Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women: Anointing and Faith

Readings: Mark 15:43-16:18, Acts 6:1-7; Psalm 44 (MT 45); Exodus 40:1-15

My heart overflows with a goodly theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.
You are more beautiful than the sons of men; grace has been poured upon your lips; therefore God has blessed you forever.
Gird your sword upon your thigh, O Mighty One, in your glory and beauty!
In your majesty ride forth victoriously for the cause of truth and to defend the right; your right hand will guide you wonderfully!
Your weapons are sharpened, Mighty One, in the heart of the king’s enemies; the nations fall under you.
Your divine throne endures for ever and ever.
Your royal scepter is a scepter of righteousness;
You love righteousness and hate wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellows;
Your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia and aroma comes out of the ivory palaces. Daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor; at your right hand stands the queen, clothed in vesture wrought with gold and arrayed in various colors.
Hear, O daughter, consider, and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house; and the king will desire your beauty. For he is thy Lord.

In this Psalm (LXX 44, Masoretic 45), we are given a vibrant picture of the victorious King. From Him all graces come, by him the weak are defended, to Him all the nations bow. He is the one who is completely righteous, and whose divine throne endures forever. God has anointed him so that even his robes are fragrant and even the very place where he dwells exudes beautiful aromas. Surrounded by ladies in waiting, He is attended by his queen, who has come from another place. The King desires her and He is truly her Lord!

We don’t know precisely how this psalm originally was celebrated, or why—was it a song of acclamation by its composer Korah for the Judean king who sat on the throne of David? If so, then the earliest use of the psalm surely foreshadowed the reign of the only true King from David’s line, the only one who is TRULY Lord, only one who is all-beautiful and victorious.

Many of the details of the Psalm take on new meaning when we see the perfect Monarch to whom the Psalm was pointing. Jesus, our anointed one, was also attended by women, some of them throughout his earthly ministry beginning in Galilee, and others towards its end—we know seven of their names! (Mary Magdalene, Mary Mother of Joses and James, Salome, Martha and Mary of Bethany, Suzanna, and Joanna). These faithful women did not leave him at the cross, and very early in the morning they came to the tomb, expecting to mourn. The one whom Mary had anointed ahead of time for his burial, the One whom they knew had been anointed by the Holy Spirit at the Jordan River, they now expected to anoint as a dead man, as one whom they would honor, according to Jewish custom, for a week after his death.

Two Council members, Nicodemus the Pharisee, and Joseph of Arimathea, who was “waiting for God’s kingdom” had already secretly prepared the beloved body and taken it to its unusual place of rest. Perhaps the women did not know that these two had already respectfully, but hurriedly, anointed Jesus with enough myrrh and spices for 100 men. Or perhaps they DID know, and this was another extravagant outpouring of Love.

Instead of a grave and instead of a dead body, they heard the incredible news of Victory and Joy: he is not here! He is risen! Already the Mighty One had girded on his sword of truth, he had raised his strong right arm, he had charged forth as victor over sin and death, defending the cause of those who were oppressed: and, he had raised the dead with him! Already the strange beauty of his heart-breaking passion had been transformed into the stranger beauty of that luminous resurrected body he promises to give to all his people when he comes again!

On this, the third Sunday of Easter, we remember the morning when Jesus visited his faithful people in triumph, surprising the myrrh-bearing women, answering to Joseph of Arimathea’s longing for the kingdom, fulfilling his words to Nicodemus that he might be born again. We read the story in the last chapter of Mark, and we also hear the result of Christ’s triumph in the sixth chapter of Acts, where “And the word of God increased, the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7) The seven women were not the last of the ordinary folk to believe in the Lord—many more would follow! Nicodemus and Joseph were not the last of the nation’s leaders to repent and become obedient to the true King, promised in their Scriptures: some priests, and even the star Pharisee Saul, would follow.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves! The women came to anoint a body, a body that had ALREADY been anointed. What a strange thing to do. After all, as virtually every American mother assures her child the first time that he or she attends a funeral, the loved one isn’t THERE! Only his body! If the seven myrrh-bearing women were to have heard our 21st century dismissal of the human body, they would have been astonished. Perhaps they would have assumed that we are pagans, like the philosophers who declared soma sema—the body is a tomb—and who cremated their dead to allow the soul to escape that prison. But this was not the philosophy of our beloved myrrh-bearers. Mary Magdalene, when she saw the empty tomb, declared in grief, “They have taken away the LORD” and then asked “where have they taken him?” She didn’t ask, “where have they taken his body?” In her mind, and to the mind of the Jewish faithful (except for the confused Saducees!), a person was embodied: they looked for not mere spiritual continuation after death, but for the reunion of soul with body, a resurrection! And so do we as Christians! “I look for the resurrection of the dead.” Physical things matter to God.

