, and the label stuck. Only in recent decades has a concerted attempt been made to set the record straight.

The Gospel story of Mary Magdalene begins with her leadership of a band of women who, according to Luke, formed part of Jesus’ company of disciples. Jesus had cured her of “seven demons”—denoting the severity of an illness mystifying to doctors. Her health restored, she committed her life and all she possessed to supporting Jesus’ ministry.

An exceptional woman

Mary’s wealth was probably derived from either an inheritance or business. Being identified by her town, Magdala, rather than relationship to a spouse or male kinsman, tells us that Mary was a never-married daughter who consequently became independent in the eyes of the law. As such, she could engage in business so long as a male guardian handled legal matters. Magdala, by the Sea of Galilee, was a thriving hub for fishing and boat-building.

Mary Magdalene’s name is found 14 times in Gospel passages—more than many of the male apostles. Her prominence is further suggested by the placement of her name whenever others are mentioned. She heads the list with one exception: when she stands at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ mother.

Though she was never known to waver in her support of Jesus, Mary Magdalene’s actions in Jesus’ final days best exemplify her unflinching commitment. Through the agonizing hours of his crucifixion and the desolate Sabbath that followed, she holds her band together. At dawn on Sunday morning, she leads them once again. This time, it is to perform the last service they can offer for their beloved Master: a reverential anointing.

To their dismay, they find the tomb empty and think that either Roman soldiers or local authorities removed the body. When her companions leave, Mary hurries to tell Peter and John the distressing news. They return with her, look into the tomb, also fail to understand and then depart. A heartbroken Mary, however, lingers near the tomb.

Bearer of good news

Nothing could have prepared her for what happened next. Jesus appears at her side and speaks her name. “Teacher!” she cries. Overcome with joy, she would have wished time to stand still. But Jesus has work for her, commissioning her to go tell his brothers the Good News of the Resurrection.

When she runs to where the men are hiding and exclaims, “I have seen the Lord!” they dismiss her words. (Jesus would later reprimand them for their lack of faith.) Because of her faithfulness, Mary Magdalene becomes the bearer of the message that remains at the heart of Christian belief. Tradition has Mary accompanying the apostle John and Jesus’ mother to Ephesus, in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), where she spent the rest of her life.

The memory of Mary Magdalene’s discipleship is preserved in writings of the Church Fathers from the early centuries. Even theologians who expressed a low opinion of women (one calling them “the devil’s gateway”) heaped nothing but praise on Mary Magdalene. Their favorite title for her: the apostle to the apostles.

Next: Mystics and Contemplatives

Stepping Out in Faith
by Joan McKamey

Take advantage of opportunities to do good. Follow in the footsteps of…

• Salome, who transferred her skills as wife and mother to minister to the crowds that followed Jesus. Consider sharing your talents, abilities and knowledge in new ways within a parish ministry or social outreach effort.

• Martha and Mary of Bethany, who provided Jesus with the support of friendship and a refuge, “a place apart.” Invite your pastor or member of your parish staff to dinner or for coffee. Write a note to thank a minister for his or her efforts on your community’s behalf.

• Mary Magdalene, who committed her life and possessions to Jesus and carried the news of the Resurrection to the apostles. Commit to more fully living your faith in Jesus and the promise of the Resurrection. What will that look like in your life?

Share how these and other saints inspire you on your faith journey.
We will post selected inspirations in this feature.
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