34 - Myrrh-Bearing Women, May 3, 2009

Acts 6:1-7

Mark 15:43 – 16:8

In our Gospel this morning, Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate and asks him for the “body” of Jesus. Pilate then calls the centurion to find out if Jesus is already dead. Here, St Mark begins to use words that are very emphatic in the Greek. Pilate asks the centurion if Jesus was “really dead so as to be no more”. Pilate learns from the centurion that Jesus was indeed “really, really dead” and so he hands over to Joseph not the “body” but the “ptoma” [ptwma]: an emphatic word that means the “corpse” of a man who has been defeated, who has been slain, who has utterly perished. It carries also the meaning of failure, of calamity, even of one who has fallen into sin.

With this, the words of St Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians suddenly ring out with an even greater force and meaning: “He made Him to be sin who knew no sin so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”[1] Might this direct us to the inner meaning of Christ’s death and help us to understand why the sight of the young man in the white robe threw the myrrh bearing women into alarm and terror? The young man told them not to be terrified because, he said, Jesus is risen! But the women came out of the tomb and fled, seized by trembling and ecstasy [ekstasiV], as St Mark says.

Seized by trembling and ecstasy – this is language one finds in the sacred texts of pagan antiquity to describe the soul-shaking experience of one who has seen into the sacred mystery beyond the veils of the sensible world to behold the god whose uncanny, dread aspect would drive the uninitiated insane and throw them into a mad panic. St Mark records that the women said nothing to no one because they were in dread fear. They had come into the tomb expecting to see a very dead corpse; but instead, the tomb opened before them onto the realm of the dead, just as the curtains of the temple were split from top to bottom – or rather, from the heights of heaven to the depths of hell, which is closer to the cosmic scope of the event as it is conveyed by the Greek[2] – when Jesus breathed out the Spirit on the Cross,[3] and they were so possessed by dread fear that they could not speak.

But St Mark says they were seized not only with trembling but also with ecstasy, a word one normally associates with joy. Ecstasy is a Greek word that means, quite literally, “to stand away from oneself,” or “outside of oneself.” It is the word commonly used to describe the religious experience of those initiated into the mystery religions of antiquity, when the initiate is led by means of sacred rites “away from” his sensible, worldly self to behold his true spiritual self in the realm of the divine Spirit that lies on the other side of birth and death.

The myrrh-bearing women fled the tomb in trembling and ecstasy, unable to speak because they were in such dread fear. One wonders what exactly they saw that they were seized at the same time by such dread fear and a trembling, ecstatic joy that they could not speak. The text says that they were thrown into alarm and terror when they entered the tomb and saw a young man, clothed in a white robe. Is this a clue?

What do you think of when you read in St Mark’s Gospel that they saw a young man clothed in a white robe, sitting on the right side inside the tomb of the crucified Savior? What comes immediately to my mind is the mystery – the sacrament – of holy baptism. Do not the sacred rites of holy baptism lead us beyond the veils of the sensible world and into the unseen mystery of the spiritual world that lies on the other side? This is the realm of the eternal, unchanging realities from which the world springs up into existence; and in the holy illumination of baptism, we are granted to see the mystical reality of our death being united to Christ in a death like His. And if we are united to Christ in such a death, then we are united to a death that destroys death; for we are united to Jesus, the Son of God in whom all things were made, who knew no sin yet became sin with us, even to the point of sharing in our death, that He might destroy our death, and thereby slay that law of sin, the principle of our death,[4] that dwells within us,[5] so that united to Him in our death we might become the righteousness of God in our union with Him in His holy resurrection.

The word that St Mark uses to describe the women seeing the young man means, coming to know something. In other words, they did not just see the young man in the white robe. They came to know something they hadn’t known before. One could say that they were “illumined” or “enlightened” – the very word we use for holy baptism.

How were they illumined? What did they come to know that they didn’t know before when they saw the young man clothed in a white robe? I submit that when they saw that the very large stone had been rolled away, and when they saw the place where the very dead corpse of Jesus had lain but wasn’t lying there anymore, and when they saw the young man clothed in a white robe – i.e. he was clothed in the baptismal Robe of Light, and he was a young man, as though he himself were a child of God just newly born from above, just newly raised up from the baptismal waters into the newness of life of Christ’s holy resurrection – I submit that they suddenly saw and understood how total and absolute death is and how unspeakably dreadful and how terribly great was Christ’s victory over it.

