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SUNDAY OF THE MYRRH-BEARING WOMEN

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By Dr Philip Kariatlis

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PART I

Two weeks after Easter – known in the liturgical calendar as the third Sunday of Pascha – the Orthodox Church celebrates two events, which are recounted in the Gospel reading designated for the Divine Liturgy of that day (Mark 15:43 – 16:8). Firstly, the day honours the action taken by Joseph of Arimathea, a highly respected Jewish Councillor, who had approached Pontius Pilate directly and asked for the body of the executed ‘King of the Jews’, so that he could bury it in his own tomb (Mk 15:43-47). The Gospel passage also reveals the reason for this action – namely his conviction that, with Jesus, the kingdom of God had indeed been inaugurated. Secondly, the day pays tribute to the courageous initiative taken by the myrrh-bearing women (Mary Magdalene and Mary (mother) of James and Salome) to go to the tomb of Jesus early in the morning, so that they could anoint His all-pure body.

However, as the story unfolds, to their utter astonishment, they would discover the tomb open and the corpse of Jesus no-where to be found (Mk 16:1-8). In this way, these women were to become the first witnesses of Christ’s resurrection. Before carefully examining these two separate events in detail, however, we briefly need to consider their connection, since they ostensibly deal with two sets of different characters.

Even though, these two distinct events, might, at first glance, appear seemingly unrelated – since the first refers to Joseph of Arimathea and the burial of Jesus whilst the latter with the myrrh-bearing women and their discovery that the tomb of Christ was empty – a closer reading shows their deep connection.[1] Together, these two episodes came to form the principal core of what subsequently came to be known as the apostolic canon of faith (the “κανόνα πίστεως,”or regula fidei).[2]

The essential content of this apostolic proclamation of faith included the conviction that the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, was really God’s only begotten Son in human form and that, as a matter of fact He had been crucified as part of God’s eternal plan of salvation for the world, dying, in this way, a horrific and humiliating death. It must be remembered that the first followers of Jesus would have never expected such a shameful death of their long-awaited Jewish Messianic King. Secondly, beyond the death of Jesus the Messiah, the apostolic message further consisted in the belief that God, who was Jesus’ genuine Father, had raised Jesus from the dead on the third day, explaining, in this way, the reason why the tomb of Jesus was empty. Accordingly, in their juxtaposition, these two events summed up in a very succinct manner the entire message of Christianity – namely that Jesus had truly died and that His resurrection was therefore truly genuine.

Upon further reflection of the profound correlation between the two events described in the Gospel passage, one comes to appreciate the reason why the Evangelist brought them together the way he did. Since the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ constituted the most fundamental proclamation of the early Church,[3] the Evangelist had to leave no shadow of doubt in the minds of his readers that the myrrh-bearing women had indeed gone to the correct tomb and that the resurrection was therefore real. It was precisely for this reason that St Mark’s Gospel noted, right at the end of the Joseph of Arimathea story that, whilst Joseph was busy performing the customary funerary rites on the body of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jose were observing from afar, for a long time,[4] where the body of Jesus had been laid (cf. Mk 15:47).

This minor detail, which can easily be overlooked, is extremely important since it underscores the fact that the women had to be seen to know precisely the whereabouts of the tomb, if they were to visit it in the early hours of Sunday morning; especially in view of the fact that the disciples, out of fear, had gone into hiding. Therefore, the modern claim that the women went to the wrong tomb does not stand. Accordingly, the details of Christ’s burial related in the Gospel account served a transitional function, which reinforced the death of Jesus and prepared for the interpretation that the empty tomb episode was indeed testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. Having looked at the two events synthetically, we are now in a position to deal with them distinctly, and it is to this that we now turn.

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JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA – A NOBLE AND RESPECTED FOLLOWER OF JESUS

The first section of the Gospel reading (Mk 15:43-47) outlines the events that took place immediately after Christ’s suffering and crucifixion. The reader is specifically given an insight into the person responsible for organising the burial of the dead body of Jesus. The importance of this event can invariably be surmised from the fact that all four Gospels attest to it (cf. Mt 27:57; Mk 15:43; Lk 23:51 and Jn 19.38). We are told that a man, by the name of Joseph of Arimathea, sought the body of Jesus from Pilate, against all personal impending danger, so that he could give it a proper burial.

