|Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Pascha The Holy Myrrhbearing Women|
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.
Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!
The Angel came to the Myrrhbearing Women at the tomb and said: “Myrrh is fitting for the dead; but Christ has shown Himself a stranger to corruption! So proclaim: ‘The Lord is risen,//granting the world great mercy.’”
Thus we remember those women who stayed with the Lord at the terrible hour of His death and so were there to witness the wonder of His resurrection. Many of them were kin to the Lord, at least by marriage, being relatives of St. Joseph the Betrothed. Who were these women? Their number is usually said to be eight:
· Mary, the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary)
· Mary Magdalene who is called the Apostle to the Apostles. She travelled and taught all who would listen about Christ. She even went to the emperor Tiberias and told him about the unjust death of Christ. She eventually found her way to Ephesus to help the work of St. John the Theologian. She died in peace there.
· Joanna the wife of Chouza, the steward-administrator of King Herod Antipas
· Salome: She was the step-daughter of the Theotokos and mother of St. James and St. John the sons of Zebedee.
· Mary the wife of Cleopas/Clopas: she was married to Clopas, Joseph’s brother….so she was her sister in law…but also a cousin. There are no Hebrew or Aramaic words to distinguish between cousin, sister, or sister in law.
· Susanna She is identified as one of the wealthy women who provided support for Jesus during his ministry.
· Mary and Martha of Bethany: They wound up in Cyprus helping their brother Lazarus the Bishop of Cyprus.
There are two others that are commemorated on this day as well. They are Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus who came to the Lord at night. The Myrrhbearing women bore witness to His Resurrection and the two men bore witness to His burial. Joseph begged Pilate for the body and then provided the tomb and Nicodemus provided the myrrh and aloes with which they hastily prepared the body before the Sabbath began.
We remember Joseph’s role in this with the troparion we sang today:
The noble Joseph, when he had taken down Thy most pure Body from the Tree,wrapped it in fine linen and anointed it with spices, and placed it in a new tomb. But Thou didst rise on the third day, O Lord,//granting the world great mercy.
though the laity does not hear it, because it is a prayer said quietly during the Great entrance. The wine and bread are brought to the altar and while the priest enters the altar and places the gifts on the holy table, he says, “The noble Joseph, when he had taken down Thy most pure Body from the Tree,wrapped it in fine linen and anointed it with spices, and placed it in a new tomb.” Two more short prayers are said and again “The noble Joseph, when he had taken down Thy most pure Body from the Tree,wrapped it in fine linen and anointed it with spices, and placed it in a new tomb.” is repeated when the aer, the large cloth, is censed with incense made with myrrh and then placed over the chalice and the lamb as if it were a burial sheet. Some see the aer as being symbolic of the stone that covered the tomb as well. The aer is taken up during the Creed and is waved over the gifts, representing, I have been taught, the Holy Spirit and also I have read, the earthquake that occurred when Christ rose from the dead. If we can fit more than one symbol onto an object, it seems that we Orthodox Christians will do so!
Perhaps what is most interesting about today’s saints is that those who stayed with Christ at His Crucifixion and burial, for the most part, did not die as martyrs (though some sources say that St. Nicodemus was a martyr there are no details of this and I can find no sources to corroborate the claim). None of the records show any of the Myrrhbearing women as martyrs, St. Joseph died in peace after planting the seeds of the faith in in Britain. As I said, there is some thought that St. Nicodemus died as a martyr but there is no record of it. What is also interesting is that of all of the 12 Apostles, only St. John the Theologian, who stayed with Christ to the end, died a peaceful death.
Looking to St. John the Theologian and the Theotokos we can perhaps begin to understand why this may be; why the Myrrhbearers, St. Joseph and St. John did not die as martyrs (and perhaps St. Nicodemus).
First let’s looks at the Theotokos. When she brought Our Lord to be presented at the Temple, we read, “Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against 35 (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.””
“Yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” What mother would not feel the sharp pain, as if it were a sword, through her heart, through her very soul, when she sees her child die in agony? The hymns of her lamentations are heart rending to hear during Holy Saturday, “O my God and Word, my Joy, how shall I endure Thy three days in the tomb? Now is my heart torn in pieces by a mother’s grief.” We understand then that she suffered a martyrdom right there with her child, Our Lord. Traditions says that she fell asleep in Ephesus on August 15, and we celebrate the feast of the Dormition on that date still.
St. John the Theologian, according to Tradition, was the nephew of our Lord (he was Joseph’s grandson…so by marriage John was the Nephew of Christ). In John’s Gospel we read how he and his brother James were emboldened to ask that they sit on the right and left sides of Christ in His glory.
But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They said to Him, “We are able.” So Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized; 40 but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared.”
We know from Tradition and from Scriptures that St. James was butchered by the sword, by Herod’s men. In Acts chapter 12 we read: Now about that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church. 2 Then he killed James the brother of John with the sword.” Here is it obvious that James, John’s brother, was baptized in the same baptism of the Lord…that is the baptism of blood. He was martyred. What about St. John? He died peacefully in great old age in Ephesus. We have seen by the example of the Theotokos, that it is likely John’s anguish at seeing the Lord die on the Cross was his own martyrdom as well. This would be true, then, for all of those who stood at the foot of Christ’s Cross and bore witness to His death. This is also why the myrrhbearing women were also given to be witnesses to His resurrection. With sorrow they approached the tomb, but they were told by an angel to cease from sorrow and to embrace joy. In last night’s vespers we sang of this:
O women disciples,why do you mingle myrrh with tears?
The stone is gone; the tomb is empty.Behold, corruption destroyed by life! The seals witness that the guards of the godless have watched in vain. Mortal nature has been saved by the flesh of God.
Hell is wailing. Go with joy, and proclaim to the Apostles:
“Christ has slain death as the first-born of the dead.//
He awaits you in Galilee!” (from Lord I have Cried, Vespers for the Third Sunday in Lent)
It is from these women and men that we learn that we today must also bear witness to Christ’s death and that we participate in it with our own suffering. We, in our suffering in life, are called to bear our crosses, whatever they may be: illness, death, depression, sorrow, financial loss, fasting, prayer and vigil, long services…but more importantly we are called to be witnesses (and that is what the word martyr means, a witness) we are called to bear witness to the Paschal Joy. Whatever our external circumstances may be, we are called to carry within us a Joy that no one and no situation can take away from us. Sometimes this will be hard work because we may have to crucify our own wills and desires and pride. If we can do this, though, with God’s help, we will also rise with Christ as well. And the Myrrhbearing women’s cry of Joy becomes our cry: Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen! Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen! Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
2009 Fr. Philip Kontos