Huge, drastic changes that turn our entire lives upside-down may make us feel a sharp sense of loss, cause us anxiety and grief, and disempower us. These are the emotions many of us feel today, as we ponder the loss of all that was “normal” in our lives, and these were also the feelings of the main characters of the ancient story of Easter. They shared a mentor, a rabbi; perhaps, never fully comprehending the true extent of his life’s purpose while he was still with them. But they loved him greatly because when he was around, they felt truly understood and valued simply for who they were. Imagine what they must have felt after his untimely, unfair death: not only the emotions related to losing a loved one to an untimely and unfair death, but also a sense of an even greater loss related to the feeling that life will never be the same again. Today, we all long for life as it used to be, and it is through this lens that most Christians all around the world will experience Easter this year.
As the Easter story tells us, Jesus’ followers dealt with their grief about his passing in two ways. Most of them choose to lock themselves in a house and shut out the world -- similar to what many of us are forced to do now. However, among them, there are a few dedicated women who, rather than hiding and allowing themselves to be paralyzed by pain and sadness, choose to work through it by attending to a very sacred task, that which will push them well out of their “comfort zone” -- beyond the safety of the city walls. Imagine the bulk of the group: sitting behind the locked doors, where not much, I believe, is being said, as each friend keeps to him or herself in the awareness of their reactions over the last crucial hours of their Lord’s life. And so, in silence they sit, just as they did before the injustice that condemned Jesus, before the cross where only a few remained – stunned, disheartened, somehow complicit and yet of course entirely helpless.
Grief can certainly paralyze, but the women can’t afford to become lethargic. They feel they still owe Jesus this much, even after they’d already given up almost everything for him during his Galilean journeys – their reputation, the money with which they funded his ministry, the families or homes they left behind. But in return, they always had his words, his miracles, felt understood by him in their dignity. So, what motivates them to go out the morning after the Sabbath is both their traditional role and their genuine care for Jesus. In the Orthodox liturgical tradition, these strong women (as many as 8 of them mentioned in all the gospel accounts), together with a prominent leader of the Jewish Pharisaic sect called Nicodemus, and also Joseph from the town of Arimathea, are called “the myrrh-bearers”. Brave, faithful men and women; courageous till the end, and rewarded with the greatest surprise the world has ever seen.
In Judaism, burials were and still are an important human right, and are called the “True Act of Kindness”. They involved the two stages – first, prayerfully washing, anointing, dressing, and laying in the rock-hewn tomb; second, visiting the tomb over 3 days. The tomb wouldn’t be sealed right away for fear of accidentally burying someone still alive. Traditionally, these burial preparations might have been largely the women’s domain. However, in Jesus’ case, because none of the women in his company save for his mother were his relatives, it would be inappropriate for them to see him without the clothing. So, Nicodemus and Joseph had taken care of that. But, all his followers should have been participating in the visiting stage, bringing with them “the spices” -- frankincense, myrrh, and aloe (not chili/oregano!) -- that could be used to further anoint the body and burnt to mask the unpleasant odor of a decomposing body.
Nicodemus alone brought enough of these materials to supply 100 Jewish burials (75-100lbs – all worth their weight in gold!). Famous historians, such as Josephus, tell us that the more respected an individual was, the larger the quantity of these costly materials was used for their burial (e.g., 40lbs for Gamaliel). It’s worth noting that a group of oriental astrologers had already brought him these prophetic gifts at the very beginning of his life. Gold, as a symbol of his kingship on earth, frankincense – of divine nature and priestly role, and myrrh – of death and suffering. Now we see that myrrh and frankincense were not only the first, but also the last gifts Jesus received (having no longer any need for gold, as his time on earth was now over), pointing to the healing and priestly significance of his death. And with that, his life had come a full circle from a child venerated as king, to a criminal executed outside the city walls, and again to being buried with 100 times more myrrh than what was needed for a mere mortal.
Yet, none of the 12 principal male followers of Jesus venture out to his grave on what would become known as the Easter morning; and thus, the title of “Apostles to the Apostles” belongs to the brave myrrh-bearing women. But first, they need to get there. For just as they begin to walk, it suddenly occurs to them: “how are we ever going to access the body, if it’s laid behind a giant rock?” In the stress and chaos of grief, they forgot that the tomb that would still typically be left open, was now sealed -- contrary to the Jewish laws! Yes, Jesus was denied even this right in his death, as he was disrespected in so many other ways that only a Jew would fully understand: cast out of his beloved Jerusalem to die, deprived of the right for his bones to join those of his ancestors in the familial tomb... But what they see as they arrive at the cave surprises them beyond their imagination. The stone is rolled away, and in the cave, instead of the dead body, are the two angels, who inform them that Jesus had come back to life. How? Why? Now what? Still so many questions, uncertainty and yes, fear. Fear of the angels as supernatural beings, but also of their own responsibility now to carry this information back into the world. Finally, it is the angels’ encouragement to recall all the beautiful memories of their life with Jesus is what truly frees and emboldens the women to tell this Good News.
So, what were the 3 things that made the myrrh-bearers strong in the face of tragedy and uncertainty? 1) respect for tradition; 2) genuine love, and 3) grateful memories. And so, whenever we worry about the giant rocks that seem to be blocking the path towards our renewal, our job is simply to get going, and to use these strategies to get us out of the box of our limited experience – the place where we might feel safe, but which immures us in our guilt and sadness. You see, our home tradition, prayers we memorize, eggs we colour, are all important because they can help us with our first response to a difficult situation. By instantly giving us a job to do, they quell the anxiety and free our minds for the next step, which is to address the challenge from the stance of true kindness, not fear. And finally, our ancient religious stories serve as collective memories of what God has done in the past for people just like ourselves, which in turn also helps us to interpret our own memories; to remember what God has done and continues to do for us, to remember the road we have travelled.
We have now learned quite a lot from these myrrh-bearers, haven’t we – the pagan astrologists, the Pharisee, the member of Roman government, and the female disciples – young and old, wealthy and poor, Jews and gentiles; a diverse group, they all had their small role in furthering God’s kingdom on earth. And so, let us now pay attention to our traditions, foster an attitude of kindness, and treasure our memories, and in doing so, we will enter in the mystery of the true Easter. May we only be willing to set out at dawn, on a journey beyond the city walls, even if this year it takes place only within the spaces of our own homes. Amen.