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Myrrh is Fitting for the Dead

by Fr. Christopher

The angel came to the myrrhbearing women at the tomb and said: Myrrh is fitting for the dead, but Christ has shown himself a stranger to corruption! So proclaim: The Lord is risen, granting the world great mercy.

The second Sunday of Pascha we commemorate the Holy myrrh-bearing women who came to the tomb to anoint Christ's holy body. Since Christ was killed on a Friday his arrangements needed to be made very quickly for, according to Jewish custom at the time, no work could be done on the Sabbath (Saturday). St. Joseph of Aramathea and St. Nicodemus asked Pilate if they could take his body down and prepare it for burial and place it in a tomb. This is what we sing on Holy Friday and Saturday, "The noble Joseph, when he had taken down Thy most pure body from the tree, wrapped it in fine linen, anointed it with spices and laid it in a new tomb." Since this had to be done quickly so as not to labor on the Sabbath, the myrrh-bearing women made arrangements to finish preparing his body early on Sunday morning. According to the Gospel of St. Luke,

Now there was a man named Joseph from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their purpose and deed, and he was looking for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud, and laid him in a rock-hewn tomb, where no one had ever yet been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and saw the tomb, and how his body was laid; then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment. But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices which they had prepared. (Luke 23:50-56).

There are eight women who are identified as the myrrh-bearers at the tomb. St. Mary Magdalene, St. Mary (Theotokos), St. Joanna, St. Salome, St. Mary (wife of Cleopas), St. Susanna, St. Mary of Bethany, and St. Martha of Bethany. Both Holy Scripture and Tradition tell us more about these women.

While much is known about the Theotokos, we usually don't know much about the others. St. Mary Magdalene is identified as the woman from whom Christ had cast out seven demons (Luke 8:2). She is not Lazarus' sister nor the prostitute who anointed Jesus' feet in the Gospels. These three often become combined in the Western tradition (made popular recently by The Da Vinci Code, Last Temptation of Christ, etc.). She is distinct from these other two and is called "Equal-to-the- Apostles" in our Orthodox Tradition as she was the first to be an eye witness to Christ's resurrection according St. John's Gospel (John 20:11-18). After seeing the Lord she ran back to the disciples and proclaimed to them the good news of Christ's resurrection. Tradition says that she went on to Rome and proclaimed Christ's resurrection to the emperor Tiberius Caesar. He made fun of her and sarcasticly said to her that the possibility of a man rising from the dead is about as possible as the egg in her hand turning red (she was holding an egg). At that moment the egg turned bright red. This is why you see her holding a red egg in her hand in some of her icons as well as why we dye eggs red for Pascha. She went on to Ephesus where she accompanied the Apostle, St. John in his work there. She died there in peace. Her relics were moved to Constantinople by the Emperor Leo the Wise.

St. Joanna, according the Holy Scripture, was the wife of Chuza, King Herod's main steward and administrator (Luke 8:3). She is listed as one of those women who went to the tomb (Luke 22:55 - 24:11), but she is also known for giving St. John the Baptist a proper burial. When she found out that after St. John was beheaded that his head had been disposed off in an improper place. She went and found his head and buried it honorably on the Mount of Olives. She died in peace.

St. Salome, according to the Gospels, was not only one of the myrrh-bearers but also was present with Christ at His crucifixion (Mark 15:40) and called the mother of Zebedee's children (Matthew 27:56) which makes her the mother of the disciples James and John. She is the one who asked Christ about letting her sons sit with Him in Paradise (Matthew 20:20). Holy Tradition says that she was the daughter of St. Joseph the Betrothed from his first marriage thus making the Theotokos her step-mother. A well known apochryphal account of her from the Protoevangelion of James says that she was one of the midwives present at Christ's birth. The text reads,

