The first rising of the sun in the East shoots rose light across the dim landscape; it is a time the early monks knew well, for a prayer service was starting, when the bell-ringer could just begin to see the lines in his hand. The Evangelist Mark leaves us in the Garden by the Tomb of Christ, at what may be the most extraordinary moment in history. For it was when those vivid shards of dawn light shot through the darkness from the East that Mary Magdalene and the other women came bearing myrrh to properly finish the burial preparations for their dear Lord, Jesus. As they approached, the Evangelist says they were anxious about how they would gain access to the tomb, for the stone was heavy.
Then, something profoundly miraculous happened. The Myrrhbearing women experienced something life-changing. All four Gospels describe the moment. Although each tells it a little differently, the message is so profound, and so utterly seminal to our life as Christians, that the details fall away and something utterly transcendent has happened and is revealed. And we too experience it personally and transcendently at Pascha. It is so luminously divine that it can only be described as something like a flashing white angelic figure—like lightning, really—a vision so powerful that the stone is moved and the empty tomb is visible; and in some dazzling way, the women suddenly know to depth of their hearts—He is not dead. Surely, this is the first truly apophatic apprehension of the Resurrection. He is not here! He is not dead! Christ is alive! And the radiant angel cried out to the Myrrhbearers: “Why do you women mingle myrrh with your tears? Look at the tomb and understand: the Savior has risen from the dead!” (Tone 2; Stichera of the Myrrh-bearers, Pentecostarion, for Myrrhbearers Sunday)
Yes, but, it was an earthquake that moved the stone, right? And wasn’t it the head of the shroud wrappings that was left, the napkin, right?—Let the details fall away and luxuriate in this miracle to the depths of your soul. Yes, but, our Church Father, Gregory of Nyssa, reminds us that “the spice-bearing women came to the Sepulchre several times, and each time their number and their names were different; thus, each Evangelist speaks only of one of these visits” (Ouspensky, The Meaning of Icons , 192). And surely the other Mary is the Mother of God, right?—Let the details fall away, my friends, and feast your heart on the Resurrection miracle. Much has been said, throughout the Gospels and the liturgical tradition, to pin down with certainty the cast of women and the rubrics surrounding the tomb and its shroud; but, the magnificence of Christ risen and its reality in your life far outshine any single witness.
Who, then, are these Myrrhbearing Women Orthodoxy celebrates? Our tradition has identified an interrelated gathering of women from the witness of the combined Gospels: “They followed Jesus from Galilee and provided for him” (Mt. 27:55), and they stayed on faithfully through the horror of his Crucifixion, anointing his body in death with aromatic myrrh and spices. Preparing the body for a respectful burial, and many other messy rituals associated with the threshold between life and death, have often been left to the women—and so it was with Jesus. Thus, memories of women crowd the Birth Narratives, and just as Jesus is coming to realize that he must die as part of his Salvation ministry, women appear in the story to mark the deep poignancy of that awareness.
Those women who stayed with Mary at the foot of the Cross and afterward in the agony of grief, we know them well from our own grief, from the numb days right after someone truly beloved dies; when the pain is paralyzing, and everything is complicated. Still, the women came. It was too late in the day on Friday, our Good Friday, too near the preparation for the Sabbath, to properly anoint the body of Jesus; but, the women came as soon after the feast-day as piety allowed, with myrrh and nard and spices to fix what had been done in haste. And before the day is over and night is again drawing nigh, many have seen him, men and women alike, as he breathes Peace on us, and even roasts fish on the beach for breakfast (John 21:1-14). But the faithful women are not forgotten. St. Jerome says they “quickened their feminine steps and they went to the Apostles, so that through them, the seedbed of the faith would be scattered” (St. Jerome Comm. on Matt., 325]. And Gregory Palamas tells us that we can know with confidence that: “the Myrrhbearers are all those faithful women who followed with the mother of the Lord, stayed with her during those hours of the salvific Passion (to kairo tou soteriou pathos), and with pathos anointed him with myrrh” (Homily for the Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women, PG 151.240).
The Gospel tradition of the faithful grieving women bearing myrrh is rich with the Spirit of Pascha and the ever-present Resurrection message: “Do not be afraid;” and, it has born much fruit down through the ages. How deeply satisfying, for example, to learn that the Holy Myrrhbearers continued to be commemorated where the Early Church began; certain women called Myrrhbearers were appointed to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem to chant the Liturgy of the Hours. This was likely sometime after the fourth-century visit of Egeria and before the ninth-century work by the Studite monks organizing the Liturgy—that would be the bookends for dating it.