In asking for the dead body of Jesus, Joseph could easily have been suspected, by Pilate, of being a member of the Jesus movement and this could have impacted negatively in any future advancement in the social, political and religious arena of his life. However, had not Joseph taken such an initiative, it is more than likely that the body of Jesus would have been thrown into a common grave and therefore not given the dignified burial befitting any human person, let alone the Son of God, the Theanthropos. Consequently, this reveals the boldness and courage of Joseph. Beyond this, however, the burial by Joseph affirmed, in an unambiguous way, that Jesus had truly died,[5] so that no one could subsequently claim that He had not really been raised from the dead.

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In reading the first section of the profoundly important pericope, one is initially struck at the short phrasal clauses portraying the actions of Joseph of Arimathea, which recreate, in a very effective way, the sense of haste that he must have experienced: Joseph of Arimathea… having come, being toldrequested the body of Jesus (Mk 15:43)… and buying a linen cloth, taking Him down, He wrapped Him in the linen shroud and laid Him in the tomb. (Mk 15:46).

 

The seven verbs, in close succession, serve to heighten not only the angst that Joseph must have felt in having to request the body of a recently convicted ‘criminal’ according to Roman law (which, as noted above, may have even had negative consequences for his future career) but also in the fact that time was against him, since he had to make sure that the body was buried before sunset, in line with the Jewish customs of the time. According to Jewish sensibilities, a body would not be left hanging unattended throughout the night. In Deuteronomy, we read: When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed,and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse (Deut 21:22-23). Therefore, the Gospel description of the haste, with which Christ’s body had to be taken down from the Cross and buried before the commencement of the Sabbath, aligns itself totally with the Jewish customs of those times. Furthermore, it reveals the degree of danger that Joseph was putting himself in on the part of the Roman authorities for asking for the body, and on the part of his fellow Council members, who had condemned Jesus to death and handed Him over to Pilate.

One last point, with respect to the first section of the Gospel text, is that, contrary to popular belief, which suggests that the early social composition of the apostolic Church included only those from the poor and lower classes of society, the person of Joseph of Arimathea clearly indicates otherwise. The Gospel passage points out that Joseph was a respected and noble member of the Jewish Council, and that he was looking for the kingdom of God (Mk 15:43). Even though the Markan phrase ‘looking for the kingdom’ does not explicitly reveal that Joseph was a disciple of Jesus Christ, it does illustrate that he was, at the very least, a sympathiser of Jesus and His movement. Elaborating upon the Markan depiction, the Gospel according to St Matthew not only reveals Joseph’s financial well-being but also clearly specifies that he was a disciple of Jesus: When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. (Mt 27:57).[6]

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Given this, it cannot be concluded, as is often done so, with respect to the sociological shape of the first followers of Jesus, that all were illiterate and poor. On the contrary, evidence, not only from Mark, but from the entire New Testament[7] undeniably demonstrates that the early ecclesial communities basically reflected the broad cross-section of the demographic mix of each particular locality in which Christianity arose. And so, it included all classes of society: both rich and poor, learned and illiterate, Jews and Gentiles and so on. Having looked at the protagonist of Christ’s burial, we now turn our attention to those exceptional myrrh-bearing women, who were first to experience the joy of Christ’s resurrection (cf. Jn 20:1318).

 

In the second part, we will consider the actions specifically of the myrrh-bearing women and examine what lessons can be drawn for those of us living in the twenty-first century.

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PART II

In commenting on the Gospel reading for the Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women in the last issue of the Voice of Orthodoxy, we focused upon the person of Joseph of Arimathea; in this issue, our attention is turned to the myrrh-bearing women themselves.

The second section of the Gospel reading (namely, Mk 16:1-8) opens with a vivid description of the myrrh-bearing women going to the tomb, where Jesus had been buried, to carry out their last act of loyalty and devotion – a simple yet profound fidelity to the very end. According to all four Gospels, they did this, very early in the morning, even before the sun had risen (cf. Mt 28:1; Mk 16:2; Lk 24:1 and Jn 20:1), which suggests the magnitude of their eagerness to reach the tomb of Jesus. There, they would have expected to complete the burial process with their spices, aromatic oils and perfumes, which they had purchased out of sheer love for their Lord. Perhaps, it would have also given them the opportunity to shed some tears quietly at the tomb where the pure body of Jesus had been laid, away from the crowds (cf. Jn 20:11). Their fervour to go to the tomb – a compelling sign, ultimately, of their steadfast human love for the Lord – was betrayed in their unwavering willingness and persistence to proceed to the tomb despite the difficulties they knew they would encounter.