Consider the reading from the OT that Fr. Pulcini, in his Lectionary, suggests to illuminate our story. He takes us back to the command of God in Exodus 40: 1-15. Here God gives Moses commandments for the proper layout and holy consecration of the Tabernacle—the portable shrine of the Lord that was the holy place of Israel until Solomon built the Temple. Moses is instructed by the Lord to anoint EVERYTHING in the Tabernacle, “all that is in it.” The furniture, the altar, the golden basin with its base, Aaron and his sons, the holy garments of Aaron and his sons—all these were to be anointed, and thus separated to God’s purpose. Not only the priests, who of course were embodied, were drenched with oil, but everything attached to the tabernacle! So also, with our Lord Jesus. Remember, He is the TRUE Temple: as he said to his unbelieving enemies, “destroy this House and I will build it up in three days.”

Notice also first verse of our reading from Exodus 40: “On the first day…erect the tabernacle where God meets with his people.” Here, on Pascha, is another first day of the week, the first day of the new creation, the first Lord’s Day. Jesus himself, that holy Temple, is raised: and he is the Holy Place where God and man meet together! Not only is he the Temple, the permanent dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, he is also the altar, the place of atonement, and the sacrifice itself. By the magnificence of his offering on Pascha, the veil of the temple, that divider between God’s holiness and his people, was torn away. His new body is here now, in place of the “holy garments” of the Old Covenant priest. In his person he brings us before the Father, wearing our flesh, pleading on our behalf. He is a “high priest forever” as the writer to the Hebrews says!

Anointing his body, then, was not such a bizarre thing to do. For this holy Tabernacle of God, this Prophet of prophets, this High Priest forever, this King of Kings, is worthy of every anointing honor that we can give him—though he has no NEED of our praise! In fact, it is He who anoints us with the Holy Spirit. But there is something for which he is looking—our faith. This ending of Mark summarizes for us many of the stories that are told in more detail in the other gospels. Briefly we hear about the women’s astonishment, and the refusal of the apostles to believe, the surprise on the road to Emmaus, the disbelief in the upper room, and how Jesus “upbraided them” because of their disbelief.

The One who struggled in the Garden with his chosen path knows what it is to be weak—though he himself was never faithless. And so, he calls to us, as he did to the early disciples, telling us not to be faithless but believing. The evidences of what he has done and is doing are everywhere around us and among us. Like the early disciples, we have confirmed before our very eyes the truth of his word. Anointed by the Spirit on Pentecost, they went out with the message, and braved many dangers, even death! As the last verse of Mark tells us “they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it.” (Mark 16:20)

We too, God’s little anointed ones, are led by the Spirit, as St. Paul puts it; that leading may take us places we would rather not go. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of sonship. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us” (Rom 8:14-18).

And so “the oil of gladness” to which the Psalmist refers is ours, because it was first the Lord’s. We are in his palace, even when we are in the midst of battle. We are his Beloved, his Queen, now joined to the new Eve who suffered with her Son and saw his glory. Like the Myrrh-bearers, we will see wonders come where we thought there was only defeat: “When Thou didst cry, Rejoice, unto the Myrrh-bearers, Thou didst make the lamentation of Eve the first mother to cease by Thy Resurrection, O Christ God. And Thou didst bid Thine Apostles to preach: The Savior is risen from the grave.”

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