The Easter story, as told in the Bible, recounts events at the founding of Christianity some two millennia ago — yet it feels strangely modern.
Details in the four gospels vary — some say Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” arrive to perfume Jesus’ body with spices; others say one or three were there, including Salome and Joanna — but the message is consistent: Women see or hear about the empty tomb and the risen Christ first, then run to tell the male apostles, who don’t believe them.
Eventually, the men see for themselves, of course, and launch the religious movement that has spread across oceans and continents.
And those first female witnesses? For most of the faith’s history, women have been locked out of formal ministry, playing a pivotal but unsung part. These days, that is slowly changing.
As Christians celebrate rebirth this Easter, a half-dozen women from various traditions reflect on what those first disciples mean to them as they serve in their church.
Evangelical: It was ‘classic Jesus’
The biblical story of women witnessing Christ — and the role of women in Christianity — is deeply personal for Pastor Jodi Van Rhee.
In 2014, Van Rhee recalls, she was in Israel with a group of female Christian leaders when the Holy Spirit whispered to her: “You are going to be the senior pastor at the Adventure Church.”
It was a crazy thought, says Van Rhee, who was at the time a co-pastor with her husband, Eric, at the evangelical church in Draper. “I didn’t want to say it out loud. I didn’t even tell my husband. But I knew it was from the Lord.”
Though the couple had never discussed that divine message, her husband told Van Rhee that he believed the Lord was telling him that she was supposed to be the lead pastor.
In January 2016, she became the senior leader and, six weeks later, her husband died.
Van Rhee accepts the reality of Christ’s rise from the dead with her whole heart, she says. “The resurrection of Jesus is the single most provable historical fact in human history.”
She believes Eric is with Jesus right now, she says, and “he is content where he is.”
But Van Rhee has struggled with the assumption among some of her fellow believers that women do not belong in the ministry.
“My husband was my biggest supporter,” she says, but after he died, “half of the church left because they didn’t believe women should be senior leaders.”
In Jesus’ era, the status of women was “very low,” the preacher says. “The priests would even pray, ‘Thank you that you did not make me a woman.’”
But Christ “was so countercultural,” she says, “that he would have women be the first ... to tell others that he was resurrected.”
That, she says, is “classic Jesus.”
When critics insist there are no female leaders in the Bible, Van Rhee asks, “what about Deborah, a prophet and judge in Israel?” And when they say, well, she was an exception, the Adventure leader responds: “Can’t I be an exception?”
It was a “beautiful gesture” for Jesus to choose these two women “to carry the best news ever,” she says. “I continue to carry that news.”
Presbyterian: They tried to ‘silence the women’
It is instructive for modern Christians to remember that women were the first to witness the resurrected Christ, says the Rev. Elaine Besthorn, interim pastor of Sandy’s Community of Grace Presbyterian Church.
They were the ones who stayed at the cross, who went back in the morning to check on the body, and who first realized the importance of what had happened, Besthorn says. “As a woman who is allowed to be in [a leadership] position in a church, that means a lot.”
When the women share what they’ve seen, the men don’t believe them as if they were telling a fairy tale, she says. “They were trying to shut the story down and silence the women — just like our stories and our ideas get shut down.”
Jesus was always drawn to people on society’s fringes, she says, those seen as “worthless” or who “didn’t create enough for the economy.”
In his day, women and children were included in that group, Besthorn says. But the Easter morning story is included in all four gospels, ensuring New Testament readers got the message.
Reaching those on the margins is where Christians “find our calling as well, which is a challenge,” says the Presbyterian pastor. “They are priceless people whom we need to honor and to serve.”
Besthorn was a veterinarian for 20 years before studying for the ministry. She loved being a vet but found working in the church “more meaningful.”
Since her 2016 ordination in California, she has served as an interim pastor in Nebraska, Arkansas, Texas and now Utah — which she will be leaving in May to make way for the permanent minister.
Many young Presbyterians have witnessed women in other aspects of church life, but now more and more are seeing them as ministers, she says. “That’s a real important model to expose girls — as well as men and boys — to, that they see it’s a value and that it is an equal position.”
Catholic: It’s a ‘wow moment’ for women
For Sister Catherine Kamphaus, it was natural to become a nun.
Kamphaus had attended Catholic schools, where she was taught by the sisters, respected their leadership and observed their deep friendships.
So after graduating from high school in 1962, she joined the Sisters of the Holy Cross — which eventually would lead her to Utah, where she is now the associate superintendent of Catholic schools.
The story of women being first at Christ’s tomb, Kamphaus says, “gives you the sense that as a woman you are important.”