And, as we shall, it was precisely this love and faithfulness, beyond any servile rationalisations, that enabled these three women to experience Christ’s victory over death in a direct and personal manner. On the way to the burial site of their Lord ‘on the third day’, they kept on asking one another: “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” (Mk 16:3). Their query was a real one, especially in view of the size of the stone: “they saw that the stone… was very large” (Mk 16:4). In fact, based on archaeological findings, modern Biblical scholarship has argued that these stones could have ranged anywhere from between one and a half to two metres in diameter with varying widths, making them virtually immoveable.

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This, however, did not deter them from setting out that morning. Consequently, it becomes evident that, like Joseph of Arimathea, these women were possessed with the same boldness, not allowing any obstacles to come in their way. Furthermore, they were characterised by such a strong sense of perseverance and persistence that, in spite of the real barriers ahead, they were determined to achieve their task. It was by this human faith, coupled with God’s divine action, that the logically ‘impossible’ had been overcome allowing the women to penetrate the ‘darkness‘ of the tomb, and in that, to behold the ‘light‘ of the resurrection. Upon arriving at the tomb, the women discovered, to their great astonishment, that the stone had been rolled back and a young man, dressed in white robes, assuring them that Jesus was not there, but that He had been raised. Indeed, in order to drive out any doubt – since the women knew precisely where the body had been laid – they were invited to ‘look’ and to determine for themselves that the body of Jesus was not there. The Gospel records this radically transformative event in the following way:

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him (Mk 16:5-6).

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Instead of seeing the body of Jesus, the women beheld a young man clothed in white robes, which the other Gospels interpret as being an angel – that is, a messenger sent by God to announce the good news of the resurrection.[8] St Matthew’s Gospel specifically understood the young man to be an angelic figure whose appearance was like “lightning, and his clothing white as snow.” (Mt 28:3).[9] Yet, all four Gospels agree that it was this heavenly figure, who announced the resurrection to the three women. The Gospels highlight the powerful emotion that the women would have felt at beholding the angel telling them that Jesus had been raised. The Markan Gospel specifically does this by his use of the verb ekthambeisthai [to be alarmed]. This is precisely the same verb used to describe the intense emotion that Jesus had experienced before His crucifixion at the garden of Gethsemane: “He… began to be distressed and agitated [ήρξαντο εκθαμβείσται καί αδημονείν].” (Mk 14:33). Utterly distressed at not seeing the body of Jesus in the tomb, yet at the same time, incomprehensibly amazed at the news from the young man that Jesus had been raised, the women came to experience the ineffable joy of Christ’s victory over death and the dazzling light of His resurrection.

The truly amazing aspect of the resurrection story is that the account of the empty tomb was first verified by women, who, in those times, were not only regarded as unreliable witnesses in the Jewish legal system, but whose whole place in society was considered secondary.[10] Being the most central aspect of the Christian faith, it would seem odd, at first sight, to have such a vital and essential proclamation come from women, whose testimony in the Jewish law courts was not deemed credible.

One would have expected, for example, the authors of the New Testament to designate the apostles as the primary eyewitnesses of the resurrection in order to demonstrate, to some extent the reliability – according to the societal norms of the time – of such an unprecedented event. And so, not only was the Christian claim that Jesus of Nazareth had died and risen from the dead, extraordinary and unparalleled in itself, but so also was the Gospel account that it was myrrh-bearing women, who were the first to witness the resurrection. And yet, it was precisely this first visitation by the three women – and not by Jesus’ male disciples – upon which the entire message of the resurrected Lord rested. Indeed, the subsequent appearances of the risen Lord would serve to highlight that the women were not only not mistaken, but that their experience of the empty tomb could indeed be interpreted in terms of resurrection. From all this, it follows, that the very fact that the Gospels writers did not omit to record, what in those times would have been considered an ’embarrassing’ detail, verifies, in a most striking way, the authenticity of the Gospel narratives of the resurrection.

