Christ is Risen!
Sometimes gaining knowledge requires more than than sitting around and thinking; sometimes we actually have to do something. There is much in life that we must learn by experience, not simply by pondering ideas or memorizing facts.
The good news of Pascha is like that, for after several weeks of intensified prayer, fasting, and repentance, we followed Christ to the agony of the Cross and then to the joy of His Resurrection. As we continue in the season of Pascha, our celebration of the new life that the Lord has brought to the world has only begun. Instead of thinking that we already know well enough the concept of His Resurrection, our Savior calls us to grow daily in our participation in His victory over sin, death, and all that separates us from life eternal. He did not die and rise again in order to give us abstract theological ideas, but to raise us from death to life, from corruption to holiness, and to make us partakers by grace of the divine nature.
Those who were at the empty tomb on Easter morning as the first witnesses of the Resurrection show us how to embrace the good news of this season. They heard the word of the angel: “He is Risen. He is not here…Go tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.”
Notice that these first witnesses of our salvation were women who went to the tomb with oil and spices to anoint the dead body of Jesus Christ. They obviously did not expect the tomb to be empty. They were heart-broken, afraid, and terribly disappointed that their Lord had been killed. But they had the strength to offer Him one last act of love: to anoint His body properly for burial. Just imagine the risks that they took, publically identifying themselves with the Lord at His crucifixion and then going to the tomb of One executed as a traitor in the wee hours of Sunday morning. With a courage born of love, they put aside concerns about their personal safety. And as they did so, these women– Mary the Theotokos, Mary Magdalen, two other Mary’s, Johanna, Salome, Martha, Susanna and others whose names we do not know–received the greatest news in the universe, the resurrection of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. Yes, the angelic proclamation of Pascha came first to the Theotokos, even as she was the first to hear from the Archangel the good news of the Incarnation.
The male disciples did not believe their testimony at first, even as St. Joseph the Betrothed was at first skeptical of the circumstances of the Lord’s virgin conception. But with the balance between man and woman that we see throughout the unfolding of our salvation, we remember two men today along with the blessed women: Sts. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, prominent Jewish leaders who were also secret followers of Jesus Christ. This Joseph risked his position and possibly his life by asking Pilate for the Savior’s body, even as Joseph the Betrothed had risked his life during the flight to Egypt to escape the persecution of the wicked King Herod. Nicodemus, who had understood the Lord so poorly in a conversation recorded near the beginning of St. John’s gospel, came to faith and joined Joseph of Arimathea in wrapping the Lord in linen with spices and placing Him in a tomb.
Like the myrrh-bearing women, these men must have been terribly sad and afraid. Their hopes had been cruelly crushed; their world turned upside down. Not only had their Lord died, He was the victim of public rejection, humiliation, and capital punishment. Nonetheless, these women and men did what needed to be done, despite the risk to themselves from the authorities and their own pain. They served their Christ in the only way still available to them by caring for His body.
Before Jesus Christ’s death, He washed the feet of His disciples in order to show them what it meant to serve in humility as He did. The myrrh-bearers were not present that evening, but they followed the Lord’s example of service better than anyone else. Perhaps they were not there because they had already learned the centrality of humble service in how they cared for the Lord throughout His ministry. Regardless, their selfless devotion put them in the place where they would be the first to receive the good news of the Resurrection, the first to share in the joy of Pascha. We have a lot to learn from them, for if we want to experience our Lord’s victory over death and corruption in all its forms, we must do as they did by serving Him in humility.
Fortunately, we have no lack of opportunities to serve Christ, in His Body, the Church, by doing the thousand small tasks that need to be done for the flourishing of our parish. We may serve Him also in every needy and miserable person we encounter, as well as in our own families when we put the needs of our spouses, children, parents, and other loved ones before our own. We will know and experience the new life of our Risen Lord by serving Him in ways already available to us. We usually do not have to look far at all in order to find them or to find Him.
Today’s reading from Acts also shows the importance of humble service through the deacons ordained to oversee the distribution of bread to the needy widows. The word deacon means “servant” and we read that, after the deacons began their ministry, “the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.” The passage shows the centrality of humble service for the flourishing of Christ’s Body.
It may be tempting, of course, to think that going out of our way to serve our Risen Lord in the Church, our neighbors, or even our families is for those with money, time, and health to spare—those who have no problems and just need something to do with their spare time. But on this Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women and Saints Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, we simply cannot use that excuse. They served Christ when their world was falling apart and they had more problems than we can imagine; as they mourned and despaired, they literally risked their lives and safety to do what needed to be done, even though they did not expect to find an empty tomb. And in doing so, the women opened themselves to receive the greatest blessing imaginable as the first witnesses of their Lord’s victory over death and sin.
If we want to enter into the glory of this season, if we want to embrace a power and strength that conquers even the grave and our darkest fears, we must follow the example of those courageous and loving women and men who left behind their comfort zones in order to serve our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. No, a life of courageous love for our Savior—however we encounter Him– is not easy, but it remains the only path that will enable us to know, and participate personally in, the good news of His resurrection on the third day. If we want Pascha to be more than a cultural celebration or the reminder of an idea, we must enter into the Savior’s great triumph by living lives that bear witness to His victory over all the ways of sin and death, including the self-centeredness and laziness that we all use to excuse ourselves from serving the Lord in His Church, our families, and in the people around us every day of our lives.
In Lent, we fasted, attended additional services, prostrated ourselves in prayer, gave to the needy, mended broken relationships, and otherwise did what we could to repent, to reorient our lives toward Christ in preparation to follow Him to His Cross. Now that we are celebrating this glorious season of the Resurrection, something is also required of us: that we actually live the new life that the Risen Lord has brought to the world. That is how we will know by personal experience the joy of Pascha, even as the Myrrh-Bearing Women heard the message of the angel and saw that the tomb was empty. We too must celebrate this glorious season by serving our Savior with practical acts of humble love, if we want to behold the wonder of His Resurrection and to know Him, not as an abstract idea, but as the Redeemer of the world and the Victor over death. If we follow the example of those holy women and Sts. Joseph and Nicodemus, we will surely be headed in the right direction.