Christ is Risen!
We have now been celebrating our Lord’s victory over death for two weeks. We will continue to do so for a few more weeks, saying “Christ is Risen” many times. But we must not let our celebration of Pascha stop there. For we want to live the new life that the Lord has brought to the world; we want to participate in His victory over sin, death, and all that separates us from life eternal. And we can learn an important lesson in how to do that from those who were at the empty tomb on Easter morning as the first witnesses of the resurrection to hear 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.”
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 surely 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 must have put aside obvious concerns about their personal safely. 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.
As you will remember, 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 along with these blessed women two men: 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 surely 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 had 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 and supported the Lord throughout His ministry. Regardless, their selfless devotion to Christ 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, as well as from Joseph and Nicodemus. For if we want to live the new life of our Lord’s victory over death and corruption in all its forms, we must do as they did by serving our Lord in humility out love, despite the cost.
We have no lack of opportunities to serve Christ, in His Body, the Church, whether by visiting the sick, giving of our time and other resources to the poor, providing someone without transportation a ride to church, maintaining our building and grounds, cleaning and beautifying the church temple, teaching Sunday School, chanting, hosting coffee hour, baking holy bread, serving on the parish council or at the altar, reading the epistle in liturgy, inviting others to visit our services, or otherwise doing what needs to be done for the flourishing of our parish. These things may seem small, but they make a huge difference. If we are not faithful in small tasks, how can we hope to be faithful in large ones? Out of love for Christ, let us all answer the call to serve Him as we are needed in His Body, the Church.
We are also reminded of the importance of humble service by today’s passages from Acts in which the first deacons were ordained to oversee the distribution of bread to the needy widows who were supported by the Christian community. 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.” Perhaps the passage reads that way because humble service is the very backbone of the Church, an essential part of our faithfulness and growth as Christ’s Body.
Of course, we do not encounter the Lord only in the visible boundaries of the Church. For every human being is an icon of Christ, especially the poor, needy, and miserable. In that we care for the least of these in society, for prisoners or refugees or the lonely or mentally ill, we care for Him. In that we neglect them, we neglect Him. The myrrh-bearers did not disregard Christ’s body in the tomb, and neither should we disregard the Lord’s body hungry, sick, poorly clothed, abused, or otherwise suffering in our world. It is not hard to find the Lord in people we encounter every day who need our service and attention. That is why we should all bring our Lenten collections for “Food for Hungry People” to church as soon as we can. And food, clothing, and other items brought to church will always be put to good use by those who need them, regardless of the season of the year.
On this Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, it is clear that holiness is not a matter of earthly power or prestige. Those righteous women did not count for much at all in their time and place; even the male disciples disregarded their preaching of the resurrection. The new day of God’s reign ushered in by Pascha is a passing over from spiritual blindness, self-centeredness, and domination to love, selfless service, and true humility before God and all who bear His image and likeness. Here we encounter the same apparent weakness manifest in our Lord’s cross, which ultimately destroyed the corrupt orders of our distorted world through the glory of the empty tomb. If we want to participate even now in that glory, if we want to embrace a power beyond the powers of this age, we must follow the example of those courageous and loving women and men who risked their lives out of love for our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. No, a life of courageous love for our Savior is not easy, but it is the only path that we lead us to behold, and even to participate personally in, the good news of His resurrection on the third day, which is ultimately what this blessed season is all about.