Mark 15: 43-16:8
Christ is Risen!
As we continue to celebrate our Lord’s glorious resurrection on the third day and victory over Hades and the tomb, it should be obvious that we too often live as though death still reigned. We do so especially when we fall prey to fear rooted in anxiety about how weak, insignificant, and insubstantial we are, especially in light of death. We build ourselves up in our own minds, put others down in so many ways, and think of life as a battle against anyone or anything that threatens to expose the truth about our being made from the dust of the earth, to which we will return. We ignore that sobering recognition by trying to maintain illusions of power and self-sufficiency over against other people and the harsh realities of life in a fashion that fuels anger, resentment, and condemnation of those we perceive as our enemies.
Today we commemorate those who refused to live as individuals obsessed with illusions of self-protection in the midst of terrible sorrow, but who instead became persons united to Christ in a communion of love. With broken hearts and in terrible shock and grief, the Theotokos, Mary Magdalen, two other Mary’s, Johanna, Salome, Martha, Susanna, and others whose names we do not know went early in the morning to the Lord’s tomb in order to anoint Him properly for burial. They had seen Him die a terrible death and expected to find His body lying in the grave. By refusing to become paralyzed by fear or anger and by doing what they could to perform one last act of love for the Savior, the Myrrh-Bearing Women became the first witnesses of the empty tomb as they received the good news of His resurrection from the angel.
We also remember today Joseph of Arimathea, who bravely asked Pilate for the dead body of the Lord and took Him down from the Cross with his own hands. Nicodemus, the Pharisee who had previously not understood Christ at all, helped Joseph bury Him. These were both prominent Jewish men who risked a great deal by associating themselves with One Who had been rejected by their own religious leaders as a blasphemer and crucified by the Romans as a traitor. Like the women, they overcame the temptation to act as individuals focused on their own interests and fears as they showed self-emptying love for the Savior in the only way available to them.
In contrast, the disciples were driven more by self-centeredness than by selfless love for the Lord during the time of crisis. Peter, the head disciple, had denied the Savior three times. John was the only one of the twelve to stand at the foot the Cross, for the others had run away in fear. They responded like individuals obsessed with saving their own skins when, overcome with anxiety and despair, they abandoned the Savior.
The Myrrh-Bearing Women, along with Sts. Joseph and Nicodemus, knew bitter grief and disappointment every bit as much as the disciples. They all saw the Lord’s crucifixion as a complete disaster and their hopes for Him, and for whatever they hoped to gain through Him, were destroyed. Nonetheless, how they acted during this terrible tragedy revealed that they had become persons truly united to Christ in love. They transcended the anxieties and fears of individuals concerned only with themselves to the point of doing the difficult and dangerous tasks necessary to give their departed Lord and friend a decent burial. That is how they accepted the risks inherent in being identified even further with One Who had just been crucified as a blasphemer and a traitor.
What they did was not intended to serve any earthly goal or help them gain any advantage. Had they not, even before His resurrection, already begun to become their true selves through union with Christ, the women would not have had the spiritual strength to be in the position to see the Lord’s empty tomb and to hear from the angel the good news that “Christ is risen!” That news was shocking to the point of absurdity, as shown by their reaction, for “they went out quickly and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” To see and hear what they did was not to receive confirmation that their hopes for Christ had been right all along, for they had no expectation of His resurrection and went to the tomb in order to anoint a dead body. To see and hear what they did was not to find a way to use religion to help them get what they wanted in this world. Their eyes were opened to behold the joy of the resurrection because they were so closely united to Christ in love that they had overcome the fear of the death that easily keeps people so captive to individualistic illusions that they want nothing to do with a Lord Whose kingdom is not of this world and Who calls His disciples to take up their crosses and follow Him. To see and hear what they did was to encounter God from the depths of their souls in a way that called them and all they had assumed into question. Even when all seemed lost and there was nothing left to do but anoint His dead body, the Myrrh-Bearing Women acted as persons in communion with Christ, for that is who they had become.
The devotion of the Myrrh-Bearers, Joseph and, Nicodemus shows us what true faith looks like, and we will never acquire it by looking for ways to fit God comfortably into our lives in order to help us achieve our goals in and for this world, regardless of how noble we think they are. If we do that, we are still living as individuals anxiously seeking self-preservation due to the fear of death. Christ’s resurrection sets us free from such fear, but we must unite ourselves to Him in self-emptying love if we are to acquire the spiritual strength to embrace this good news from the depths of our souls. That is the only way to enter into the joy of Pascha as persons who find their life in Him together as members of His Body, the Church, with all of the struggles and difficulties that doing so entails. We grow in love for Christ in His Body as we love, serve, and forgive one another, even as He has done for us. We grow out of our illusions of individuality, and of needing to dominate or control others in any area of life, when we become more fully our true selves through communion with Christ and one another. He is the vine and we are the branches.
Entrusting ourselves to the Crucified and Risen Lord requires engaging in a persistent struggle to reorient the deepest desires of our hearts for purification and fulfillment in Him. That is especially difficult in a culture that worships at the altar of the isolated individual and celebrates passions, such as pride, anger, lust, and greed, that pose grave obstacles to embracing our true life together in God. To grow in loving communion with Christ and one another requires daily vigilance against temptations so appealing that they have become second nature to us, as well as constant commitment to basic disciplines of the Christian life that open us to receive His gracious healing of our souls. It was in no way easy for the saints we commemorate today to offer themselves so profoundly to Christ after His death on the Cross, and it will be in no way easy for us to follow their example. But we have the advantage not only of their example, but of already knowing that He has conquered death and made us participants in His Body, the Church, nourishing us with His own Body and Blood. That means we are already participants in the joy of the resurrection. Our calling is not to stop with words and ideas, but to share in the life of our Risen Lord so profoundly that there is no room for fear, anxiety, hatred, or other passions in our souls. We must become so united to Christ in love that we find our true selves in Him. That is the great calling and promise of this joyful season, for “Christ is Risen!”