Upon realising that Christ had been victorious over death, the myrrh-bearing women were now commanded, by the ‘young man’, to go and proclaim Christ’s resurrection to the apostles. Indeed, the women were so awestruck in the face of such a definitive action on the part of God in raising Jesus, that “terror and amazement” (Mk 16:8) has seized them. The Gospel narrative also affirmed that, not only would Christ’s presence, within the community, continue, since the disciples, we are told, would now ‘see‘ Jesus in Galilee, but the implication is that Christ would remain within the community leading and advancing it towards His Father’s kingdom:

 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you [προάγει υμάς] to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you. (Mk 16:7).

The above verse illustrates that the risen Christ would not only remain with His disciples but would also continue to lead the way – this is the meaning of the verb προάγειν- in order to bring about the fullness of the eschatological kingdom of God, His Father.[11] It was precisely the fulfilment of Christ’s promise that He would continue to ‘lead the community forwardthrough His apostles – and subsequent to them, through the apostles’ successors, the bishops – which subsequently led the early Church to affirm that its ministry was one which sacramentally made Christ present. That is to say, all forms of authority in the Church were ultimately seen as the very presence of Christ within His ekklesia, since it was His authority that they were meant to reveal and witness. In this way, the Church could be enabled to continue the redemptive work of Christ assured of His leadership. Indeed, Christ’s promise to continue to lead the way, was that which would guarantee the identity and integrity of the Church with the Lord’s teaching throughout the centuries.

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CONCLUDING REMARKS

Having reflected upon the Gospel reading dedicated to the Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, one can now appreciate not only the splendour and beauty of this day, butalso its theological significance. Specifically, the beauty of the women’s spontaneity and tender affection was seen not so much in their words but more in their silent and loving presence – a love so powerful that, in this end, was able to transform death into life. Furthermore, anexamination of the Gospel passage, brought to light the fact that within a space of only thirteenverses, the very heart of the salvific message of Christianity was truly captured. This essentiallycontained the Church’s conviction that in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, the gift of the abundance of life was unconditionally bestowed upon the entire created order, since Life hadnow become victorious over death. That is to say, it was precisely in His crucifixion and burial that Christ overcame the bonds of death, which He then manifested, after three days, in His resurrection, by appearing to the myrrh-bearing women and later to the gathering of His disciples. And having experienced this brilliant and unfading light of Christ’s resurrection, thedisciples would be overcome with such a sense of inexpressible joy that they would be led toproclaim this lifegiving message to all.

 

Indeed, this proclamation of the ‘good news‘ has been faithfully conveyed to human societies throughout the centuries, and continues to be in the twenty-first century. Indeed, its message is just as significant today as it was for the early Church. To be sure, even though addressed to a specific audience, the Gospel message is applicable today as it was nearly 2000 years ago since it can transform our miserable existence if we allow it. Specifically, with respect to the message contained in the Sunday Gospel recounting the events surrounding the burial and resurrection of Christ, it can be said that just like faith, perseverance, determination and ultimately love did not deter Joseph of Arimathea and the myrrh-bearing women from their task at hand – beyond the real obstacles they knew they would inevitably have to face – so too, we should not be dissuaded from challenges that inevitably arise from time to time, in our struggle to encounter the risen Lord. Perhaps, it may even appear that our life has become so entangled and complicated that we think it will be totally impossible to remove all those barriers, which seem to have become so embedded and ‘immoveable’ in our lives.

Perhaps, there is also the fear of removing ‘the various stones within our heart’ because of the pain that will inevitably surface. Yet the message is that, like the myrrh-bearing women, we too will be able to discover, in our continued struggle and persistence the beauty of life amidst death, the radiance of light amidst darkness, and the cheerfulness of fullness in emptiness. We end with a hymn that is sung during Sunday Matins, which captures, in a poetically beautiful way, the transformation of sorrow into joy that we too can experience if we persevere in Christ:

To the tomb, Mary Magdalene came, seeking you on the first day of the week; and not finding You there, she lamented and moaned: “Woe to me, oh my Saviour, how have they stolen the King of all?” However, two life-bearing angels in the tomb began saying to her: “oh woman, why do you weep?” “I weep”, she said, “because they have taken my Lord from the tomb and I know not where they have laid Him.” Turning around, she saw You standing and immediately cried out: “my Lord and my God, glory to You!” (Lauds, Matins, 3rd Tone).[12]

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[1] For example, Bultmann believed that Mk 16:1-8 was a later redaction, which awkwardly fit in with the preceding pericope. History of the Synoptic Tradition, trans. John Marsh (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1968), 284-87.

