Acts 6:1-7; 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 and rivals. And that certainly destroys any inclinations we may have toward putting the needs of others before our own.
Today we commemorate those who refused to live as individuals obsessed with illusions of self-interest in the midst of terrible sorrow and the loss of all hope, but who instead became persons united to Christ in a communion of love and selfless service. With broken hearts and in deep 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 for burial. They had seen Him die a horrific public death and expected to find His disfigured body lying in the grave. By somehow acquiring the strength not to become paralyzed by fear or anger, they did what they could to perform one last act of selfless loving service for the Savior. That is how 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. Imagine how difficult that must have been for him. 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 their fears to show self-emptying love for the Savior in the only ways still available to them.
In contrast, the disciples acted more like cowards in this moment 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 were more focused on saving their own skins than on faithfully serving their Lord. The Myrrh-Bearing Women, along with Sts. Joseph and Nicodemus, certainly 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 completely destroyed. Nonetheless, how they acted during this terrible tragedy revealed that they had become persons truly united to Christ in self-emptying love. They transcended the anxieties and fears of individuals concerned only with themselves in order to do the difficult and dangerous tasks necessary to give their departed Lord and friend a decent burial, which was the only way left for them to love and serve Him. 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 the result of calculation about what was in it for them. Had they not, even before His resurrection, already begun to unite themselves to Christ in selfless devotion, 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 of His resurrection. 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 they had somehow 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 a result of using 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 death that so easily turns people away from following a Lord Who calls His disciples to take up their crosses. To see and hear what they did was to encounter God from the depths of their souls in a way that called their deepest assumptions about life, death, and themselves into question. Even when all seemed lost and there was literally nothing left to do but anoint His dead body, the Myrrh-Bearing Women acted as persons radiant with Christ’s selfless love, for that is who they had become.
The devotion of the Myrrh-Bearers, Joseph, and Nicodemus shows us what true faith looks like, and it has nothing to do with figuring out how to use God to help us get what we want on our own terms in a pathetic attempt to distract ourselves from the fear of death. Instead, we must unite ourselves to Him in self-emptying love if we are to acquire the spiritual strength to embrace the good news of His resurrection 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. Todays’ reading from Acts describes how the Church flourished when the first deacons, or servants, took on the task of meeting the practical needs of distributing food to widows in a context of ethnic division. By offering our time and energy to attending to the mundane matters necessary for the wellbeing of the Church, we grow in love for Him in His Body as we serve one another, even as He has served us. We grow out of our illusions of self-sufficiency and self-importance when we embrace the calling to serve even in the unremarkable ways available in our tiny parish. No needed opportunity for serving our Lord is beneath any of us, and it is by embracing the most humble forms of service that we become more like the Savior who came not to be served, but to serve. As the Lord taught, “he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matt. 23:11)
Like the Myrrh-Bearing Women and Sts. Joseph and Nicodemus, we will not enter into the joy of the Lord’s resurrection by carefully calculating what it is in it for us when we do this or that out of love for the Body of the Savior. We must not obsess about how we would like to serve Him in His Church, what we think we are good at, or what we dare to presume that we deserve. Instead, we must simply do what needs to be done out of selfless love, no matter how hard we find that to be. That is how those blessed and righteous women put themselves in the uniquely glorious position to hear the unbelievably good news of the angel. And that is how, by the grace of the One Who conquered death through His glorious resurrection on the third day, we too may embrace the wonderful news of this season, which destroys the fear of the grave that is at the root of so much misery, for “Christ is Risen!”