Their service on Holy Saturday was particularly meaningful; for they prepared the lamps inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and on that day they were liturgically embodying the historical Myrrhbearing Women. Afterward, the Patriarch locked the great doors until the Paschal Vigil; but “the typikon mentions that the Myrrhbearers remained behind, in order to cense and anoint the Holy Sepulchre.” When the Patriarch entered the Church on Easter Morning, the Myrrhbearers were “standing before the Holy Sepulchre,” and at the “Rejoice! Christ is risen!” they prostrated and rising up, censed the Patriarch, chanting the Polychronion, “Many Years!” hymn (Karras, “The Liturgical Functions of Consecrated Women in the Byzantine Church,” Theo. Stud. 66 , 110-111; see Papadoulos-Kerameus, Analecta 189, 1.11-14). And I tell you that, as the women’s ritual myrrhbearing function is lifted up into the realm of the liturgical, into the fabric of the sanctifying Blessing of all mankind, by including these God-radiant creatures, who are half the faithful, made in the image of God, the Paschal Liturgy is made more complete.
Because of the faithfulness and the offer of holy service to Jesus Christ by these holy women variously witnessed in the Gospels at the time of Our Lord’s vanquishing of the threshold of life and death, the trajectory of their memory has enjoyed a long and robust ark of celebration and observance from the Early Church down to today. Churches are named after the Holy Myrrhbearers, and schools and monasteries and convents have been built in their memory, not the least a couple in New York. There are women’s auxiliaries of Myrrhbearers providing crucially important charitable outreach.
And there is a movement of Myrrhbearers in the church today which invites girls and young women closer to the Altar than they might otherwise be welcome. It is a means of commending pious youthful behavior and, wisely in this modern day, offers them a liturgical place in the services leading up to Pascha, especially near the flower-bedecked Epitaphios icon of the tomb of Christ. The Spirit of God has blossomed radiantly in the observances associated with the Myrrhbearers, and all these organizations and title-attributions demonstrate that the Gospel memory of the Holy Myrrhbearers is bright with the love of God at Easter.
A wise modern bishop once said: “The anointing of a dead man with myrrh is a loving act in order to compensate for the man’s corrupted body; but, the real anointing is the putting on of Incorruptibility. Christ rose from the dead, being himself the precious Myrrh of sweet fragrance. Human nature carries this precious New Myrrh, and it becomes an anointing of every Christian by the rising of Christ from the grave. So, the Resurrection of Christ as New Myrrh makes the Church a channel of ointment to all and allows every Christian to be a Myrrhbearer.” These words were written by Bishop Paul, the Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo who was kidnapped and taken captive by militants in Syria and has by now likely been murdered. His Resurrection message lives today; may his soul rest in peace many years. And indeed, we are today, as the Apostle Paul declares: “the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, but to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor. 2:15-16).
So, what of the ones who didn’t stay and watch? Was it easy for some to misjudge the gift of Jesus, in his teaching, and even in his risen presence, and just see the possibility of miracles and healings? Perhaps many in the crowd who fell away were relishing a taste of power and glory—yet, putting on Christ does not gain you a new uniform of valor; but rather, work orders for humble service in the world, in the name of the One who saves us and forgives our sins, often where we least expect it. Our sweet Lady Theotokos, “Mary stood weeping outside the tomb” (John 20:11), and she still stands to weep for everyone from whom she is separated. “Down through the centuries,” as Alexander Schmemann reminds us, “love has always wept in this way, as Christ wept at the grave of his friend, Lazarus.” And we bring our own grief for our beloved lost to the Altar of God and to comfort of the icon-light as we worship. “Here, then,” he says: “it is this love which first learns of the Victory; this love, this faithfulness is the first to know that there is no longer any need for weeping, for ‘death is swallowed up in victory’ (1 Cor. 15:54), and hopeless separation is no more. This is what the Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women means” (“Love and Faithfulness do not Disappear or Die Out”).
V.K. McCarty is an Anglican theologian who lectures at General Theological Seminary and writes for the Institute for Studies in Eastern Christianity. Her new book, From Their Lips: Voices of Early Christian Women, is available from Gorgias Press.
This homily for St. Gregory the Theologian Orthodox Mission in New York City is dedicated to the memory of Anna Christina Betekhtin. The icon illustration, “Myrrhbearers on Christ’s Grave,” written around 1235, and often called “The White Angel,” is located at Mileševa Monastery in Serbia.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.