Friday, May 16, 2008

These Extraordinary Women

Dear Parish Faithful,


This past week, the third week of Pascha, we commemorated the Myrrhbearing Women, together with St. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Joseph and Nicodemus were instrumental in the burial of the Lord. The Gospels are unanimous in telling us that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a "new tomb," St. Matthew stressing that it was a tomb that actually belonged to St. Joseph. The Synoptic Gospels of Sts. Matthew, Mark and Luke are also clear in relating that the myrrhbearing women looked on "and saw where He was laid." (MK. 15:47) It is these same "myrrhbearing women" who return to the tomb on the "first day of the week" (MK. 16:2) in order to lament and anoint the dead body of Jesus with spices, as "is the burial customs of the Jews." (JN. 19:40) Those we know by name are Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome and Joanna; but there is also mention of "other women."

According to centuries of accumulated tradition and practice, it was customary among the Jews of Christ's time not to ascribe any "legal" authority to the testimony of women. That makes it rather inexplicable as to why the women are then the first to know of the Resurrection of Christ and to actually see the Risen Lord, with Mary Magdalene being the first human being to be accorded this awesome privilege. (JN. 20:11-18; MK. 16:9-11) However, all through His ministry, Christ treated women with a fresh sense of equality that was meant to remove any undo "prejudice." Christ had women disciples. (LK. 8:1-3) These women disciples remained loyal and committed to Christ even in death, when the "Jesus movement" appeared to be discredited and dissolved with His accursed death upon the cross. Everything was dead and buried with Jesus, to be forgotten in a matter of a short time, and to be lost to history with no real reason to justify its recovery. This is why explaining (away?) the emergence of the Church and the rise of Christianity without the Resurrection is so difficult and unconvincing. As my old Byzantine history professor once said to our class when describing the very beginning of Christianity, "something happened" of an extraordinary nature that accounted for the empty tomb. As an historian that was his way of referring to the Resurrection of Christ. There is really no other way to account for the fact that Jesus was believed in and worshipped.

Yet, the myrrhbearing persisted in their loyalty to the Master even though they must have realized all of this. We can only surmise, but did the Lord "reward" these women for their loyalty by first proclaiming the Resurrection to them, before He did to the eleven disciples? If they were the only ones to come and minister to Him in death, then they would be the ones to behold Him alive after death. In an instant, the Risen Lord reversed centuries of prejudice by appointing the myrrhbearing women to be "apostles to the apostles." Intuitively, they went to the tomb, hoping to continue their ministry to Christ without having "figured out" beforehand the removal of the large stone that blocked access to the tomb: "Who will roll away the stone for us form the door of the tomb?" (MK. 16:3) Their anxiety and grief was transformed into surprise when they discovered that the stone had been removed from the entrance to the tomb. This in turn became amazement ("they were amazed" MK. 16:5) when they encountered "a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe" - clearly an angel. He addressed them with words that to this day thrill the heart of the believing Christian with the "good news" that will never be surpassed:

Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you. (MK. 16:6-7)

"Trembling and astonishment" in the presence of the numinous and holy, made tangible by the angel and his proclamation of the Resurrection, rendered them "afraid" and initially, at least, "they said nothing to any one." (MK. 16:8) Soon enough, however, the Gospel accounts make it clear that they spoke to the disciples. We can only imagine Mary Magdalene's reaction when "they would not believe it" when she told the disciples "that he was alive and had been seen by her!" (MK. 16:11) The Scriptures tell us nothing further of these remarkable women, an "omission" we can only lament. Various pious traditions developed over time, one of which has Mary Magdalene appear before the Emperor Tiberius Caesar in Rome and greet him with the words: "Christ is Risen!" while holding up before him an egg that slowly began turning a brilliant red in the process!

In an age of betrayal, when even "Christians" are no longer willing or able to believe in the bodily Resurrection of Christ, we need to heed the words of the myrrhbearing women and imitate their loyalty, zeal, commitment and love of Christ. They were not proclaiming "an idle tale," as even the male disciples first believed according to St. Luke (24:11). They were witnessing to the Risen Lord and His conquest of death. If, in our daily lives, we could minister to the Lord in the same spirit, which would also mean ministering to others, because Christ is "in" the other, then perhaps we too would be "rewarded" with a greater certainty of faith in His presence as the risen and liviing Lord. The impression is indelible that the myrrhbearing women put Christ first, far above any other loyalties or loves. If and when we feel distant from Christ is it because we fail miserably at times to match that loyalty and love? Are we willing to come to the empty tomb regardless of what "common sense" or the daily obstacles of life throw up before us? Or are easily tempted down another path that has nothing to do with Christ but only ourselves and our desires? These extraordinary women, who will be remembered and venerated until the end of time, present us with an enduring example and an unavoidable challenge.

Fr. Steven

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