Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!
This Sunday’s Lessons: 1 Don’t cooperate with the rats. 2 Do your duty. 3 Never fail to help the poor and needy.
But first: Last year I started a series on the Sundays of Pascha but got distracted onto something else. This year we’re going to complete it, come what may. Probably.
If today’s Post seems familiar, you’re right. Just to keep this series in order, I’m repeating last year’s Post, with some “improvements” and corrections. (Beware! Bloggers can make errors!) So if you want to take a nap or watch TV, or better yet pray, instead of reading this one, I’ll understand. Then in succeeding weeks, you’ll see new material.
As our Paschal lectionary takes us through the Gospel according to Saint John, * the Fathers in their wisdom selected certain readings for Sundays because of their significance.
- Please follow John’s Gospel day by day. Go to: https://www.goarch.org/chapel/ or http://www.antiochian.org/liturgicday
Gospel: Mark 15:43-16:8
The image of these saints is on the Epitaphion, which you read about in the Holy Friday Post. During the Great Forty Days of Pascha, it remains on the Altar table and the Holy Gifts are consecrated on it. During the rest of the year, the Holy Gifts are blessed only on a cloth called the Antimension on which is the same image. Out of the Death of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ comes new Life, eternal Life for all.
Along with the Myrrhbearers, two other saints are honored today. Let’s take them in order their appearance in the narrative.
Saint Joseph of Arimathaea
Arimathaea was just outside Jerusalem. Matthew 27:58 says Joseph bravely went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus and laid it in a tomb which he had intended for members of his family – as Jesus possibly was. (Read on.) It was a cave, since there isn’t much soil for burial around there. Note the double symbolism: Both at Christ’s Birth and at His Resurrection, new Light for the world came forth from the darkness of a cave.
Joseph was a member of the Jewish high council the Sanhedrin which had condemned Christ to death on Holy Friday morning – “a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision or action… and was waiting for the kingdom of God.” Luke 23:50-51 – “a rich man …who had himself become a disciple of Jesus.” Matthew 27:57. That’s all we know about his background.
Tradition in both East and West says that after the Resurrection Joseph was expelled from the Sanhedrin, fled Jerusalem and went to England. A British tradition goes on to say that Joseph was uncle of the Virgin Mary, that he had made his money trading tin between the mines of Cornwall and the Middle East. The Cornish say that on one voyage he took Jesus with him!
This was the inspiration for the first verse of the hymn below, written by William Blake (d. 1827), an only vaguely Christian mystic. It is sung at most English national events. I wonder how many Brits today, in their post-Christian era, have any idea what it’s all about. It’s hard for anyone to be sure what the latter verses are about,
The story also says Joseph had trouble with a druid chieftain and so fled southwest to a place called Glastonbury, which became the first Christian settlement in Britain. An ancient thorn bush grew there, said to be descended from the crown of thorns which Joseph removed from the Lord’s head. Khouria Dianns and I saw the Glastonbury bush before it died in 1991. I’ve wondered if it gave up in disgust, because by then Glastonbury had become a New Age center. The French, however, say the real crown of thorns is in Notre Dame Cathedral and escaped the recent fire. A later legend says Joseph brought the Holy Grail (the cup from the Last Supper) to England, the quest for which was the principle occupation of King Arthur and his knights. This is very dubious – but who knows? Some still search for it.
Joseph died in England far from homeland and family. His relics were venerated at Glastonbury till Henry VIII destroyed them.
John says he was a Pharisee and a “ruler of the Jews”, a member of the Sanhedrin. Early in Jesus’ ministry he went to Him by night (afraid of being seen) seeking truth. To Nicodemos Christ said “You must be born again of water and the Spirit” * John 3 When the Pharisees condemned Jesus, Nicodemos objected: “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?”John 7:51 It is said he was martyred by the Jews. John writes as if Nicodemos was someone known to his readers.
- In the New Testament, being born again – “new birth”, “rebirth”, “regeneration” – refers to Baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit in Chrismation. We can also have moments of powerful spiritual renewal which bring us closer to God or guide us, which some call “born again experiences.” They can be a very good thing, if kept within the Tradition of the Church. (I’ve been “born again”, so to speak, at least three times now and, God willing, I hope my death will bring a fourth.) However we are born into eternal life in Christ once – in Holy Baptism. All else flows out of that.
The Holy Myrrhbearing Women
Mark names three: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Joses, and Salome. Luke adds Joanna. Both accounts say there were others. Tradition adds Mary, Martha and Susanna to make seven. Some add an eighth, Mary the wife of Cleopas.
1 Mary Magdalene (from Magdala near the sea of Galilee) followed Jesus from early in His ministry. Christ healed her of “seven demons”, which was a way of saying she’d had big problems. Western Christians claim she had been a prostitute, but nothing in the Bible or ancient Tradition says this.
Mary Magdalene was first to meet the risen Lord. After the others had hurried into the city to tell the Apostles, Mary remained in Gethsemane and through her tears saw someone she took to be the gardener. He turned and said to her “Mary”. Mary ran and told the Apostles, “I have seen the Lord!” We read this story every eleven weeks at Sunday Matins, and every time I get the holy chills. It is so filled with… … I can’t express it in words. Please read it: John 20:11-18 or, better, come to Matins and hear it read aloud.
Orthodox title Mary “Isapostolos” ἰσαπόστολος, “Equal to the Apostles”. Legend says she later went to Rome and gave Tiberius Caesar a red egg, saying “Χριστός Ανέστη!” – just as we still distribute red eggs at Pascha. It is more certain that she lived in Ephesus near John the Theologian and the Lord’s Mother. Some French say she later went to Provence, but I don’t think so. She has her own feast day, July 22.
2 Salome wife of Zebedee the fisherman, mother of the Apostles James and John. Tradition says she was cousin of the Virgin Mary, which would explain why young John was His “beloved disciple”.
3 Joanna wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward. She rescued the head of John the Baptist and later assisted the Apostles in Jerusalem.
4 Susanna, known only as a friend of Mary Magdalene.
5 and 6 Mary and Martha whom you know well – sisters of Lazarus, friends of the Lord Jesus, at whose home in Bethany He stayed when He was in Jerusalem – notably during Holy Week.
7 Mary mother of James and Joseph Matthew 27:56 or of James the younger and of Joses. Mark 15:40
And possibly 8 Mary the wife of Cleopas. On Pascha evening he and Luke walked unknowing with the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus.
I hope I’ve kept these straight.
Why did these Blessed Ones perform this act of charity?
For us who know Christ is risen, it is hard to grasp how utterly despairing and despondent these people were as they cared for the Body of Jesus. Remember the sweet but mournful hymn from Holy Friday: “Noble Joseph, took down Thy most pure Body from the Tree, anointing it, wrapped it in clean linen, anointed it with spices, and laid it in a new tomb.” And that, they thought, was the end of the song.
But on this Third Sunday of Pascha we sing it again, now adding a verse: “But on the third day thou didst arise, O Lord, granting great mercy to the world.”
When Joseph asked for the Lord’s Body there was nothing he could possibly gain out of this and everything to lose. He had lost hope, now, that this Man had been the Messiah. There would be no reward from a corpse. His fellow members of the Sanhedrin were already greatly suspicious of him for his disloyalty – why had he not adhered to the party line? why had he not voted to condemn Jesus? – this Man whom they had condemned to death for blasphemy and the Romans had executed for treason.
So why did he do it? The Gospel account doesn’t tell us – but my guess is that it was more than simply an act of charity. I suspect Joseph was also trying to redeem his virtue. Though he had quietly refused to condemn Jesus, surely he was now saying to himself: If only I had spoken up, tried harder to stop this. He knew first hand how unjustly the Sanhedrin had condemned this innocent Man, and how utterly blasphemous they were (they were the blasphemers! not Him!) when they sold out to Rome, crying to Pilate “We have no king but Caesar”. Jesus had been right: they were disgusting hypocrites, whitewashed tombs. Likewise, Pilate knew Jesus was innocent. “But what wrong has he done?” “I find no fault in him” – but then he had literally washed his hands of the matter, sacrificed his conscience and condemned this innocent Man to death – all in order to calm things down and save his career. It was all enough to make Joseph want to wash his own hands in lye soap.
So my guess is that Joseph’s conscience said to him: That’s it. That’s as far as I go! I may lose it all, but I’ve got to do something to prove that I’m not one of “them”, and that self-seeking politician who cares only for himself. And so in order to try to become an honest man, to redeem his character, Joseph acted now in a way everyone would see. He “went and asked for the Body of Jesus” – never imagining what would come of it: Christ risen from the dead! And that twenty centuries later it would be from Joseph’s own tomb that the Holy Fire miraculously appears every Pascha.
And that every Pascha in 100,000 Orthodox churches and monasteries all around the world, Priests would come out from the Altar as if from Joseph’s tomb chanting, “Come, take light from the Light that is never overtaken by night”. And that an image of Joseph himself would lie upon the Altar trable of every Orthodox Church. All from this one act of repentance and charity.
Why did the Holy Myrrbearers anoint the Body of Jesus? This is simpler: Duty. They likewise had no expectation of what was about to happen. But anointing the bodies of the dead in those days was women’s work, and they hadn’t completed it on the eve of the Sabbath when such things couldn’t be done. So as soon as they could they went to do it. Duty. And so they knew Christ risen from the dead.
Nor could they ever have imagined that 2000 years later their image also would lie on the Altars of every Orthodox church and monastery in the world, whereon has been celebrated every Divine Liturgy, millions of them by now, honoring their place in the life-giving Death and Resurrection of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
So, to repeat:
The Morals of the Story
1 Like Joseph, do what is right, not counting the cost. Don’t cooperate with the rats. And if you have failed, repent quickly.
2 Like the Myrrhbearers, do your duty. Do what you ought to do, even when it’s hard – hard to be faithful to your Lord, to your Church, to your spouse, to your family, to your Faith.
3 Like all of them, never fail to practice charity, especially towards the poor and abandoned. Jesus was once one of these, wasn’t He? In fact He told us that He still is. When we minister to them we minister to Him.
That’s it. Simple. But not easy.
When we do these things, we never know what wonderful, life-giving, world-shaking things might come of it – even if maybe not till long after we’re here to know about it. It could be.
However we do know something quieter that will definitely come of it – now: We will know the risen, living Christ for ourselves. “He who has my commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him… and we will come to him and make our home with him.” John 23:21,23
Next Week: The Paralytic – how Christ raises us up
Week after Next: The Samaritan Woman – how Christ leads us on