On this Holy Myrrh-Bearers' Sunday I've been in Linthicum, MD, visiting Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church. Archpriest Fr. Gregory Matthewes-Green asked me to preach. This is what I said:
The Gospel Reading is from the Evangelist Mark 15:43-16:8
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed!] Kristo amefufuka! [Kweli amefufuka!]
Death is always the end of the story, isn’t it? Look at how our culture struggles so with death, the denial, the institutionalized partition created by our hospitals, our nursing homes, our funeral homes, all of which keep us separated from the reality of what death does, of what death is. Our media is obsessed with death. We can watch a thousand deaths a day on TV, online, and all those games as the entertainment industry by overkill seeks to make death somehow manageable by anesthetizing our minds and hearts to death’s reality. But it doesn’t work. The reality of death. The fear of death. The terror of death. Our world has no answer. We plank over the chasm with platitudes, or distractions, or addictions. As St. Paul rightly says, death is the last great enemy.
A group of women made their way in the darkness of dawn to the cold dark tomb where Jesus’ body lay. These women had known Jesus, they had heard him teach, they had seen the miracles, lepers restored, blind given sight, paralytics walking, a dead son restored to his widowed mother, and even just last week, (was it only just last week?) Jesus had called the dead Lazarus from his tomb after being dead four days. But after an absolutely tumultuous week, Jesus had been seized in the middle of the night, taken off to a secret trial, handed over to the Romans, who treated him like any other outlaw. They crucified him, as if he were a thief, as if he were a murderer. And these women, horrified, watched him suffer and then die. They watched and wept as that rich man from Arimathea took down his body from the cross. They gathered around and helped as his body was washed and quickly wrapped and carried to a nearby tomb, because the sun was setting and it was almost Sabbath. They saw where they laid his lifeless body. They watched as the men rolled a big stone across the entrance. They stumbled home in the darkness, drained, empty, numb. They had thought that Jesus might be the one who would save Israel. But the story had come to a terrible end. That is what death does.
Every culture has its ways of coping with death. Somehow, the rituals help soften the blow. We have our viewings and visitations, our funerals, our graveside prayers or scattering of ashes. For these women, they were doing what they had done so many times before when a loved one had died or a friend was bereaved. They stepped in for the family and took care of the body. They prepared the body for burial. For Jews, there was no embalming; the custom was to bury the dead on the day they died. This involved washing the body, anointing the body with spices to offset the stench of decay, and of wrapping the body in a shroud. The body would be taken on a bier to a tomb and left on a slab. The tomb was then closed. The body would decompose and after some months, members of the family would return, open the tomb, and collect the bones and place them in a small box, an ossuary, which they would then place in a niche in the tomb. This would offer some closure. And the tomb would be ready to be used again.
And so these women had a job to finish. And so after the Sabbath, before dawn, while it was still cool, they gathered by the city gate. They knew where the tomb was. They came with their spices. They came because the story was over, and this is the only way they knew to cope. They had followed Jesus from when he was in Galilee. They came with him to Jerusalem. They followed him as he carried the cross. They had gone with him as far as they could go. But now death had ended his story. They came to say goodbye to Jesus. Today we would call it grief work.
We all know what happened next. It is not a long walk from the gates of Jerusalem to Joseph’s tomb where Jesus’ body lay. The practical soul among them was already fretting about how to move the stone from the front of the tomb. And as they followed the path around the bend and the tomb came into sight, they caught their breath and stood, stunned. No one ever expects an angel. And angels are always having to tell people things like, ‘Don’t be afraid!’ ‘Don’t be alarmed!’ this angel says. Easy enough for an angel to say, but for a small group of women who have just stumbled upon the end of the old age and the beginning of the new, terror is understandable.
An angel is one thing, but it’s what he says that absolutely undoes them. ‘You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him.’ (Mark 16:6) Excuse me, but I’m sorry, this just doesn’t happen. Death is always the end of the story. There are no categories for this, not for these women, not for us. OK, even so, we’ve sort of gotten used to this idea that Jesus has risen from the dead. That’s why Pascha is such a big deal, and rightly so. But it’s what the angel says next to these women that I want to leave you with. He says, ‘But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ (Mark 16:7)
Just a couple of obvious things. First, notice that this is a commission. The angel says ‘Come and see,’ and then he says, ‘Go and tell,’ specifically go and tell the disciples what you have heard from me – that Jesus is risen from the dead – go and tell what you have seen with your own eyes – namely that the tomb is empty. No greater charge has ever been given.
Secondly, notice to whom this commission is given. The angel did not appear to Peter, or to any of the other disciples. The angel did not make this announcement to Pilate, or the chief priests, nor did he call a special meeting of the Sanhedrin. He didn’t appear in Herod’s court or in Rome before the emperor. No, this is a couple of women. They have no legal standing as witnesses. They are not movers and shakers. They wield no power or influence in the halls of the mighty. With all due respect to the women here, God chooses political, cultural, societal nobodies to be the ones entrusted with the most important message ever given to anyone. I don’t think they had ever been to college, much less seminary. Jesus had said on a number of occasions that wherever he was in charge, the first would be last and the last would be first. Well, this is what that looks like.
Lastly, I just want to point out that nothing has changed. The tomb is still empty. And in spite of the studied blindness of our cultures, Death is not the end of the story. Instead with the resurrection of Jesus, an entirely new story has begun. And it’s a story that has involved many people over many years. But now if you look down on the page, we’ve come to that part in Jesus’ story that’s about you, and about me. That’s your name I see written here, and your parish! Our lives are being touched and transformed as the good news comes even to us. We, too, are hearing with our own ears, seeing with our own eyes, experiencing in our own hearts what the risen Jesus can do. But just like with the women, the myrrh-bearing women, it doesn’t stop with them – it doesn’t stop with us. Instead the angel says to us, ‘Come and see! Go and tell!’ We, too, have the same commission. ‘Go and tell’ all these people in our families, in our neighborhood, in our schools, in our places of work, all these people who live their lives in the valley of the shadow of death, tell them Jesus is risen, death is defeated, we need no longer be afraid, we need no longer be enslaved. We, too, stand at the end of the old age and the beginning of the new. Death’s reign of terror has come to an end for us. Jesus has become the first-fruits of everyone he will raise from the dead. And just as he says to Martha, He says to you right now: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?’ (John 11:25-26) Did Martha believe this? Did the women believe this? Do you believe this?
Mark’s gospel ends with this: ‘And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ (Mark 16:8) There is more speculation than you can shake a stick at as to whether or not the original ending of Mark’s gospel got lost, and if it did, how might it have ended. But for our sake, I’m glad it ends this way. I think I would have done the same thing if it had been me. And we do know from the other gospels that they in fact came face to face with the risen Jesus, that they did recover from their shock, that they did tell the disciples (who at first refused to believe them). They went on to be among those praying in the upper room, among those filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, among those who were part of the first churches. But it started with ‘Come and see’ and ‘Go and tell.’ These women were right there at the dawn of the Kingdom of the risen Jesus. ‘Come and see,’ the angel said. ‘Go and tell,’ he commissioned them. The first apostles. The first missionaries.
The same call is on my life – Come and see! Go and tell! And the same call is on your life, too. Everything changes when we meet the risen Jesus. And if we are still running around like everybody else in our culture, then it must mean that we haven’t met him yet. We honor these women today because in them we see what it means to be not just an apostle, and not just a missionary. We see in them what it means to be a Christian, right here and right now. Come and see! says the angel at the tomb. Go and tell!
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen