St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

The Ministry of the Myrrhbearers

Sermon Preached by Teva Regule on the Sunday of the Myrhhbearing Women - April 22, 2007

Christ is Risen! Indeed, He is Risen!

I never knew my maternal grandfather. He died long before I was born. He had come to the United States from a small village in Romania as a young man on the eve of WWI. He worked as an “ice man,” delivering ice for the refrigerators of the day—“ice boxes.” He eventually married a young woman who had also come from the same village, my grandmother. I grew up hearing about him from the stories she told. He suffered from an extended illness before he passed away and she took care of him and continually prayed for him. Even after he passed on, she continued to care and pray for him. I remember every year on Memorial Day accompanying her to the gravesite with gardening tools in hand. She would tend to the grave, plant flowers, talk to her husband and pray for him. By accompanying her, I felt a bit closer to the grandfather I never knew. She continued this ritual every year until she died. I always remember the love, devotion, steadfastness (perhaps, even when others might have thought it just a quaint custom) and her continued ministry to John Lupu, my grandfather.

Today, we hear of a similar story of love, devotion, steadfastness, and continued ministry by people who stayed close to the Lord through his suffering and burial, Joseph and Nicodemus and especially, the Myrrh-bearing women. These Myrrh-bearing women—from the text of the Bible-Mary Magdalene, Mary the Theotokos, Joanna, Salome, and Mary the wife of Cleopas and from tradition-Susanna, and Mary and Martha of Bethany—not only ministered to Jesus at His death, but had ministered to and with Him throughout His life. They had loved and followed Him from Galilee (Matt. 27:55-56, Mark 15:41). Many of them (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and Mary and Martha of Bethany) had provided for Jesus’ ministry from their own means (Luke 8:3). The Theotokos not only bore and raised Jesus, but was present and at some level, helped to facilitate His first miracle, the changing of water into wine at the Wedding at Cana (John 2: 1-11). Mary and Martha of Bethany were believers even before Jesus raised their brother, Lazarus, from the dead. T(t)radition suggests that they helped to spread the word of His actions afterwards. And prior to Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, Mary Magdalene anointed Jesus with oil, foreshadowing His death (John 12: 3, 7). In each case, these women devoted themselves to Christ and His ministry.

Moreover, they were the ones who were steadfast, staying with Jesus at His crucifixion and showing courage and sacrifice in attempting to anoint His dead body. Although caring for the dead was (and still is) a high form of service in Judaism, it could also be dangerous. It took courage. In addition, by touching the dead, one would be considered to be in a state of ritual impurity. She/he would be separated from the community and unfit to attend the worship of the community (until they were purified through a ritual triple immersion in water.) By custom, men usually attended to male bodies and women to female bodies. But just as Christ’s ministry radically (in the “return to the root” meaning of that word) transformed the constructs of societal life and broke down societal barriers during His lifetime, He did also in death. (e.g. Gal. 3:28—“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you all one in Christ Jesus.”) Not only were the women not excluded from worship, but they were the first to witness to the Resurrection and depending on which gospel account of this event one refers, were the first to speak and touch the Risen Lord (Matt. 28: 1–20), experiencing another dimension of existence. Furthermore they not only witnessed to the Lord’s resurrection, but testified to it to the disciples. And they continued to testify to the Lord’s resurrection until the day they died. In the tradition of the Church, Mary Magdalene continued Christ’s ministry, traveling the world preaching the Good News (re: Apostola).

Love, devotion, (sacrifice), steadfastness, (courage,) and continued ministry were the marks of the ministry of the Myrrh-bearers. More fundamentally, they are all qualities of Christ’s ministry. In fact (as we learn in our Dogmatics classes), the one and only ministry in the Church is the one that belongs to Christ. The Myrrh-bearing women were not doing their own ministry, but participating in Christ’s ministry. Just as they participated in Christ’s ministry, we are called to do so as well.

We participate in Christ’s ministry by following the example and teachings of Christ. In the Liturgy, Christ is the One who is offered and the One who offers. He is the One high priest. But we can also participate in His ministry in the gathering of the Assembly. We participate in Christ’s ministry when we proclaim the Good News. We participate in Christ’s ministry when we share the letters of the Bible with the assembly of the faithful. We participate in Christ’s ministry when we assist with the distribution of His Body and Blood by holding the cloths and antidoron, the blessed bread (i.e. “in place of the gift”). We participate in Christ’s ministry when we sing the responses of the service. More generally, we participate in Christ’s ministry when we remember and pray for the world (e.g. in the Great/Peace Litany, we pray “For the peace of God…for peace in the whole world…for favorable weather…for travelers… for deliverance from affliction…”). And we participate in Christ’s ministry when we remember our loved ones, both the living and the dead. In what Ion Bria, a respected Romanian theologian, calls the “liturgy after the liturgy,” we participate in Christ’s ministry when we feed the hungry, take in the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and care for those in prison, whether it be a physical prison or the invisible “prison” of our own making (Matt. 25:35-6, 40).

Christ’s ministry did not stop at His earthly death. He continues to be with us and minister to us. As we say in the prayer before the lifting, “Lord Jesus Christ, our God, hear us from Your holy dwelling place and from the glorious throne of Your kingdom. You are enthroned on high with the Father and are also invisibly present here with us. Come, and sanctify us, and let Your pure Body and precious Blood be given to us by Your mighty hand….” Christ is here with us, praying with and for us. He is continually interceding to His Father for us. And just as Christ’s ministry did not stop at His earthly death, neither does ours! Even when we pass to the other side of death, we have the possibility of praying for and interceding for those on this side of death. As we say in the commemoration section of the Anaphora, “We offer our worship… for every righteous spirit made perfect in faith… especially for the Theotokos, [this is the point where we usually burst into song in honor of the Theotokos and therefore, don’t hear that we also offer our worship for] John the Baptist, the Apostles, the Saints whom we remember today and all Your holy ones [including Joseph and the Myrrh-bearing women (and others)] through whose supplications, O God, bless us….” Those who have gone before us are interceding for and ministering to us from beyond the grave. The Myrrh-bearers are ministering to us. They are continuing to participate in Christ’s ministry. \

Whether we were a follower of Jesus in the 1st century or a pious immigrant grandmother in the 20th century, whether we have a formal diaconal role as those chosen in our Epistle reading today (Acts 6: 1-7) or a more informal one, whether we are on this side of death or the other, we all can participate in Christ’s ministry. Let us continue to do so.

Christ is Risen! Indeed, He is Risen!