And the midwife (there were two) went forth out of the cave, and Salome met her. And she said to her: Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to thee: a virgin has brought forth -- a thing which her nature admits not of. Then said Salome: As the Lord my God liveth, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth. And the midwife went in, and said to Mary: Show thyself; for no small controversy has arisen about thee. And Salome put in her finger, and cried out, and said: Woe is me for mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God; and, behold, my hand is dropping off as if burned with fire. And she bent her knees before the Lord, saying: O God of my fathers, remember that I am the seed of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob; do not make a show of me to the sons of Israel, but restore me to the poor; for Thou knowest, O Lord, that in Thy name I have performed my services, and that I have received my reward at Thy hand. And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood by her, saying to her: Salome, Salome, the Lord hath heard thee. Put thy hand to the infant, and carry it, and thou wilt have safety and joy. And Salome went and carried it, saying: I will worship Him, because a great King has been born to Israel. And, behold, Salome was immediately cured, and she went forth out of the cave justified. And behold a voice saying: Salome, Salome, tell not the strange things thou hast seen, until the child has come into Jerusalem.

We find this account depicted in icons of the Nativity of Christ where we see two midwives tending to the infant Christ.

St. Mary, the wife of Cleopas, was also present with Christ at His crucifixion (John 19:25). She is considered a sister of Mary, the Theotokos, though in some texts she appears to be St. Joseph's sister. Either way, she is considered a part of Christ's extended family. She is married to Cleopas, one of the seventy Apostles and the one to whom the resurrected Christ revealed Himself on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). She is also called the mother of the disciple James (the Less) and Joses (Mark 15:40) though many Orthodox commentators think this reference is a veiled reference to the Theotokos herself.

St. Susanna, is identified as one of "certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities" (along with Mary Magdalene and Joanna) in Luke 8:1-3 who ministered and served Christ out of their wealth. According to Tradition, she is also one of the myrrh-bearers at the tomb with the others.

Sts. Mary and Martha were the sisters of St. Lazarus whom Christ raised up from the tomb before His entry into Jerusalem. They were followers and close friends of Christ. St. Martha is depicted in Gospels as the one who stays busy "with much serving" (Luke 10:40) and to whom Christ rebukes after she asks Him to tell her sister to help. St. Mary, on the other hand, was one sitting at His feet and listening to His word. Christ tells Martha that "Mary has chosen that good part which will not be taken away from her." After the raising of Lazarus, Christ comes to the house of Mary and Martha and Mary takes some expensive ointment and anoints His feet with her hair. Here we see her already serving as a myrrh-bearer as we see from the text of the Gospel of St. John,

Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 'Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?' He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. Jesus said, 'Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial''" (John 12:3-7).

She was anointing Him in anticipation of His coming burial. Holy Tradition says that they were kicked out of Jerusalem along with their brother, Lazarus, after the stoning of St. Stephen the Proto-martyr. They fled to Cyprus where they assisted Lazarus who was the first bishop of Kition.

As we can see, the lives of the myrrh-bearing women were lives of devotion and ministry. They were the most ardent followers of Christ. After everyone else had abandoned and denied Christ, they remained faithful. They were willing to risk imprisonment and public scrutiny for going to the tomb to anoint the body of the Lord. As a reward, they were the first to witness the resurrection. St. Matthew's Gospel says,

"But the angel answered and said to the women, 'Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly and tell His disciples that He is risen from the dead, and indeed He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him. Behold, I have told you.' So they went out quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring His disciples word. And as they went to tell His disciples, behold, Jesus met them, 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'" (Matthew 28:5-10).

Through the prayers of the Holy Myrrh-bearing women, may we follow their example and behold. as they did, the risen Lord!

Come from that scene, O women bearers of glad tidings, and say to Zion: "Receive from us the glad tidings of joy, of Christ's Resurrection! Exult and be glad, and rejoice, O Jerusalem, seeing Christ the King, Who comes forth from the tomb like a bridegroom in procession!"

The myrrh-bearing women, at the break of dawn, drew near to the tomb of the Life-giver. There they found an Angel sitting upon the stone. He greeted them with these words: "Why do you seek the Living among the dead? Why do you mourn the Incorrupt amid corruption? Go, proclaim the glad tidings to His disciples!"

-from the Paschal Matins