On the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearers we remember a host of devoted followers of Jesus who are closely associated with the events of Christ’s burial and resurrection. Their stories, originally told and retold from memory, were recorded in all four Gospels with various details (Mat. 28:1-10; Mark 15:42-19:8; Luke 23:50-24:12; John19:38-20:18).
Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were prominent members of the Sanhedrin, the chief Jewish Council. They were secret followers of Jesus and were not in agreement with the decision to condemn Jesus and submit Him to Pilate for death. At the end, however, and in a time of tension and fear, while the disciples of Jesus were scattered and hiding, Joseph of Arimathea ‘dared’ (tolmêsas) ask Pilate for Christ’s body (Mark 15:43). Joseph, together with Nicodemus and no doubt the aid of their servants, took down the Body from the Cross, washed it, anointed it with myrrh and spices, wrapped it in a linen shroud, and buried it a new tomb owned by Joseph.
A group of faithful women had also followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. We know of nearly ten of them but not precisely their names or relations between them. We can cite them on this day of their commemoration with a lot of Marie’s on the list: Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary’s sister who is anonymous, Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Cleopas an unknown figure, Mary the mother of James the younger, Salome the mother of James the older, Joanna the wife of Chuza, and Susanna who otherwise is unknown (Luke 8:2-3; Mat, 27:55-56; Mark 16:1; John 19:25). All these faithful women and others as well were the privileged first-hand witnesses of the last events of Christ’s life, death and resurrection.
“Woman, why are you crying?” the angels asked Mary Magdalene at the tomb. A little later the risen Christ asked her the same question: “Why are you crying?” (John 20:13-15). Mary Magdalene had not at first recognized the Lord whom she mistook to be a gardener. But when Christ called her name: “Mary,” she responded, “Teacher!” with all the excited love, loyalty, and memories that the beloved title Rabboni carried with it. Here is a case where Jesus, the Good Shepherd, as He had said (John 10:3-5,10), knowing and caring for the sheep, called one by her very name, and she responded to Him with spontaneous affection and exceeding joy.
Mary’s anguish was transformed into glorious gladness and her tears of grief were converted to tears of joy. The Lord was alive! He had risen the dead! He was truly the Lord and Savior!
Our Paschal hymns recount those intimate moments of the Myrrh-bearers. “Why do you lament and mingle your tears with the spices? Rejoice! The Savior has risen!” And again: “The time for lamenting is no more. Do not weep! But go and announce the resurrection to the disciples!”
All the women disciples, and Joseph and Nicodemus too, knew very well why they were grieving. Christ had come to preach the truth of God’s love and forgiveness. He had proclaimed God’s righteousness and justice for all people: Jews, Romans, and Greeks. He was in His very person God’s divine presence, God’s love and goodness, God’s grace and glory. Christ bestowed upon all healing and release from the burdens of evil and sin. He had come not to judge the world but to save it. Yet, paradoxically, an ungrateful world judged Him and put Him to death. “The light [came] to the world and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).
We ask the same questions of one another today. “Why are you crying? What hurts? What are you sad about?” What hurts may be a personal failure or disappointment in life, or a serious sickness, or a difficult marriage, a challenged child, a betrayal by someone who was trusted intimately. How precious that we can rely on our faith in the risen Christ. How crucial that we have a message of healing and renewal to uplift us. How important to be ready to support one another, with words and deeds of true faith and love in Christ.
Why are we crying? We grieve over the insane and brutal war in Ukraine, a moral absurdity and a grave failure of international diplomacy. We mourn the pain of our own social animosities and divisions as a nation. We decry the racism and injustice at the roots of so many of our problems in education, economic opportunity, adequate health, gender issues, and equal treatment before the law. Faced with these and other conflicts and sorrows, we urgently need the message of hope in the angelic good news to the Myrrh-bearers: “Rejoice! Christ is risen from the dead! Do not cry!”
Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus belonged to wealthy, high priestly families. They were prominent members of the Jewish Council. They were men of good will who recognized the authenticity of the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd and followed closely His ministry, attracted by the Lord but not publicly committed to Him. But at the crucial hour of crucifixion and death, they risked everything, both social standing and severe retribution by Pilate for being Jesus’s followers, so that they could offer to Christ a truly royal burial (John 19:39). We honor them today as righteous men, and as saints of the Church.
We also lift up the example of the women who enjoyed a place of prominence among the followers of Jesus. They were women of considerable substance and independence to do what they did. St. Luke the Evangelist informs us that they not only excelled in devotion to Christ but they also “provided for them [Jesus and the twelve disciples] out of their means,” that is they helped support Jesus’s ministry with money and food. And now at the decisive hour, and out of great faith and love for Him, they put aside fear of darkness and the soldiers guarding the tomb in order to offer their own anointing of love to the Master. For that devotion and courage, as St. John Chrysostom comments, they were rewarded with being the first witnesses of the risen Christ, the first non-angelic messengers of the eternal good news (Evangelistriai).
Where is the tomb of Christ today? It is not only in Jerusalem in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is also located in all of the Orthodox temples of worship. Each church has an altar and each altar is the symbolic tomb of Christ where the mystery of His death and resurrection, and the mystery of Holy Communion, are conducted and consecrated. As we participate in the Divine Liturgy, and other worship rites, we too come before the tomb of Christ and are blessed by His sacrifice and resurrection life. Let us ponder these sacred places and events, and cherish their blessings, becoming fully conscious participants in them, and so also renewed people of God with faith and courage.
Along with the Myrrh-bearers, let us go to the tomb of Christ as mourners for our sins and the sins of the world, that we may be forgiven and healed, and then fortified to go forth as messengers of the good news of joy and peace to the world. Along with the Myrrh-bearers let us go to anoint Jesus with our faith and loyalty, our love and devotion, and let us be anointed ourselves by Him through the gift of His grace and goodness. Along with the Myrrh-bearers and Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, let us put away fear of soldiers and weapons, and the intimidation by the high and the mighty. With Christ’s strength and wisdom in our hearts, let us raise our voices to turn weapons into plows and leaders into peacemakers – which is the will of God for all humanity.
Christ speaks to us as He spoke to His earliest followers who loved Him and tended to Him: “Do not cry! Peace and joy, I give to you!”
Proclaim to the world, ‘Christos anesti’! Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!
Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos, Emeritus Professor of New Testament