Grief is real.
I looked at the two women many, many times as a child, pondering something I didn't very much understand. They were hanging around at the base of the cross, watching one they obviously loved die an excruciating (literally, "from the cross") death. Why did they stay?
Love and grief are two sides of a coin in the face of death. I didn't understand that then.
Watching a woman stay by the bedside of her cancer-ridden husband, watching a man throw himself on the coffin of his dead wife, standing in the hospital corridor after the vital signs have stopped, waiting with the family for the funeral home to come and collect the beloved body, I have observed the grief of others. Sitting hunched over in the hospital waiting room aching with pain and fear for someone I love, I have known the aching abyss of my own grief. More times than I can count I have stood in front of a room full of people whose lives have been shattered by loss, who sit in a pool of terrible grief, stomachs churning, hearts empty, tears running, minds numb, aching to turn back the clock and change something, anything, to prevent this loss. I have wrestled to be able to speak a word that pierces through the heart of grief and brings hope.
Grief is probably the most personal emotional process we go through. It wracks our bodies and beats our spirits into the ground. We will do nearly anything to numb the pain, to get away from the dull knife that pierces our hearts, the constant bleeding of the minutes and the hours without the one we have lost.
These women lived in a brutal time. Death was no stranger. Violence was all too common. Disease was a familiar foe. This was not the first time they sat with the dying. They waited faithfully, holding vigil and keeping their own pain at bay so that Jesus would not die utterly abandoned, so that after his death his body would not be simply thrown on the trash heap and eaten by stray dogs. I remember a sense of disappointment and shame that there were no men at the foot of Jesus' cross. I grew up among strong women who were often more able to handle the hard emotions, the difficult situations, than the men. Men buried themselves in work and ducked away from grief if they could. As I grew older I saw these strong women -- my mother, my aunts, and many others -- broken by grief, picking themselves up and doing the necessary things to arrange the funeral, to serve the coffee, to arrange the lunch, to hold each other while they wept, to make it possible for life to begin again.
So there are two women kneeling at the foot of the cross. They waited to wash Jesus' body and wrap him for burial. They waited to hear any words that might escape his lips in these last horrible moments. They waited because grief is part of love, at least this side of God's new creation.
I noticed many times as a child that these women, especially the one on the left, don't look very Jewish. Her pale reddish hair looks much more Scandinavian than Semitic. We do this -- we paint ourselves into the picture, whether by portraying Jesus in our own racial image or by putting ourselves into the scene. In a sense we do this because we, too, wait at the foot of the cross. We live between realities -- Jesus has come, and by his death has defeated death. Yet we live with the presence of death all around us, believing and trusting in a future resurrection for ourselves and for those we love. Grief is still a reality.
Someday, the Bible promises, it will not be so. Death will be no more, and God will live with his people, and he will wipe every tear from their eyes. The women at the foot of the cross remind us of the now / not yet nature of our faith, and of strength in the face of our pain.