A pilgrimage of faith: 'Who will roll away the stone for us?'

by Caroline Mbonu

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I had presumed the story of the stone that covered the tomb of Jesus was familiar to most people until I encountered someone recently who claimed to be a staunch Catholic but remembered only faintly the phrase, "Who will roll away the stone for us?" The incident encouraged me to share a reflection on the Marcan version of the Passion narrative concerning the women disciples of Jesus, who went to his tomb at the first day of the week only to discover the body was no longer interred, but that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

Mark narrates the story of Jesus' women disciples who followed him to his grave. Because the women kept an eye on Jesus, alive or dead, they noted carefully "where the body was laid," thanks to Joseph of Arimathea, that respected member of council who did not succumb to groupthink syndrome. Without doubt, exegetes have a great deal to offer on this passage, which is not the attempt here.

Imagining what transpired in the company of the women during the time from when they left Jesus' graveside up until they set off again for the tomb is no mean task. Noting that the crucifixion took place on the day of preparation for the special Sabbath, which preceded the Sabbath proper, it was hard to imagine how they assembled the spices taken to the tomb the early morning of that first day of the week. I would say, leave it to the women; they demonstrated that women can get things done when it gets tough. When they put their ingenious instinct on overdrive, success carries the day. History and we are witnesses to the result of their enterprise.

Therefore, these witnesses of a sort made their way gingerly to the tomb before the sun rose; gingerly because of the thought of the stone, that apparently insurmountable hurdle, laid over the entrance to Jesus' tomb. "Who will help us roll it away," they conferred with each other, having been enervated by the events of the last two days — the arrest, torture and cruel and disgraceful death of the one they loved, Jesus the Messiah, whom some had followed for three years, from the beginning of his ministry in Galilee until his final hour in Jerusalem. Although the thought of the stone was of much concern, it did not discourage them from continuing courageously on the pilgrimage of faith, hope and love.

Mark does not suggest the pilgrims — Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome — had any anxiety save the challenge of the great big stone at the entrance of the tomb. With heads bowed down, the women were unrelenting in achieving their honored task. But lo and behold, when "they looked up," the story changed. The apparently insurmountable obstacle was no longer visible; the stone, that deterrent on the way to Jesus, had been rolled away!

And what happened next? The women, all three of them, entered the tomb carrying their spices to perform their duty toward the dead Jesus, to anoint his body as was the custom of their people. Rather than a body, they saw the unexpected, not what brought them there, but a living being, a young man dressed in a white robe. The women were petrified but calm enough to receive the otherworldly message, "He has been raised; he is not here." Resurrected?!!!

The young man immediately commissions them to go, tell Jesus' "disciples and Peter " what they have seen and heard. What an otherworldly experience. The women could not contain it. They "fled from the tomb" completely dumbfounded. In seeking to honor the dead, the women received the message of new life; life is what lies beyond the tomb. This event we celebrate each day at the Eucharist, an experience of wonder: Christ is alive!

The faith of the little band of women was rewarded by faithfulness. When we say God is faithful; it means only that we have shown great faith.

Since the word of God is alive and active, it means then that this story of the women and the stone offers us hope for today. Students of metaphor would go to town with this phrase that leaves much to the imagination: "Who will roll away the stone for us?" In seeking the face of God in the ordinariness of life, one can build a whole spirituality from this little but powerful phrase. It is not uncommon that one encounters stones of various sizes and shapes, obstacles that tend to obscure faith and dim courage of those seeking God. In a situation such as this, the example of the valiant women disciples, who went seeking to honor a body that meant all in the world to them, becomes a prayer moment.

Identifying the object of one's search is the first critical step. Next follows the desire to reach the object of the search. For the women, this desire was as strong as death itself; hence, they were not afraid leaving home at the crack of dawn and making their way to a stone-sealed tomb with no idea about how to roll it away, except a prayer, a question . What happened next reminds me of that beautiful advice from the Book of Sirach, "The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds" (Sirach 35:21). When one does not rely on one's own strength, but genuinely trusts God, the experience of the rolled away stone would not be far from theirs. In this story of the women, I see weakness clothed in unflinching faith, a faith that brings forth life in all its fullness, the Resurrection.

[Caroline Mbonu is a member of Congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus and holds a doctoral degree from the Graduate Theological Union. She is senior lecturer in the department of Religious and Cultural Studies at University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria.]