The Myrrh-Bearing Women

(Acts 6: 1-7; Mark 15: 43-16:8)

Today’s reading from Acts shows us an early stage in the life of the Church. The twelve – the eyewitnesses who had been with Jesus up to his crucifixion – have been proclaiming the fact of his resurrection, and

‘the number of disciples was increasing’.

These included Hellenists – Hellenistai. Those wereJews who lived abroad and who would have spoken Greek not Aramaic, and who would have known about the world outside of Judaea. They may be compared with Greeks living in England, not Cyprus, for whom the normal everyday language is English, not Greek. These Jewish Hellenistai have complained against the Hebrews – the Hebraioi – i.e., the Jews of Judaea, especially Jeusalem, whose normal everyday language was Aramaic, not Greek; and the Hebraioi were not positive about Gentiles.

The Hellenists have complained that the widows among them have been neglected when it comes to the distribution of charity. The background to this is the life of common sharing which the disciples had established (Acts 2: 44-45; 4: 32-37). ‘So the Twelve called a full meeting of the disciples’ and they say

‘ “It would not be right for us to neglect the word of God so as to give out food: you… must select from among yourselves seven men of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and with wisdom; we will hand over this duty to them, and continue to devote ourselves to prayer and to the service of the word”. The whole assembly approved of this proposal, and elected Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit…’ The names of all seven are Greek names; but perhaps not all were Hellenistai.

The Church recognized the need for agape to be effective; that charity within the Church was a principle; that the interest groups of the Hellenistai and the Hebraioi needed to be balanced; and that the apostles had decided to divide the workload. The main preaching and prayer work was to be apostolic; but there was also merciful social action – diakonia, and this required the right kind of men to do it, ‘full of faith and the Holy Spirit’. When the right men were selected, the whole assembly ‘presented these to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.’ The Church still ordains its deacons, priests and bishops in this way. Men are chosen for their spiritual gifts from among the group of believers, and the whole assembly approves each candidate as axios.

The reading continues:

‘The word of the Lord continued to spread; the number of disciples in Jerusalem was greatly increased, and a large group of priests made their submission to the faith.’

We can only imagine what this would be like; perhaps like the experience we would have if a large group of English or Scottish judges decided that they wished to become Orthodox Christians and social workers!

The gospel reading shows the diakonia carried out for the body of the crucified Jesus. The anointing done by Mary in Bethany (John 12: 3-8) is now to be done for the actual burial. But the King of Palm Sunday has already become the King of Life. This reading tells the story from Joseph of Arimathea’s taking possession of the dead body by permission of Pilate and enshrouding it and burying it with a stone being rolled against the door of the tomb. Joseph of Arimathea, an admirer of Jesus, has declared himself, by taking a risk to help. Joseph is a member of the Sanhedrin and well respected (euschemon). Joseph ‘lived in the hope of seeing the kingdom of God, and he boldly went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.’ If Joseph had expected Jesus to be a material king and not a spiritual leader, he is not likely to have taken this action. He would have left the corpse as that of a failed Messiah and a fraud. Instead, Joseph’s action shows that he sees the meaning of Jesus, as a leader whose kingdom is indeed not of this world. And because he takes control of the corpse and provides shroud and tomb, Joseph must have been known by the disciples and the women and regarded as a supporter. Mark shows that within the governing body of the Jews, Jesus had already made a disciple in Joseph, who had reached the understanding which the Twelve had not yet reached! Because Roman practice with crucifixion was to leave the corpse to decay on its cross, this act of Joseph’s is asking for a favour. Pilate is astonished that Jesus has died so soon; checks with the centurion; is assured that Jesus indeed has died; and then grants the corpse to Joseph. Mark is telling us definitely that Jesus died on the cross.

We are then told that Joseph bought a shroud for the body. Joseph takes down the body, wraps it in the shroud, lays it in a tomb cut from rock, and rolls a stone against the entrance. ‘Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of Joset were watching and took note of where he was laid.’ The corpse was known to be in a certain place. Mark shows that when the resurrection stories began, there was no doubt that Jesus had died on the cross and there was no mistake about where he had been buried: the women who found the tomb empty did not go to the wrong place. (Cf. John 20)

During the earthly life of Jesus, he gave great attention to minority groups: children, women, the diseased, the socially outcast, in a society which was male-dominated and rigorously conventional. Women accompanied him to the foot of the cross. On the morning of the third day after his death, these became the Myrrh-bearing Women. They brought ointments to the tomb – sweet-smelling spices – so that the body of the dead Lord might at last be given the preparations for its burial, which had not been possible on the evening of the Sabbath, that first Good Friday.

The women come on the third day (Sunday), asking who will roll the stone away for them; but discover that it is rolled back, and that the tomb is empty. They see ‘a young man’ sitting by the tomb, who tells them: ‘There is no need for alarm. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified: he has risen, he is not here. See, here is the place where they laid him.’ The women then are told to instruct the disciples: “He is going before you to Galilee; it is there you will see him, just as he told you”. Galilee was the setting for much of Jesus’ ministry; and it was cosmopolitan: it symbolizes the Gentile world. Jesus has gone ahead, to lead us to where we can recognize him, and where he needs to be recognized. The gospels give the myrrh-bearing women a life-changing task.

Then the ending ‘And the women came out and ran away from the tomb because they were frightened out of their wits; and they said nothing to a soul, for they were afraid….’ But that is only the beginning. To serve the living God is to go to Galilee where he has already re-established his base; where the world is waiting to be told the good news; and where fear will be overcome by faith. The Church ordained the first deacons because the resurrection made social service a way of living in the faith of the resurrection. The women at the tomb were the first ones to tell the Church ‘He is risen.’ (Matt 28: 7-8; Luke 24: 9; John 20: 18)

Ch 16, 1-8, is where the gospel of Mark originally ended. This is the form of gospel known to Matthew and Luke, and it indeed ends strangely. But the resurrection is mysterious and there is no real ending to its consequences. The experience of discovering Jesus to have risen from the dead is merely the beginning of everything else in the world’s history, in your history and in mine.

‘There is no need for alarm… he has risen.’

Orthodox Christian Comment

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