On the third Sunday after Pascha, Orthodox Christians commemorate the Myrrh-bearing Women, those who followed the Lord Jesus during His three-year ministry and, as mentioned in the gospel of Luke, “provided for Him from their substance.” There were many among them but only seven to eight are mentioned by name: Mary Magdalene; Mary, the wife of Clopas; Joanna, wife of Chouza; Salome, the mother of the sons of Zebedee; Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus; and Susanna. The Virgin Mary is also counted among their number by numerous church Fathers.
We remember the Myrrh-bearers for the events that occurred on the morning that Christ rose from the dead. All four gospels contain similar accounts even though some details vary as is natural with eyewitness testimony.
Very early on the first day of the week, that is, the day after the Sabbath, several of the women went to the tomb of the Lord Jesus carrying aromatic spices with which to anoint His body. They were as yet still thinking in earthly terms of the coming corruption of the body which was now three days dead. Imagine the love, humility, and great courage required of these women, who just three days prior witnessed His gruesome scourging and crucifixion. While almost all of the disciples of the Lord had fled, these women remained even as the sky darkened and the earth quaked upon His death.
Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, Jewish council members and secret disciples of the Lord, took His body from the cross, anointed it with spices and wrapped it in a linen shroud, and then placed it in a tomb with the permission of Pontius Pilate. But, as Matthew mentions, “Mary Magdalene was there and the other Mary, sitting opposite this tomb,” witnessing all that was occurring. (Matt. 27: 61)
The women, having seen the Lord placed in the tomb, returned home to mourn. After a Sabbath day’s rest, they could have remained in hiding like the other disciples. Instead, they awoke unto the morning twilight on the first day of the week to bring myrrh and spices to the tomb. This, even though a guard had been set and a seal placed on the tomb … a seal for which it was a capital offense to remove.
The reading for this Sunday is from the gospel of Mark, the same one proclaimed immediately after midnight during the Holy Resurrection service on Holy Pascha. But let’s consider the other accounts as well, like Matthew’s where he provides the earliest detail of what Mary Magdalene and the other Mary witnessed as they approached the tomb:
“And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men.” (Matt. 28: 2-4)
We arrive just after this moment in the icon of the Myrrh-bearing Women. The scene is one of great wonder and bewilderment. Whereas on the way the women thought “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?” (Mark 16: 3), they now “bowed their faces to the earth,” for they were greatly afraid (Luke 24: 5).
The angel shines resplendently, with wings upraised to denote the urgency of his message. He holds a staff in his left hand, symbolizing his role as a messenger, while with his right he points to the empty tomb and the grave clothes lying there. For this purpose did he roll back the stone, not so that Christ could arise for as we read later He, in His risen form, can even pass through locked doors. But rather, so that he may offer proof of the empty tomb and to show, as St. Gregory Palamas describes, “the great miracle of the grave clothes, which had not been undone and were held together with myrrh and aloes, but were visibly empty of the body.” (Homilies, 148)
From the gospel of Luke, we read that “certain other women” were also there as witnesses, and though accounts vary slightly the message of the angel remains the same:
“Why do you seek the living among the dead? He isn’t here, but is risen. Remember what He told you when He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered up into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again?”
With this message the women returned with haste to tell the disciples of what they had learned, serving as apostles to the apostles. But not before, as Matthew describes, “Jesus met them” on the way, “saying ‘Rejoice!’ So they came and held Him by the feet and worshiped Him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. Go and tell My brethren to go to Galilee and there they will see Me.”
Thus, with these brave women being the first to hear of the resurrection and see the risen Christ, as several church fathers note, we witness the reversal of the curse of Eve. This is further magnified in the evangelist John’s account of Mary Magdalene encountering the risen Christ in the garden near the tomb shortly thereafter.
The image of the myrrh-bearing women was one of the earliest Christian images used when depicting the resurrection. Whereas the icon of the Resurrection depicts the spiritual reality of Christ’s descent into Hades and the conquering of death, the icon of the Myrrh-bearing Women depicts the empirical evidence, the first of several eyewitness accounts that help strengthen the disciples confidence in the resurrection and prepared them for the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
So let us, as we worship on this day, as we contemplate these images and consider the proof, think about how we too can imitate these women with love and humble service to the Lord and others, with confidence in the resurrection and the path that leads to eternal life.
Video produced by Efstratios Papageorgiou
Written by Michael Gavalas