Commemorated on May 4th
Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women
Two weeks after Easter – known in the liturgical calendar as the third Sunday of Pascha – the Orthodox Church celebrates two events, which are recounted in the Gospel reading designated for the Divine Liturgy of that day (Mark 15:43 – 16:8). Firstly, the day honours the action taken by Joseph of Arimathea, a highly respected Jewish Councillor, who had approached Pontius Pilate directly and asked for the body of the executed 'King of the Jews', so that he could bury it in his own tomb (Mk 15:43-47).
The Gospel passage also reveals the reason for this action – namely his conviction that, with Jesus, the kingdom of God had indeed been inaugurated. Secondly, the day pays tribute to the courageous initiative taken by the myrrh-bearing women (Mary Magdalene and Mary (mother) of James and Salome) to go to the tomb of Jesus early in the morning, so that they could anoint His all-pure body. However, as the story unfolds, to their utter astonishment, they would discover the tomb open and the corpse of Jesus no-where to be found (Mk 16:1-8). In this way, these women were to become the first witnesses of Christ's resurrection. Before carefully examining these two separate events in detail, however, we briefly need to consider their connection, since they ostensibly deal with two sets of different characters.
Even though, these two distinct events, might, at first glance, appear seemingly unrelated - since the first refers to Joseph of Arimathea and the burial of Jesus whilst the latter with the myrrh-bearing women and their discovery that the tomb of Christ was empty - a closer reading shows their deep connection. Together, these two episodes came to form the principal core of what subsequently came to be known as the apostolic canon of faith (the kanovna pivstew" or regula fidei). The essential content of this apostolic proclamation of faith included the conviction that the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, was really God's only begotten Son in human form and that, as a matter of fact He had been crucified as part of God's eternal plan of salvation for the world, dying, in this way, a horrific and humiliating death.
It must be remembered that the first followers of Jesus would have never expected such a shameful death of their long-awaited Jewish Messianic King. Secondly, beyond the death of Jesus the Messiah, the apostolic message further consisted in the belief that God, who was Jesus' genuine Father, had raised Jesus from the dead on the third day, explaining, in this way, the reason why the tomb of Jesus was empty. Accordingly, in their juxtaposition, these two events summed up in a very succinct manner the entire message of Christianity – namely that Jesus had truly died and that His resurrection was therefore truly genuine.
Upon further reflection of the profound correlation between the two events described in the Gospel passage, one comes to appreciate the reason why the Evangelist brought them together the way he did. Since the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ constituted the most fundamental proclamation of the early Church , the Evangelist had to leave no shadow of doubt in the minds of his readers that the myrrh-bearing women had indeed gone to the correct tomb and that the resurrection was therefore real. It was precisely for this reason that St Mark's Gospel noted, right at the end of the Joseph of Arimathea story that, whilst Joseph was busy performing the customary funerary rites on the body of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jose were observing from afar, for a long time , where the body of Jesus had been laid (cf. Mk 15:47). This minor detail, which can easily be overlooked, is extremely important since it underscores the fact that the women had to be seen to know precisely the whereabouts of the tomb, if they were to visit it in the early hours of Sunday morning; especially in view of the fact that the disciples, out of fear, had gone into hiding. Therefore, the modern claim that the women went to the wrong tomb does not stand. Accordingly, the details of Christ's burial related in the Gospel account served a transitional function, which reinforced the death of Jesus and prepared for the interpretation that the empty tomb episode was indeed testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. Having looked at the two events synthetically, we are now in a position to deal with them distinctly, and it is to this that we now turn.
JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA – A NOBLE AND RESPECTED FOLLOWER OF JESUS
The first section of the Gospel reading (Mk 15:43-47) outlines the events that took place immediately after Christ's suffering and crucifixion. The reader is specifically given an insight into the person responsible for organising the burial of the dead body of Jesus. The importance of this event can invariably be surmised from the fact that all four Gospels attest to it (cf. Mt 27:57; Mk 15:43; Lk 23:51 and Jn 19.38). We are told that a man, by the name of Joseph of Arimathea, sought the body of Jesus from Pilate, against all personal impending danger, so that he could give it a proper burial. In asking for the dead body of Jesus, Joseph could easily have been suspected, by Pilate, of being a member of the Jesus movement and this could have impacted negatively in any future advancement in the social, political and religious arena of his life. However, had not Joseph taken such an initiative, it is more than likely that the body of Jesus would have been thrown into a common grave and therefore not given the dignified burial befitting any human person, let alone the Son of God, the Theanthropos. Consequently, this reveals the boldness and courage of Joseph. Beyond this, however, the burial by Joseph affirmed, in an unambiguous way, that Jesus had truly died , so that no one could subsequently claim that He had not really been raised from the dead.
In reading the first section of the profoundly important pericope, one is initially struck at the short phrasal clauses portraying the actions of Joseph of Arimathea, which recreate, in a very effective way, the sense of haste that he must have experienced: Joseph of Arimathea… having come, being told… requested the body of Jesus (Mk 15:43)… and buying a linen cloth, taking Him down, He wrapped Him in the linen shroud and laid Him in the tomb. (Mk 15:46).
The seven verbs, in close succession, serve to heighten not only the angst that Joseph must have felt in having to request the body of a recently convicted 'criminal' according to Roman law (which, as noted above, may have even had negative consequences for his future career) but also in the fact that time was against him, since he had to make sure that the body was buried before sunset, in line with the Jewish customs of the time. According to Jewish sensibilities, a body would not be left hanging unattended throughout the night. In Deuteronomy, we read: When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. (Deut 21:22-23).
Therefore, the Gospel description of the haste, with which Christ's body had to be taken down from the Cross and buried before the commencement of the Sabbath, aligns itself totally with the Jewish customs of those times. Furthermore, it reveals the degree of danger that Joseph was putting himself in on the part of the Roman authorities for asking for the body, and on the part of his fellow Council members, who had condemned Jesus to death and handed Him over to Pilate.
One last point, with respect to the first section of the Gospel text, is that, contrary to popular belief, which suggests that the early social composition of the apostolic Church included only those from the poor and lower classes of society, the person of Joseph of Arimathea clearly indicates otherwise. The Gospel passage points out that Joseph was a respected and noble member of the Jewish Council, and that he was looking for the kingdom of God (Mk 15:43). Even though the Markan phrase 'looking for the kingdom' does not explicitly reveal that Joseph was a disciple of Jesus Christ, it does illustrate that he was, at the very least, a sympathiser of Jesus and His movement. Elaborating upon the Markan depiction, the Gospel according to St Matthew not only reveals Joseph's financial wellbeing but also clearly specifies that he was a disciple of Jesus:
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. (Mt 27:57). Given this, it cannot be concluded, as is often done so, with respect to the sociological shape of the first followers of Jesus, that all were illiterate and poor. On the contrary, evidence, not only from Mark, but from the entire New Testament undeniably demonstrates that the early ecclesial communities basically reflected the broad cross-section of the demographic mix of each particular locality in which Christianity arose. And so, it included all classes of society: both rich and poor, learned and illiterate, Jews and Gentiles and so on. Having looked at the protagonist of Christ's burial, we now turn our attention to those exceptional myrrh-bearing women, who were first to experience the joy of Christ's resurrection (cf. Jn 20:1318).
In the second part, we will consider the actions specifically of the myrrh-bearing women and examine what lessons can be drawn for those of us living in the twenty-first century.