Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, 3 May, 2020

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen

It is a feature found in all the accounts of the Resurrection in the four Gospels that the first to discover that Jesus was raised from the dead were women. The details vary: Mark, the earliest, has the women running in terror from the tomb; Matthew and Luke have the women going to the disciples with their news—in Matthew’s account they meet Jesus on the way; in Luke’s their news is dismissed by the disciples as ‘silly nonsense’. In John’s account it is just Mary Magdalene who comes to the tomb, sees the stone tolled away, and assumes that the body of Jesus has been stolen—she runs and tells Peter and the beloved disciple, who run to the tomb and find it empty, though the beloved disciple is said, after hesitating to enter the tomb, to go in and there he ‘sees and believes’. They go back to the other disciples, but Mary stays there, meets someone she takes to be the gardener, only realizing who he is, when he calls her by her name, Mary. She turns towards him, calling him ‘Rabbouni’, ‘my master’, and reaches out. At which Jesus says ‘Don’t touch me; I have not yet ascended to the Father’, and tells her to go the disciples (‘my brothers’ are his words) and tell them: ‘I am ascending to my father and your father, to my God and your God’. Apart from John’s account, the women are coming to the tomb with spices (only Luke mentions μύρον, which is oddly translated as ‘myrrh’, despite the similarity of the word; the gift of the Magi, translated ‘myrrh’, corresponds to quite a different Greek word, σμύρνα): spices to anoint the corpse of Jesus. But in all these accounts the sequence is: empty tomb with angel(s) – women – disciples. Only the apostle Paul’s account of the tradition that he has received and passes on—that Christ died, was buried, and rose from the dead on the third day—omits the women, only mentioning men by whom the risen Christ was seen (ὤφθη: 1 Cor. 15: 5–8, once in each verse). Two of the Resurrection troparia that we sing on Sundays are also clear about the place of the women: the one in tone 4 goes:

When the women disciples of the Lord had learnt from the Angel the joyful message of the Resurrection, casting away the ancestral condemnation, triumphantly they said to the Apostles: Death has been despoiled, Christ God has been raised, granting to the world his great mercy.

And in tone 7:

You abolished death by your Cross, you opened Paradise to the thief, you transformed the Myrrh-bearers’ lament, and ordered your Apostles to proclaim that you had risen, O Christ God, granting to the world your great mercy.

What is the meaning of this crucial role played by the myrrh-bearing women? There does seem to be a significant difference in the reaction to the death (and not yet realized resurrection) of Christ on the part of the men-disciples and the women-disciples. The men are shattered by the cross; they are frightened that Jesus’ death might be followed by their own deaths—they are huddled together in a locked room, when Jesus appears among them (John making specific mention of the ‘locked doors’ [Jn 20: 19]; Luke has them terrified, when Jesus appears among them, not knowing what to make of it [Lk 24: 37])—the two disciples on their way to Emmaus, whom Jesus, unrecognized, joins up with, sum it up, ‘We hoped that he was going to liberate Israel’ (Lk 24: 21). Disappointment, despair, a sense that something very promising had come to nothing. With the women disciples, it is different; they seem simply concerned about Jesus; now, after his death, with caring for his body, seeing that it is properly embalmed. They are weeping and lamenting, but for him, not for what he represented, what his male disciples had hoped for in him. With Jesus dead, the male disciples have nothing to do, save worry about what might happen to them, as Jesus’ disciples. For the women, it is obvious what they have to do: care for the dead, anoint and embalm his body, and weep and lament: weeping and lamenting that will be transformed, into a joyful celebration of the Resurrection. So they come to the tomb, very early in the morning, they come looking for the corpse. But the tomb is open, and empty; there is no body, just the linen cloths in which he had been wrapped, and the bandage that had been wrapped round his face. One of the verses for today runs like this:

With fear the women came to the tomb, eager to anoint your body with spices; and not finding it, they are puzzled among themselves, not knowing about the Resurrection. But an angel appears to them and says: Ἀνέστη Χριστός, Christ is risen, granting to the world his great mercy!

It is not just a contrast between men and women, for we remember also today, the righteous Joseph of Arimatheia, about whom we sing in another verse:

Joseph asked for the body of Jesus, and he placed it in his new tomb; for it was necessary that he should come forth from the place of burial as from a bridal chamber. To Him who broke the power of death and opened the gates of Paradise, glory to you!

The simple faithfulness of the women, knowing what to do after a death, which is to care for the one departed, rather than reflect on what it might mean for me: this simple faithfulness is there to see the empty tomb, and hear the angels’ puzzling message of Resurrection. Joseph also knows what to do: provide a place in which to lay the body of Jesus, and—unwittingly—to provide the bridal chamber, in which Jesus is united with human kind, for whom he had suffered and died, and from which he will rise as the Bridegroom of the Church! Amen.

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