Let it never be said that Orthodoxy does not honour godly women. Today we celebrate the witness of the Holy Myrrh-Bearing women to the risen Christ with full honour. Of those whose names are known we can name the following: first of all, the most holy Virgin Mary, who in the gospel of St. Matthew and St. Mark is called “the mother of James and Joses” (these being the sons of Joseph by a previous marriage); Mary Magdalene; Mary, the wife of Clopas; Joanna, wife of Chouza a steward of Herod Antipas; Salome, the mother of the sons of Zebedee; Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus and Susanna.
These women were the first to proclaim the risen Christ to their incredulous male counterparts. St. Luke records: “their words seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them.” (Luke 24:11) This accords with the male prejudice of the time that women were unreliable witnesses. However, the women knew better. Christ was risen from the dead and the very grief which had brought them to the tomb now gave way to joy that death was destroyed and the Lord was back. For this confession one of these women, St Mary Magdalene was graced by the Church with the title Equal-to-the-Apostles. This one event in a New Testament above all shows how the gospel revolutionised attitudes towards women simply because of the authenticity of their life in Christ and their witness to Him. Nonetheless, these women were not received into the Twelve and they were not ordained. (More about that on Tuesday night when I shall deliver an Equip lecture on Men and Women in the Church).
The other revolution of which the women themselves spoke concerned the overturning of death and the fear of it that had always enslaved mankind. We need to speak at this point of grief for the holy women were certainly grieving at the time they brought the ointment and spices to the tomb wherewithal to anoint the body of Jesus. Such grief is the language of love. Did not Jesus Himself weep at the tomb of His friend Lazarus? To deny this grief is to repress something fundamentally human. There is, however, an abnormal grieving that many of us have met from time to time. It’s a grieving that is not resolved, a grieving that is embedded in a refusal to let go. This abnormal clinging grief is perhaps in evidence when Mary Magdalene meets the Risen Lord and confuses him with the gardener as recorded in the Gospel of St. John. Jesus addresses her by name. “Mary!” he says. “Rabboni!” she exclaims. “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’ ” (John 20:16-17)
The Myrrh-bearing women have a great secret, a holy mystery, to teach to one and all here. They met unshakeable hope in the Garden, a reason to live life in perfect freedom… freedom from fear, especially the fear of death, freedom from all that limits love. That is what set their hearts on fire. Jesus once spoken about new wine that had to be put in new wine skins. If old wine skins were used the new wine would burst open and spill. By this he meant that each person had to be born anew, remade by the Spirit of God in order to share in the new wine of the divine life. That is the reality that the Myrrh-bearing women encountered at the empty and forsaken tomb; a tomb that had become the womb of a new life, resurrection life. So grief gave way to joy.
In our own lives we need to follow the Myrrh-bearing women into the garden, there to meet the Risen Lord. We will bring our griefs, our sorrows, our hopes and our fears. But when we meet Christ He will take all that we are and all that we bring and remake them and us according to his own image if we yield ourselves to Him in faith. Then we shall know the truth personally of St. Augustine’s acclamation…
“We are an Easter people and ‘Alleluia’ is our song!”