Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily on the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers

Mark 15:43-16:8

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

My dear Fathers, brothers and sisters: Christ is Risen!

I greet you on this Third Sunday of Holy Pascha, the Sunday known as the Sunday of the Holy Myrrhbearering Women. And who are these holy Myrrhbearers that we celebrate today? They are first St Mary Magdalene; Mary the wife of Cleopas; Joanna; Salome the mother of the sons of Zebedee; Susanna; Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus and Mary the Mother of the Apostle James aka. Virgin Mary, Mother of God. However, just as our Gospel reading today is split into two parts, so also are the ranks of the Myrrhbearers made up of the faithful women as well as two faithful men: the Noble Joseph of Arimathea and Nikodemos. Last week we were reminded somewhat of the cowardice of Christ’s disciples, who since that terrible night in the Garden of Gethsemane had effectively abandoned the Lord and were huddled together in confusion and fear behind locked doors. Today, by contrast, we celebrate the heroic, deep hearts of the holy Myrrhbearers. To interpret our Gospel reading let us turn to St Gregory the Great, Apostle of the English.

As I just mentioned, our Gospel reading today is split in two. It first concerns the deposition of Christ’s body from the Cross on Great & Holy Friday and then moves onto the attempt of the holy Myrrhbearing women to come and anoint the body of Christ after the Passover, very early on that awesome Sunday morning.

Joseph of Arimathaea, an honourable counsellor, which also waited for the kingdom of God, came, and went in boldly unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus.

In St Mark’s account, as well as the other Synoptic Gospel writers – St Matthew and St Luke – he only mentions the role of St Joseph of Arimathea in taking the body of Jesus down from the cross and preparing it for burial. However, in St John’s Gospel we also learn that another disciple, St Nikodemos, who is not mentioned at all by the other Evangelists, was also present in assisting St Joseph. And indeed, it is very hard to believe how it would have been possible for just one man to have undertaken this very physically demanding task without some assistance. But who are St Joseph and Nikodemos? Both St Joseph and Nikodemos are rather shadowy and peripheral figures in the Gospels. We only come across St Joseph right at the end of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In our Gospel today he is described as ‘an honourable counsellor, which also waited for the kingdom of God’. St Matthew in chapter 27:57 says simply that he was a ‘rich man of Arimathea … who also himself was Jesus’ disciple’. By honourable counsellor, St Mark refers to his membership of the Sanhedrin, the juridical body of 71 Elders that met to determine points of the Jewish Law. However, we hear in St Luke’s Gospel that St Joseph had not consented to the counsel and deed’ of the other Sanhedrin counsellors in condemning Christ to be crucified. St Nikodemos, who is only mentioned in St John’s Gospel, was also with St Joseph a member of the Sanhedrin. Whereas we only hear about St Nikodemos at the end of the Synoptic Gospels, St John introduces us to St Nikodemos in the third chapter of his Gospel as a Pharisee and ruler who comes secretly to Jesus ‘by night’ and has this beautiful dialogue with him over what it means to be born again. Nikodemos then returns, again by night, in chapter 19 to assist his fellow counsellor and secret disciple Joseph in taking the Body of Christ down from the cross.     

And Pilate marvelled if he were already dead: and calling unto him the centurion, he asked him whether he had been any while dead. And when he knew it of the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph.

We should clearly understand that in going to Pilate and asking – as St Mark says – ‘boldly’ for the Body of Christ, they were in effect signing their own death warrants and their expulsion from the Sanhedran and respectable Jewish society. Their love of Jesus which had previously been secretive, fleeting and inconspicuous is now laid bare and made public. Here we can see this deep love of the Myrrhbearers for the Lord, as St Mark says – ‘craved the body of Jesus’, they crave it, as they know that He alone gives life, He alone gives meaning and Light from their spiritual darkness.

And he bought fine linen, and took him down, and wrapped him in the linen, and laid him in a sepulchre which was hewn out of a rock, and rolled a stone unto the door of the sepulchre.

And after being granted permission to take the Body for which they craved, we then see how tenderly and with what devotion and honour they treat the Body which only a few hours earlier had been mocked, had been beaten, had been spat at and pierced. A detail that St Mark omits is kept in St John’s recounting of this scene where we hear that it was St Nikodemos who brought – ‘a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight’ to very quickly incorporate these aromatic spices into the burial cloths. And it is this detail which confirms their role as male Myrrhbearers hurriedly bringing sweet spices to anoint their dead Lord. A final detail which is preserved only in St Matthew’s account is that St Joseph placed Jesus in ‘his own new tomb’ as his final gift, his final at of devotion to the Body of the Lord

And Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses beheld where he was laid.

This final verse of the end of chapter 15 marks the transition to our second group of Myrrhbearers who we commemorate today – the holy women.

And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.