[2] Cf. an early confession of faith as recorded by St Paul in 1Cor 15:3-4: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”

[3] Cf. the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed: “And was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day according to the Scriptures.”

[4] The use of the imperfect past tense in Greek by Mark to describe the women’s observing, highlights that they were doing this for a long time, carefully noting the exact location of Christ’s resting place.

[5]The reality of Christ’s death is also affirmed in Mk 15:45, which describes the body of Jesus in Greek as ‘πτώμα [corpse]’, leaving no doubt that it was now a dead corpse.

[6] Joseph’s financial security is also betrayed in the fact that he had the monetary means to buy the linen cloths required for embalming Christ’s body. Furthermore, modern scholarship has also argued that only the affluent could afford the type of tomb described in the Gospel narratives.

[7] The Pauline correspondence to the Corinthians clearly shows evidence of an affluent social class. More specifically, the whole conflict, which arose with respect to the celebration of the Eucharist – in the second half of the eleventh chapter of St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (esp. 1Cor 11:20-22) – clearly affirms this. Instead of being a unifying force and providing the opportunity for the rich to serve the poor, the Eucharist and the Agape meal had ended up becoming divisive, since the wealthy hosts of the eucharistic celebrations were preparing meals only for their social equals, which they would enjoy before the arrival of the poor. Accordingly, social tensions and conflicts inevitably arose precisely because of the presence of such socio-cultural diversity.

[8] The fact that the other Gospels can accept the young man to be an angelic figure is seen elsewhere in the Scriptures: 2Macc 3:26, 33; Tob 5:9; Mk 9:3; Acts 1:10; 10:30; Rev 6:11; 7:9, 13.

[9] Cf. also Luke’s account, together with that of St John’s, which have two angels dressed in shining garments (Lk 24:4 & 23; Jn 20:12)

[10] For example, Josephus, the Jewish historian, wrote: “The woman, says the Law, is in all things inferior to man.” Cited in Theodore Stylianopoulos, A Year of the Lord: Liturgical Bible Studies, 4 (Brookline: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Department of Religious Education, 1985), 25.

[11] Before His crucifixion Christ had promised the disciples that after He was raised up, He would go before them into Galilee: “after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Mk 14:28). Now this prophecy had been fulfilled. Note how this is betrayed by St Mark in his use of the future tense in Mk 14:28, yet in Mk 16:7, the present tense has been used in the young man’s commandment to the myrrh-bearing women.

[12] Cf. Jn 20:13-18.

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2 comments

  1. We should have in mind that the Murrh-bearers visited Christ’s tomb more than once. Most of the Holy Fathers claim that each one of the Gospels talks about a different visit of them. That’s why the number of the Angels found by the Myrrh-bearers in Christ’s tomb is different in each Gospel. If we read carefully the Greek text we will also see that each writer refers to a different visiting time. Mark says “λίαν πρωί ανατείλαντος του ηλίου” which means that the sun had already risen. John says “πρωί σκοτίας έτι ούσης” which means that it was still dark. Luke says “όρθρου βαθέος” and Matthew says “οψέ Σαββάτων”. Matthew is the only one who talks about an earthquake at the time of the women’s visit. In his narration the Angel doesn’t stand inside the tomb, as he does in Mark’s, but he sits on the rock of the tomb.

    St Gregory of Nyssa has written a magnificent interpretation regarding the narration of the Resurrection in each one of the four Gospels. It can be found in Migne’s PG 46, pages 628-652.

    Χριστός Ανέστη! Keep up the good work!

    • Alithos Anesti o Kyrios!

      Thank you very much Georgios, it is information like this that we are always searching for, or seek to write about. We definitely would like to hear more comments from you in future.

      Kali Dynamis agapite adelphe en Christo!

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