Source: St. Mary Orthodox Church
Delivered on the Sunday of the Holy Myrrhbearing Women at St. Mary Orthodox Church, Cambridge, MA
Sunday, April 25, 2004
In today’s Gospel, we revisit the tomb as Joseph provides for Christ’s burial and the myrrhbearing women come to anoint Christ’s body with spices and oils, only to discover that the tomb is empty. They run from the garden, the Bible tells us, “amazed and bewildered.” Now, we’ve walked through the repentance and preparation of fifty days of Lent. We prayed and worshipped through the intensity of Holy Week that erupted into the Joy and triumph of Pascha, proclaiming that Christ through His death has trampled down death, and we’ve experienced the celebration and lightness of Bright Week. Why now, then, does the Church return to the tomb? Let’s take a closer look.
We find these women watching as Joseph takes Christ’s body down from the cross. They have followed Jesus through his passion, witnessing that he was tried and crucified. They have watched as Joseph of Arimathea stepped up and gave Jesus a proper burial in his own tomb. They have seen the stone sealing the tomb. These women loved Jesus, and now they grieve for the loss of their beloved leader. All hope is lost. He is gone.
Yet even in the face of hopelessness, these women act. They buy ointments that will help his body dry out as it decays, and sweet spices so that even in death, his body is honored. Their actions show their steadfast love for Christ, that even after hope is shattered, they go the extra mile to honor Jesus. Such is their love for this dead man.
In their actions, we see that the myrrhbearers came to anoint Christ not out of a desire for any recognition or reward from Jesus, nothing that they could get out of it. He is dead. The women probably have no recollection that Christ said he would rise again, so they probably have no hope of triumph in Jesus’ death. They come not to receive, and probably not consciously to give either, but they are motivated by their love for Him, that they want His body to be blessed with sweet smelling fragrance.
Yet these women are honored with being the first witnesses to Christ’s resurrection. They were the first to know the joy that Christ had defeated death, that hope was fulfilled, that despair and grief were not all that was left to them. And, they were the first commissioned with going and telling others that Christ had risen from the dead.
These women were not seeking the excitement of some great commission, but they received this as a result of their desire to love and serve Christ even after death.
Now, we know the triumph of Christ. We know the end of the story. We know this even as we walk with these women to the tomb, as they despair, hopeless. Yet still in our lives, we also may deal with despair. Why am I stuck in this job? Why can’t I pay my bills? Why can’t I be patient with my children? Why do I feel so alone? When we are abandoned, when we try to follow God’s will but can’t see the way, when we lose someone or something we don’t think we can live without, when we suffer, perhaps that is when we experience Christ as dead.
In the recent film trilogy and popular book, The Lord of the Rings, our two reluctant heroes, Frodo and Sam, talk about how different it is to not merely be the readers of a tale, but in the middle of it, not knowing how it will really end up. If you don’t mind, I’d like to read you this passage. It begins with Sam talking to Frodo:
‘I used to think that the old tales and songs were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story call a good end…I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?’
‘I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to…You and I, Sam, are still stuck in the worst places of the story, and it is all too likely that some will say at this point: “Shut the book now, dad; we don’t want to read anymore.’ -Book IV, Ch. 8
I think there is a reason why we return to the tomb after Pascha. The Church has specifically set for us, through the lectionary, our return to the experience of Joseph and the Myrrhbearers after they had lost their hope. The Church brings us back to the worst place of their story. For while we know now of Christ’s resurrection, and while we have been given the commission as witnesses to go and tell about the risen Christ, still we, like Frodo and Sam are also in the middle of our tale, not knowing how it will end.
It is interesting that the first New Testament reading for today tells of the selection of the first deacons of the Jerusalem Church. Perhaps the model for these deacons and the model for all service is the myrrhbearers. As we heard this morning, the deacons were established to serve the widows who were being neglected. So the Church reminds us that in the same way that Joseph took Christ’s body down from the cross, as the myrrhbearers came to honor Christ’s body and bore witness to Christ’s resurrection, as the deacons began their service by distributing food to the needy, so all of us are commissioned to love the body of Christ, the Church.
We know that Christ has trampled down death by death, yet still we live doing battle against this present darkness (Eph. 6:12). We struggle for justice and peace, we fight against ourselves to love our neighbors. But let’s be honest. Sometimes we believe the triumph of Christ ultimately, but often we struggle to find the triumph of Christ now in this day. This lesson of the Myrrhbearers reminds us that even when we question how our stories will end, whether Christ truly will triumph in us, still we can get up early and bring spices to the Christ that we love, even when all seems lost. Sometimes in our work within the Church, in our attempts to love within our families, within society, it might often feel like we’re working with a dead corpse. But we may be surprised to find what we thought was dead is indeed alive. For the love that brought the myrrhbearers is not unlike God’s love: It cannot be destroyed by death. Christ died but has risen, trampling down our despair, trampling down injustice, trampling down persecution, trampling down sickness, trampling down war, trampling down evil, trampling down death. Christ is victorious. This is the hope that we have, our hope to go on. Not false hope, but hope based on the reality of the resurrection, the message of the angel to the women at the tomb, passed down through the ages, through time and space, delivered to us here today, April 25th, 2004.
You and I may still be stuck in the worst parts of our tales, but today we’re reminded through the Myrrhbearers of the victory that is truly here, and that is coming when our own tale is fulfilled.
Christ is Risen.