Lessons from the Myrrhbearers
On Holy Friday every year, the young girls, typically 12 years old and under, dress in white robes and carry small baskets of flower petals. They participate in the process of the epitaphios during the Descent from the Cross Vespers in the afternoon, which is called the Apokatheilosis in Greek, literally the “Unnailing,” referring to taking Christ down from the Cross. They also participate in the procession of the epitaphios in the kouvouklion that evening during the Lamentations service. We call these young girls ‘myroforoi’ in Greek, ‘myrrhbearers’ in English because they represent the myrrhbearing women who came to the tomb to anoint Jesus after He was buried. On the Third Sunday of Pascha, Pascha being the first and Antipascha or Thomas Sunday being the second, we commemorate the Myrrhbearing Women. But how much do we know about these women? Do we know who they are? Can we even name them?
Well, let’s start with who they are. From today’s Gospel reading (Mark 15:43 – 16:8), the same Gospel that is read at the midnight Resurrection service of Pascha before we sing “Christ is Risen…”, we learn that 16:1Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. The first woman, Mary Magdalene, we learn in Luke 8:2-3 that Jesus had cast out seven demons out of her, and being healed, she along with other women provided material support to Jesus. She is probably the most prominent because she is the first person to see the risen Christ (John 20:10-18). The second, Mary the mother of James/Iakovos the Less, one of the twelve apostles, the son of Alpheaus also known as Cleopas. This James is commemorated on October 9th and is not to be confused with St. James/Iakovos the Brother of the Lord, commemorated on October 23rd, nor with St. James/Iakovos commemorated today April 30th, who was also the brother of St. John the Evangelist, both of them also of the twelve apostles. The third woman, Salome is the mother of these two brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee (see Mt.27:56).
The Myrrhbearers are not limited to these three. There were other women. If we read the other Gospels about the women going to the tomb, and you have to come to the Sunday Orthros to hear those passages read in the worship services, we learn that Joanna the wife of Chuza is included (Lk.24:10; 8:3). According to tradition, Susanna (Lk.8:3), Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus (see Jn. 11:1-5,19-33; 12:1-2; Lk. 10:38-42), and the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus are also included.
But the Myrrhbearers are not limited to just women. There are two important men, numbered among them. The first is Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, a disciple of Jesus (Mt.27:57-61), rich, good and just (Lk. 23:50-56). Courageously, he approaches Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, to ask for the body of Jesus. Joseph takes the body, wraps in a clean linen shroud and buries Jesus in a tomb hewn out of rock that he himself provided (see also John 19:38-42). The second is Nicodemus, a Pharisee, is a ruler of the Jews. He had approached Jesus secretly at night to ask him a question (Jn. 3.1-21) and had attempted to offer a legal defense of Jesus before the Pharisees (Jn. 7:50-51). He comes with Joseph bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. (see John 19:39)
So now that we know who are the Myrrhbearers and what they did, what can we learn from them? Lev Gillet, also known by his pen name, “A Monk of the Eastern Orthodox Church,” in his classic book, “The Year of the Grace of the Lord,” provides some helpful lessons. First, do we start our day “very early in the morning” (Mk.16:2), especially the first day of the week (Sunday), going to anoint/meet Jesus, the Risen Christ? (YGL, p.184). Getting up early to pray each day and getting up early to go to Divine Liturgy on time, or do we sleep in and come late, dilly-dally with less important things and come late, or prioritize something else and not even bother to come at all. They came to the tomb When the sun had risen (v.2). The Church temple is the place of Jesus’ Resurrection. The Holy Gate leading into the altar represents the door of the tomb. The celestial sun rises every morning to bring light and warmth to our world. Jesus, the Sun of Righteousness and the Son of God has risen from the grave to be the Light of the world, bringing the light of Truth and forgiveness to those who sat in darkness.
This leads to the second lesson. As the approach the tomb, the myrrhbearers ask, Who will roll away the stone for us? (v.3). Each one of us have large stones that prevent us from encountering the risen Christ. Stones of sin, bad habits, ignorance, indifference, etc. (YGL, p.184) But this concern did not prevent the myrrhbearers from going to the tomb. We also can make the first move. We can get up, we can set out and start walking towards Jesus, and come to the Sacrament of Confession, which sadly very few of us do on a regular basis if at all. If we think we can roll away our own stone without Jesus’ help through confession, then that heavy stone is still in place sealing us in the tomb of our own passions and sins. Our faith must be manifest by trusting Christ and His priests to guide us and help roll away the stone (p.185).
This leads to third lesson. God rolls away the stone for us. In the Gospel of Mark it does not explain how, but in the other gospel it says that a violent earthquake came and an angel took away the stone. Thus, removing the stones in our lives is not a small adjustment. Rather it is a radical change in the way we live our lives. Repentance and conversion are spiritual earthquakes (p.185). People generally don’t like change. We’re afraid of it. It’s often too much work. Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). He never changes but if we want to grow into the image and likeness of Him who created us (Gen.1:26), then we have to be changing each and every day.
The fourth lesson is that the myrrhbearers do not go to the tomb empty-handed. They bring expensive myrrhs and aloes. Joseph brought a fine linen and provided a priceless tomb. They risked their lives to anoint Jesus. What do we bring when we come to tomb of the Resurrection in our church. Is it expensive and costly, meaning we have to sacrifice something else that is costly and expensive to take care of the Body of Jesus, the Body of Christ, His Church? I dare say many of us do not. We bring leftovers. We bring tokens of membership, not costly sacrificial tithes. Jesus, said if we have faith as tiny as grain of mustard seed, that we can move mountains. But we can’t even bring a dollar or two more per day to move our parish to become a self-supporting community. Where is our offering of love, generosity, and prayer for Jesus and His Church (p.185).
In conclusion, fifth and last lesson comes from verse 7, “Jesus is going before you to Galilee; there you will see Him.” Galilee is the place where most of the apostles first met and became acquainted with Jesus. It is a spiritual high ground of inspiration. We may fall away or despair or suffer, but if we follow Christ, He will always lead us into Galilee, this peaceful and grace-filled place (p.186). After the Crucifixion of Jesus, the disciples were scared and afraid that the same fate would befall them. They went into hiding. After the Resurrection of Christ, they are filled with the Holy Spirit, and they go into all the world preaching the Good News, baptizing and making disciples of all nations. And what is their reward? They end up suffering the same fate as Jesus. All the Apostles are martyred/killed because of their faith in Christ, only John dies a natural death but he too suffered persectution and torture. It is better to die a courageous death for Christ than to live comfortably in fear of losing it all. Let us imitate the courage of the Myrrhbearers, who were the first to experience the risen Christ. Amen! Christ is Risen!