Sunday, April 22 (O.S., April 9), 2018: Third Sunday of Pascha, Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women, Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus; Martyr Eupsychius (362). Martyrs Desan bishop, Mariabus presbyter, Abdiesus, and 270 other martyrs in Persia (362). Hieromartyr Bademus (Vadym), archimandrite of Persia (376).
Christ is Risen!
Given our history, it isn’t surprising that sometimes Orthodox Christians forget that there is a certain, necessary and inescapable tension and even conflict between the Church and the World. If at times, the City of God (the Church) and the City of Man (the World) can work collaboratively, this doesn’t mean that fundamentally the two cities aren’t in competition with each other.
We compete with the World for the human heart, for material resources, and space in the public square. Though we might sometimes shy away from thinking of the City of Man as in competition with the Church, if we are faithful to Christ we will inevitably find ourselves at odds with those around us. Or as the Apostle James bluntly puts it “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).
Today’s commemoration of the Myrrh-bearing Women and the Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus is an example of the tension between the City of God and the City of Man.
Jesus was put to death by crucifixion because the Roman Empire saw Him as a threat to their power and so the civil order. The Jewish authorities make exactly this charge against Jesus to force Pilate’s hand “If you let this Man go, you are not Caesar’s friend. Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar” (John 19:12).
This means that to be a friend of Jesus was to be–at least potentially–an enemy of Caesar and against all that the Empire represented. This is the political and cultural context within which Joseph of Arimathea “taking courage, went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” Joseph isn’t simply risking the bad opinion of the other members of “the council,” of the Sanhedrin, of the ruling authority of the Jews.
As potentially harmful as this would be, by his actions Joseph also risks being labeled an opponent of Caesar. In asking for the body of Jesus, Joseph makes himself vulnerable to the charge of insurrection. This means that, like Jesus, Joseph could end his life on a cross.
Courageous though Joseph, and for that matter Nicodemus are, they are not the liturgical focus for the third Sunday after Pascha. That honor belongs to the Myrrh-bearing women “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome.”
Early on that first Pascha morning these women first “bought spices” and then went to Jesus’ tomb “so that they might go and anoint” His body. What Joseph and Nicodemus do privately in the presence of Pilate, these women do publicly. Before they go to the tomb, the women, known disciples of Jesus, go to the marketplace to buy what they need for his burial.
By their actions, the Myrrh-bearing women make clear their friendship with Jesus. By their actions, the Myrrh-bearing women make themselves the object of gossip. And in a small community, gossip can be deadly.
Like Joseph, doing this places the women at odds with Rome and the Sanhedrin. Doing this in the marketplace, however, places them at odds with their families and their friends, their neighbors and the whole community.
None of this, I should emphasize, was chosen by the women. They did not intend to do what too many Christians today seem dead set on doing.
They didn’t intend to give offense. They didn’t intend to set themselves at odds with the Jewish community and the Roman Empire.
All they wanted to do was mourn the loss of someone they loved.
Love for Jesus moves the Myrrh-bearing Women, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus to challenge both civil and religious authority. They don’t engage in revolution but they do remind both Jewish and Roman authorities that they too must be obedient to God. Real though their power is, neither Rome nor the Sanhedrin has the final word. This final word, as we soon see in the Gospel, belongs to Jesus.
Coming to the Tomb, the women find it empty.
Well, not exactly empty.
…entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.”
So overwhelming is the message that the women flee “from the tomb.” Initially, at least, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Soon though the same love that gave them the courage to proclaim their love for Jesus in the marketplace, will turn Mary Magdalene into the “Apostle to the Apostles.” Her joy at the Resurrection will overwhelm her grief, her love will banish her fear, and she will tell the disciples that “Christ is Risen!”
My brothers and sisters in Christ! Whenever we can, however we can, we should live peacefully with others. We should be eager to cooperate with other Christians as well as those of good will in whatever projects that alleviate suffering, foster a more just society or lead to a more peaceful world.
But what we can never forget is that there will be times when our love for Jesus Christ, our faith in Him as Lord and God and our witness to His Resurrection, will put us at odds with even those who are–in every other way–like a second self to us. Unpleasant, or worse, that these moments might be, they are not only for our salvation but for the salvation of the world and for those who, in the moment, make themselves opponents of the Gospel.
Christ is Risen!