CHESTERTON, Ind. – Many churches have a Last Supper painting or banner hanging in a prominent place. But is it a portrayal with women present – maybe serving the meal, standing in the background or sitting at the feet of Jesus?
My United Methodist Church in Chesterton has a banner like that. We made it.
During Lent and Easter, many churches perform enactments of the Last Supper with men, but are women and children also present? Mine does, but it wasn’t always so.
The roles of women in Christianity have long fascinated me. One of my vivid childhood memories from China is asking, “Daddy, why didn’t Jesus have any girl disciples?”
My missionary father answered, “Why, of course he did.” Then he showed me some of the Gospel passages in his pocket New Testament about the “girls” and women who followed Jesus along with the men.
I was born and raised during a devastating time in China, a time much like the Holy Land that Jesus knew. China was in the midst of several disastrous wars, the war against invading Japan and civil wars won by communists. My family kept fleeing from place to place losing everything we owned many times, even my school books.
Since normal schooling was impossible, Dad’s worn New Testament was often my only textbook. Gospel stories are still my favorites, especially stories about girls and women. And there are more of those in the Bible than most of us realize – like the tantalizing bits of stories about the women and their children who followed Jesus, including those who must have been present at the Last Supper.
Not long after my family left China and settled in Taiwan, I saw a picture of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper painting in a magazine. I rushed to Dad and said, “Look, why aren’t there any girls at the Last Supper?”
He answered, “Women were there. They just aren’t shown in this painting.” He patiently showed me in the Gospel accounts how the women were there with Jesus and his twelve closest men disciples right before the Last Supper and right after it.
As I have studied the Bible more deeply, I’ve discovered women often weren’t named. But that didn’t mean they weren’t there – like in the genealogies. We know women had to be there.
During my lifetime, I’ve read many books and articles about women and Christianity, watched dozens of shows and movies, and been part of numerous discussions on this topic. So imagine my excitement when my husband Dave and I traveled several years ago to the Vatican and then the Louvre in Paris. There we viewed ancient, wall-sized paintings of the Last Supper portraying women and children along with the men. Wow!
About the same time, my husband and I joined the Chesterton United Methodist Church with Pastor Terry Rhine, now retired, and the United Methodist Women Joy Circle daring enough to support the biblically and culturally based concept of women and children present at the Last Supper. So these days, our church’s Last Supper portrayals include women and youth, along with Christ and the Twelve.
According to Gospel accounts and Christian tradition, Jesus’ mother Mary was one of his most faithful followers. Over the centuries, many scholars have even called her his first disciple. So surely she attended that last Passover, a family Seder meal, as she had all her son’s life.
Mary of Magdala was another Mary likely present at the Last Supper, and certainly not in the role novelized by Dan Brown in The DaVinci Code. In contrast to Brown’s portrayal, many scholars have suggested she was the same age as Jesus’ mother, maybe older. But Brown got one thing right – he placed Mary Magdalene at the Last Supper. She was an important disciple.
Here are other women I think were there, for one, Peter’s wife. Although the Bible and history do not name her, the Gospels tell us the story of Jesus healing her mother. I believe Salome, another of the women mentioned in the Gospels, the wife of Zebedee was there.
Two more women who followed Jesus, because he had healed them were Joanna and Susanna. They are mentioned several times together by name.
Four other women followers likely present were Mary, the mother of John Mark, and her servant Rhoda; Naomi, the woman healed of a twelve-year hemorrhage; and Judith, wife of Joseph of Arimathea. She’s not mentioned in the Gospels, but Josephus Flavius, the trusted Jewish historian, refers to her.
It’s likely the Last Supper took place in the home of Mary of Jerusalem, the mother of John Mark, and according to tradition, the wife of a wealthy Greek merchant. This is the home Chesterton UMC has chosen as the setting for its portrayals. No doubt, Mary of Jerusalem’s upper room was spacious and elegant, and could accommodate many people, as suggested in Acts.
We know most of the women named above were among women of wealth mentioned in the Gospels who traveled with Jesus and his disciples, often providing for them from their own resources. And there’s a strong possibility all of them were there, along with numerous children, at the Last Supper.
So go for it! Do what the Chesterton UMC has daringly done. Inspire your congregation by honoring the women and children of the Last Supper in wall hangings and other portrayals. Surely, they must have been there with Jesus and the Twelve.
Millie Samuelson is a retired college professor and a member of Chesterton United Methodist Church.