Homily for the Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, Pious Joseph of Arimathaea, and Righteous Nicodemus in the Orthodox Church
Today we commemorate those who, in moments of profound crisis, did not think only of themselves, but instead cared for the dead body of their Lord as a sign of their love for Him.
With broken hearts and in terrible shock and grief, the Theotokos, Mary Magdalen, two other Mary’s, Johanna, Salome, Martha, Susanna, and others whose names we do not know, went early in the morning to the tomb of Christ in order to anoint Him. They had seen Him die a terrible death and expected to find His body lying in the grave. By doing what they could to show one last act of love to the Saviour, the myrrh-bearing women received the tremendous blessing of being the first to hear from the angel the good news of the resurrection.
Along with them, we also remember today Joseph of Arimathaea, who bravely asked Pilate for the dead body of the Lord and took Him down from the Cross with his own hands. Nicodemus, who had previously not understood Christ at all, helped Joseph bury Him. These were both prominent Jewish men who risked a great deal by associating themselves with One Who had been rejected by their own religious leaders as a blasphemer and publicly crucified by the Romans as a traitor.
Our Lord’s Passion shook all of His followers to their core. John was the only one of the twelve to stand at the foot the Cross, for the others had run away in fear. Peter, the head disciple, had denied the Saviour three times. They were all shocked that their Messiah had failed to set up an earthly kingdom; instead, He had been killed by His enemies. They believed that death had had the final word on Jesus of Nazareth. Out of a mixture of fear, disappointment, and the assumption that He could do nothing else for them, His closest followers ran away and hid.
The myrrh-bearers, along with Joseph and Nicodemus, were surely just as grieved as the disciples. Things had not turned out as they had hoped either; nonetheless, they resisted the temptation to think only about themselves. They responded very differently from the twelve because they kept their focus on showing their love for Jesus Christ as best they could. That meant doing the sorrowful task of giving their departed Lord and friend a decent burial. They accepted the risk of identifying themselves even further with One Who had just been crucified. They must have all struggled against fear and pain. Somehow, they found the courage and strength to risk everything by showing their love for Christ as best they could in these awful circumstances.
Though in a different context, today’s reading from Acts describes a similar commitment in the early years of the Church’s life. The Christians in Jerusalem had shared everything in common and provided food daily to the widows, who had no other means of support. A problem arose when the widows of Greek cultural heritage complained that they were neglected.
Disagreements and struggles between different groups of people have existed in the Church from its earliest days. Instead of the apostles attempting to solve the problem directly, they created the office of deacon, which literally means “servant.”
The community chose seven men to fulfil the role of servants who would directly meet such practical needs. Following their ordination and ministry of service, we read that “the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.”
These first deacons have a lot in common with the women and men we commemorate today, for they also cared for the Lord’s Body. They addressed the physical needs of the members of the Church in a stressful situation of conflict. Instead of leaving the problem to others or ignoring it, they took it on.
Undertaking that ministry may well have been an unexpected inconvenience for them. They had to abandon the illusion that they could pursue the Christian life on their own terms or in a way characterized by perfect peace and quiet. Instead, they focused on the practical task of organizing a fair distribution of food to neglected widows. They accept- ed their new ministry and performed it faithfully for the flourishing of the Church.
We celebrate our Saviour’s victory over death on this Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women with the recognition that the new life He has brought to the world requires us to make the offering of active obedience even in difficult situations. Through their courageous, humble, and loving service, the myrrh-bearers were able to receive the unbelievably good news of the resurrection. They show us that the way to know the joy of the empty tomb is to serve our Lord in practical, tangible ways.
Whenever we give our time, resources, or attention to help anyone who is in need in any way, we embrace an opportunity to serve our Saviour and participate more fully in His life. He has delivered us from slavery to the fear of death, which is at the root of why people so easily disregard one another’s suffering and fail to see their neighbours as living icons of the Lord. The fear of death leads us to indulge in vain efforts to protect ourselves from annihilation by selfishness as we treat others as threats to our well-being. It also tempts us to distract ourselves from despair by self-indulgence in pleasure of various kinds.
The good news of Pascha is that our Risen Lord has made even the tomb itself a pathway to the Kingdom and consequently liberated us from slavery to the fear of death. In the brilliant light of the resurrection, there is no longer any reason to disregard or resent our neighbours; instead, there is every reason to show love for our Lord in how we treat them. The righteous women and men we commemorate today showed their devotion to the Saviour by caring for His dead body. Since how we treat even the most wretched person is how we treat Him, the brilliant light of the Lord’s resurrection must shine forth in how we serve those who suffer and struggle today. We must learn to see and serve our neighbours in light of the joy of the empty tomb.
We also enter more fully into the joy of Pascha by serving our Lord in His Body, the Church, when we offer our time and talents to meet the practical needs that any parish faces, from paying the bills to chanting and teaching Sunday School.
As the apostles knew when they ordained the first deacons, no one can perform every ministry. No one should even try to do so. We must all, however, use our gifts to do what needs to be done for the flourishing of the Church, even if it is not always what we would prefer to do. We must not allow the fear of death to lead us to insist on getting our own way, but instead must obey our calling to serve and strengthen Christ’s Body in whatever way we can. Doing so will not distract us from more important things, but instead will make it possible for us to do the most important thing of serving our Risen Lord.
If we want to know the joy of Pascha from the depths of our hearts, we must mindfully turn away from the fear of death and every passion that would keep us from offering ourselves to love and serve our Saviour in practical, tangible ways.
Joseph took Christ down from the Cross and, with the help of Nicodemus, buried Him. The myrrh-bearing women went to His tomb early in the morning on the first day of the week in order to anoint His dead body. They all did what needed to be done out of love for their Lord, Who had died.
Since we know that He has conquered death, all the more must we devote ourselves to serving Him by meeting the needs of our neighbours and of His Body, the Church. That is how we will grow in love for the Lord as we enter more fully into the glorious good news heard by those righteous and blessed women: “Christ is Risen”!
An anonymous writer has composed the following words about the myrrh-bearing women:
Because their total love for their Lord all obstacles in their path were overcome.
The darkness of night gave way to the light of the resurrection.
The unbelieving soldiers yielded to the angel of God.
The massive stone covering the tomb was quickly removed.
The holy women wept with joy as they heard the good news of Christ’s resurrection.
They came to anoint the Saviour, but instead were anointed themselves with everlasting life.