Today we remember the Holy Myrrhbearers—not just the devoted women who came to anoint the Lord’s body on the first day of the week, but also Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who tended and buried the body of Jesus after His crucifixion. These were the men and women who cared for the Lord in the moments of His great shame and humiliation, when everyone else had abandoned Him, when the whole world had turned on Him, and all seemed lost. It is right that such virtue should be honored with everlasting memory. To better grasp its qualities, we must turn our minds away momentarily from this season’s Paschal joy, and return in heart and thought to the horror, confusion, and sorrow of Great and Holy Friday.
As Christ’s lifeless body hang naked on the Cross, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus proved their mettle, and courageously ministered to the crucified God. Before, when Peter and the other Apostles were travelling openly with Jesus throughout Galilee and Judea, Joseph and Nicodemus kept their devotion to the Lord secret for fear of their unbelieving kinsmen. Now, in this moment of supreme tragedy and peril, Christ’s one-time travelling companions are nowhere to be found, while the secret disciples are no longer ashamed to be known as His followers. Joseph was a rich counsellor, Nicodemus a respected teacher. But in their compassion for the innocent sufferer, they no longer had regard for their social standing. They despised their earthly wealth, wisdom, learning, and the esteem of their peers, in order to stand up for a convicted criminal, wrongly condemned of being a threat to Roman rule. These two men rather placed their wealth and status at the Master’s disposal, acquiring His body from Pilate and giving it worthy burial. Joseph provided the new stone-hewn tomb, Nicodemus the winding-sheet and burial spices. They performed the dreadful task of laying God’s corpse in the earth, and so they won everlasting glory from the Church, both on earth and in heaven.
If Nicodemus and Joseph are rightly praised for their deeds, the virtue displayed by the women disciples of the Lord on this occasion is even more commendable. Indeed, there are no depths of devotion so profound as those hid within a godly woman’s heart. Just consider some of these women who followed Jesus wherever he went, ministering to Him of their substance. What could I say that has not already been said about Mary the Mother of God? Was it not the purity of her devotion that brought Christ into the world to begin with? Did she not bear patiently with all the burdens of childrearing, and all the sorrows of her Son’s earthly life? Was she not always there with Him through everything, even the Cross, silently suffering with the Redeemer of the world? But she is not the only praiseworthy Mary. We also have Mary Magdalene, out of whom Christ cast seven devils. She was forgiven much by the Lord, and accordingly she loved much. In her ardent love, she outran all the other women and arrived first at the tomb. And then there is Mary of Bethany, who became the first myrrh-bearer when she anointed the Lord with the costly oil of spikenard from her alabaster box. Moved by the fervent devotion of her heart, she poured out this precious ointment in anticipation of the Lord’s burial. Judas and the other disciples faulted her for this, but Jesus in His compassion accepted her offering, and promised that her deed would be forever remembered wherever the gospel is preached. He was not swayed by the oil’s extravagant cost, but received it as a token and display of love—the same love that would not allow Mary to leave her place at the Master’s feet, so sweet to her was the sound of His voice.
These are just a few of the women we celebrate today. From them, you may infer the quality of the rest. All of them shared tremendous zeal, boundless devotion, and fervent charity. They followed the Lord as He bore His Cross through Jerusalem’s streets, and shed bitter tears for Him. They continued with Him to Golgotha, and watched in horror and anguish as the most shameless deed in human history was perpetrated. They saw the nails pierce His hands and feet, the lance thrust into His side, the sun darkened, the earth quake, the rocks rent. They heard His last words, they witnessed His last breath. They accompanied His body to burial, they beheld the place where the Lord lay. And where were the other disciples, who just hours before had affirmed to a man that they would all die with Him? Hiding—hiding behind locked doors, hiding for fear of the Jews.
They all passed that sabbath in sorrow—it must have felt like the longest of sabbaths. But the women did not utterly despond. They were biding their time, waiting for the first light. It was the day after the preparation, the Passover of the Jews, but the women were busy with their preparations for the New Passover from death unto life. While they kept the old sabbath, they looked to the first of sabbaths, the first day of the week. They bought spices and brought them early at dawn to the tomb. Their task was not without danger and difficulty. Roman soldiers were guarding the tomb; it was covered by a great stone, and had been sealed by the watch. How would they get past the guards? How would they roll away the stone?
But devotion is not discouraged. It does not consider any obstacle too great if a deed is pleasing to God. It has no time to calculate, but acts on the impetus of its burning love for the Savior. And so we see too that devotion is not disappointed. God sees the devoted heart, he hears and answers its prayers. He does anything for those who truly love Him.
It is only fitting, then, that these devout women were the first to hear of Christ’s Resurrection. Those who saw the Lord ascend the Cross and descend into Hell now see the angel come down from heaven and throw open the empty tomb. Those who saw the soldiers nail Christ to the Cross now see them flee in terror and dread at the gleaming countenance of the angel. Those who heard the jeers and insults of the passersby at the foot of the Cross now hear angels announce to them the glad tidings of the Resurrection. Those who heard Jesus’ last agonizing cry from the Cross are now the first to hear from the risen Lord, “Rejoice! Behold your devotion’s reward.”
How can we join this laudable company of devoted disciples? How can we be deemed worthy to encounter our risen Lord? We too must seek out the tomb of Christ with all love and longing—the tomb, that is, of our stony hearts. Each of us is made in the image and likeness of God, and this image is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, the God-man, the new Adam. But the image lies buried within us. Our pristine, Christ-like nature has been ravaged by sin, the passions, and the world; it has been marred and disfigured by a lifetime of sins, both our own and those of others, leaving it bruised and bloodied, battered and broken; it has received so many blows and beatings, shouts and spittings from an uncomprehending world that despises Christ’s teaching and extols crude sensuality; yes, we ourselves often join the chorus of world and the demons shouting “Crucify Him!” when Christian virtue suggests itself to our heart. All of these things—our sins, our heartbreaks, disappointments, disillusionments, the bitter wounds inflicted by ourselves and others, the world’s callous indifference to everything sacred and holy, it’s cheap and perverse distractions and entertainments—they have coarsened our hearts and our minds so that instead of His temple, they become His tomb. These spiritual wounds weigh upon our hearts like a great immovable stone, sealed and guarded by a legion of demons who will not let us through to anoint the body of our Lord with our tears.
We now find that it is beyond our power to resurrect the deadened image Christ in ourselves. We cannot undo all of the wounds that have killed Christ within us. All that we can do is go in hope to weep before the sepulchre, to bring the precious myrrh of our heart’s devotion, of pious longing, and to anoint the corpse of Christ buried within. Then, like the first myrrh-bearers, we will surely see the power of God, the stone removed, the empty tomb. We will surely meet our Jesus alive, quickening our heart and granting it an imperishable and hitherto unthinkable joy—a joy untainted by any carnal lust, a joy unquenched by any earthly sorrow, a joy unsurpassed by any human happiness.
Now that we have passed through fire and water, and undergone all the trials and toils of Great Lent, let us follow the myrrh-bearers with devotion to the tomb. Let us pray God that we too might be accounted worthy of their joy, so that the labors of the Fast might not all have been in vain. Amen.