It’s a message that was meaningful to Christ’s followers 2,000 year ago, she says, and “meaningful to us now.”
Reading it in the New Testament is “a wow moment,” that Jesus “recognized women enough to let them be first,” Kamphaus says. “He was always searching for followers in unexpected places. You would have expected him to choose Peter.”
Throughout her life in the church, the Salt Lake City-based nun has found a strong network of women in the church — both women religious and lay.
Kamphaus finds inspiration and comfort in biblical narratives that include women, she says. “Some of Jesus’ closest friends were women.”
Latter-day Saint: Women have the ‘highest calling’
It is important that Christ’s first appearance as a resurrected being, “one of the supreme moments in world history, was experienced by a woman,” says Cheryll May, a Latter-day Saint Relief Society president in Salt Lake City’s Sugar House neighborhood. “Mary Magdalene and the other sisters were privileged to witness first this magnificent manifestation.”
But it was hardly their only encounter with Jesus.
“They had been devoted disciples, following the Savior from place to place, meeting his daily needs and those of many of the faithful,” May says. “This event shows how fully their love for him was returned.”
From the 19th-century beginnings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, women’s call to “loving service” has come through the Mormon women’s organization, the Relief Society.
The faith’s hierarchy has for years “claimed equality for men and women in the church,” she says, “but that has been modified and practiced by a strict ‘separate spheres’ philosophy.”
In more recent years, “there has been a great realization that sisters’ input is vital to decision-making at every level, including those at the top,” May says. “I think a realization is increasing that sisters’ insights, gained through the [Holy] Spirit, are not merely ‘idle talk,’ to be dismissed, as did the hierarchy of Christ’s day responding to the sisters’ news of Christ’s resurrection.”
May always has “chafed at the idea of an all-male priesthood hierarchy,” she says. “However, I have felt harmony and mutual respect in working with priesthood leaders over the years, and I feel that sisters, within and outside the bounds of the Relief Society, have been given the highest calling, that which underlies all of the commandments.”
Theirs is, she says, “the calling of loving service.”
Episcopal: My congregants ‘celebrate me’
It was very significant that the women went to the tomb when it was so dangerous, says the Rev. Isabel Gonzalez, associate pastor at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Ogden. “They were there when the apostles were hiding somewhere else.”
Women have played a central role in Christianity since its birth, says Gonzalez, who leads a Spanish and English congregation. “Before we had the Savior, there was Mary, the mother of the Savior.”
Gonzalez grew up in Mexico as a Catholic. She was very involved in the church there and always wished to be closer to the altar. But that faith does not ordain women.
So when she moved to the U.S., she joined the Episcopal Church. She was ordained a deacon in 2006 and, six months later, became, she believes, the first Latina ordained in the Utah diocese.
“These days, women are very open to having a woman priest,” Gonzalez says. “Sometimes women don’t want to talk to a male priest. Some things like woman-to-woman problems are difficult to explain to a man.”
Her congregants are supportive of her, she says. “They celebrate me.”
Greek Orthodox: Women ‘make sure everyone’s OK’
Women were the first to see the Savior on Easter morning because they were there, tending to his tomb, says Elaine Zambos of Sandy’s St. Anna Greek Orthodox Church.
“That’s what we do — mothers, sisters, aunts, friends,” Zambos says, getting emotional. “We make sure everyone’s OK.”
Women are central to Christ’s story, including Anna, Mary’s mother and Jesus’ grandmother. St. Anna Parish, named for her, was launched almost seven years ago and has been in its own church for just one.
Zambos has never been married but is a godmother to dozens of young Orthodox believers and feels a strong connection to the biblical women.
“They started their ministry with him long before his resurrection,” she says. “And they remained faithful to him, even during his most dangerous time and execution. They not only stood by the cross, but they accompanied him to his burial so they would know where his body was buried.”
In the Orthodox Church, Mary Magdalene, Zambos says, “is sometimes referred to as equal to the apostles.”
On Holy Friday (which is April 30 for Orthodox Christians this year) believers decorate the “tomb of Christ” in the morning, she says, and, in the evening, process around the church, singing hymns and holding “a funeral for Christ.”
Girls carry “baskets of flowers,” she says, while following a cloth that shows an image of the body of Christ laid inside a tomb.
In 2018, Zambos traveled with other Utahns to Jerusalem, where she saw what is believed to be Jesus’ actual tomb.
It was “amazing to see and feel and experience it,” she says, not unlike the women who so long ago encountered the man in white, whom they had known and followed in life.