In Orthodox icons of Jesus’s empty tomb and resurrection, it is common to see Mary the mother of Jesus depicted as one of the myrrhbearing women. A related theme, although perhaps depicted less frequently in icons, is that the Virgin Mary saw the risen Jesus outside the tomb. Indeed, some Orthodox Christians today insist that Mary the mother of Jesus not only saw the risen Jesus outside the tomb, but that she was the first to see him there. Where did these traditions about Mary at the empty tomb originate, and are they corroborated by evidence from the four canonical gospels?
It is probable that these traditions about Mary the mother of Jesus at the tomb originated from the Diatessaron (attributed to Tatian c. 160-180), a harmony of the four gospels widely used by churches in Syria until the 5th century. Because the four gospels contain differences as well as contradictions that are difficult to reconcile, the Diatessaron selectively combines material from the four gospels to create a single, cohesive gospel. In the Diatessaron, the identities of Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus seem to have been fused intentionally so that Mary the mother of Jesus—rather than Mary Magdalene as in John 20:1-18—can be understood as going to the tomb alone, where she saw the risen Jesus. One possible motivation for this fusion of Mary Magdalene with Mary the mother of Jesus may have stemmed from a desire to counter certain Gnostic groups that emphasized a special love Jesus had for Mary Magdalene. Nevertheless, the presence of Jesus’s mother at the tomb and her encounter with the risen Jesus also became elements in some apocryphal and Gnostic writings from the 2nd-4th centuries.
When COVID-19 first arrived on the scene as a nuisance, and not a pandemic, the Churches responded by making slight alterations to the rite of receiving communion. Catholic and Protestant Churches instructed people to refrain from partaking of the cup, and the people exchanged the sign of peace without handshakes. Eastern Church leaders instructed people that it was not necessary to kiss the icons, the cup, or the priest’s hand, and the people took the antidoron (unconsecrated bread) themselves, while refraining from drinking the zapivka (post-communion wine) from a common cup.
As COVID-19 evolved from nuisance to perilous threat, the Churches have continued to respond by altering their liturgies. Catholics and Protestants limited the number of people who could attend services before some cancelled them altogether. The Orthodox adopted the skeleton crew approach until more recently, when many bishops directed parishes to suspend services indefinitely.
The Churches have attempted to maintain some semblance of normalcy in their liturgical rhythms. Catholic priests celebrate private Mass on behalf of their people. All of the Churches use technology so that the people can participate online. Several communities livestream their services while smaller groups gather for virtual Liturgy on Zoom.
This essay was originally published in 2017. It has been updated for 2021.
A common misperception among Orthodox Christians is that Orthodox Easter (i.e. Pascha) often occurs so much later than Western Christian Easter because the Orthodox Church abides by the rules for calculating the date of Pascha issued by the 1st Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in AD 325. Another element of this misperception is the belief that the Orthodox Church must wait for Passover to be celebrated by the Jewish community before Pascha may occur. Despite these views being held by so many Orthodox Christians, as well as being promoted in popular essays written by some Orthodox priests, they are inaccurate. The reason why Orthodox Pascha frequently occurs so much later than Easter celebrated by Roman Catholics and Protestants is neither because the Orthodox Church follows the Paschal formula of Nicaea, nor is it because the Western Churches fail to adhere this formula. It is also not because the Orthodox Church must wait for the Jewish celebration of Passover. Rather, Orthodox Pascha frequently occurs later than Western Easter because the Orthodox Church uses inaccurate scientific calculations that rely on the inaccurate Julian Calendar to determine the date of Pascha for each year. Some background information is necessary to help explain precisely what the problems are.