These holy women came to complete that which was done very hurriedly by the men. As St Gregory says in his homily on chapter 16 –

They had loved him when he was alive, and they showed him their eager tenderheartedness even when he was dead.

St Gregory then goes on to develop a more spiritual and allegorical meaning of bringing spices –

We too who believe in him who died, approach his sepulchre with spices if we are strengthened with the sweet smell of the virtues, and if we seek the Lord with a reputation for good works.

And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.

At the Agape or Paschal Vespers in the afternoon of Holy Pascha, Fr Dcn Andrew always tells me each year of the number of people who turn up expecting our normal service of the Divine Liturgy at the usual time on Sunday morning. It is this verse which explains why there is no service at that time, as we know that the Resurrection happened very, very early in the morning, before the rising of the sun. We thus, like the Myrrhbearers come very early in the morning to witness the Resurrection of Christ.

And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre? And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great.

Last week we heard of the Risen Lord coming through the closed doors of the Upper Room. Today though we hear of a huge boulder being moved away. Although Christ could have passed easily through the boulder, it was moved to enable the Myrrhbearers to witness that the tomb was empty and the Body was not there.

And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted.

St Gregory picks up on the angelic ‘young man’ being seated on the right side of the tomb and sees a deeper symbolism in this – ‘What indeed does the left side mean except this present life, and what does the right side mean except eternal life’. It is appropriate therefore that the angel announces Christ’s resurrection from the side of eternity. With regards to the ‘long white garment’, St Gregory sees this as proclaiming ‘the joy of our festival day, since the whiteness of the garment declared the spendour of the solemnity’. This festival, however, was not one that was just joyous for those on earth, but one in which both heaven and earth were united. As St Gregory says –

Our Redeemer’s resurrection was our festival day because it led us back to immortality, and also was a festival day for the angels, because by recalling us to the things in heaven it completed their number.

And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.

St Gregory said that the angel comforts the Myrrhbearers with the words ‘Be not affrighted’ as it is sinners and those ‘weighed down by bodily desires’ that should be afraid – ‘but why are you who see your fellow citizens afraid’. Indeed, it will be the holy Myrrhbearing women who will in turn become the earthly angels, the Angeloi the messengers who will announce the glad tidings to the whole of creation.

But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.

As we saw last week, our Risen Lord has already gone before us, is already waiting for us. He is Life itself and, just as in His earthly life he did not waste a single moment in his efforts and activity to bring our salvation, so also in His Resurrected Glory, our Saviour continues His tireless work of Love for us. As the successor of Peter, St Gregory picks up on this specific mention of his apostolic predecessor. ‘Why Peter is distinguished by name from ‘the disciples’? St Gregory answers: ‘If the angel had not expressly named him who had denied the master, he would not have dared to come with the others’. St Gregory also makes use of St Jerome’s book on the meaning of Hebrew names to draw attention to our Lord’s choice of Galilee to reconnect with his disciples.

Galilee is interpreted, ‘the passing has been completed’. In truth our Redeemer has now passed from his passion to his resurrection, from his death to life, from punishment to glory, from corruption to incorruption.

Galilee is thus mystically translated as a place of the fulfilment of transitions and where our Saviour’s Resurrected Body would be revealed.

And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.

In many of the earliest manuscripts of St Mark’s Gospel, the Gospel itself ended abruptly here on this verse at this very moment of stunned awe, amazement and fear. Yet despite their fear, we know that the holy myrrhbearers did indeed fulfil their sacred task given by the angels, to announce the wondrous news of the Resurrection to Peter and the rest of the disciples. We can thus see in our Gospel reading today a strange reversal. The ones who had been brought closest to Christ, who had been specially chosen by Him, are nowhere to be seen, are infact the ones furthest away from the Cross and the now empty Sepulchre. Meanwhile it is women, those who were in the background, at the periperies of the Gospel narrative, they are the ones who now run to the centre of the action. The disciples who – in the case of St Joseph and Nikodemos – had been fearful to be seen with Christ in the daytime and would only see him at night, they now come boldly and proclaim their love for Him for all the world to see and hear. What a beautiful reversal and another manifestation of the topsy-turvy Kingdom of God where the first are last and the last first.

My dear Father, brothers and sisters – on this day of the Holy Myrrhbearing men and women, let us affirm the way in which all of us, not just the bishops, not just the priests not just the deacons, but all of us, all you faithful Orthodox Christians: the Grandmothers, the little children, the Mothers and Altar servers – all of us are called by the angels to announce and witness to the most profound, most life-changing and earth-shattering Truth of the Resurrection of Christ. Let us show the boldness of St Joseph and the devotion and love of the Myrrhbearing women and in the face of our own society’s culture of death and idolization of this fleeting world let us bring the sweet aroma of our love for Christ and the reality of His Holy Resurrection.

Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!