This, anyway, is what I see when I read this morning’s Gospel with attention. When they looked to the place where the body of Jesus had lain, and when they saw that it wasn’t there, perhaps the women suddenly saw that we are not souls trapped in a body who, when we die, fly off to some never-never land, free at last of our sinful bodies. We are creatures of dust and ashes. When we die, we are dead; we are really dead. If we exist as bodiless souls at all, we exist only in some dreary, dark place where no light is, where no water is, and no remembrance of God. And if Jesus is risen as the young man said, then He has not just brought His soul back to life, which maybe wouldn’t be such a big deal because many believe the soul is immortal anyway; but rather, He has made the really dead corpse to be really alive and spiritual; and if that, then death isn’t just on the other side anymore; the stone has been rolled away; the curtains have been split open from heaven to hell. Christ is in our midst – the crucified and risen Christ, and in Christ, the other side of the grave is here, in our midst, and even as we stand here on this side of the grave, we stand “outside of ourselves” there, on the other side of the grave, standing not in death but in the death of death, awash in the ecstatic joy of Christ’s holy resurrection that comes to us from the other side radiant with the immaterial fire of His Holy Spirit. The fire of the Holy Spirit burns all around us even now, illumining all things with the joy of Christ’s resurrection. We step into our baptism like the three holy youths stepping into the fiery furnace; only we are stepping into the fire of the Holy Spirit, and we are sprinkled with the dew of the Spirit’s Living Waters. The fire of Christ’s Holy Spirit envelops us in the baptismal waters and purges away our sin, burns away the principle of death in us, and raises us up like refined gold into the eternal life of Christ’s holy resurrection.

I submit that the women fled the tomb in both terrible fear and ecstatic joy because they had seen into this dread mystery of God, and they lived to tell about it. This suggests that the fear that seized them was the fear that is the beginning of wisdom; i.e. the beginning of love for God, who is God not of the dead but of the living, and this holy fear engendered in them almost at once the trembling of ecstatic joy that rendered them unable to speak. I think it is this joy of the myrrh-bearing women that St Peter describes in his first epistle. He calls it an “unutterable and exalted joy”,[6] for what is revealed in the death and bodily resurrection of Christ is that the mercy and goodness of God is unspeakably greater and more dreadful than the dreadful terror of how absolutely dead we were because of our sin.

And the Church is this crucified and risen body of Christ. It is the crucified and risen body of Him who made the heavens and the earth. Christ’s resurrection, not death is the ultimate reality. Can you believe it? Perhaps if we really saw the Gospel we would be more like the disciples who, as St Luke records, when they saw the risen Lord for the first time, disbelieved for joy.[7] Perhaps if we disbelieved in this way, we wouldn’t be so casual about our holy Baptism; perhaps we’d be less quick to accommodate ourselves to the world, gripped more with the urgency of the myrrh-bearing women’s dread joy that would drive us from the empty tomb of the Savior’s holy resurrection to study His Word that gives Life.[8] Perhaps we, too, would find ourselves wanting to say nothing to anyone, if we saw in the fear of holy dread that we need first to open our ears to hear this life-giving Word of God, so that we can learn how to repent, how to live not by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the Mouth of God, so that we might realize our high calling as stewards of these mysteries of God, and go forth each one of us, clothed in the white robe of our baptism, into the night of this fallen world shining like stars in heaven, glowing with the terrible white light of Christ’s holy resurrection that fills all things with the unutterable and exalted joy of His Holy Spirit who has become our life, putting the law of sin in us to death through the fiery mystery of holy baptism and raising us up every day, every hour, every minute to become the righteousness of God, calling us to proclaim to our world the Gospel of the risen Lord Jesus Christ who has destroyed death by His death and given life to those in the tombs. Amen. 

[1] 2 Cor 5:21

[2] Mark 15:38

[3] Mark 15:37

[4] Rm 6:23

[5] Rm 7:23

[6] I Pt 1:8

[7] Lk 24:41

[8] Jn 5:24

Suddenly, we see why the Son of God became man. It wasn’t just so He could make Himself visible to us and teach us about the way to heaven. It was because we are so very dead in our sins and transgressions. And when we die, we are really dead. God the Word became flesh precisely so that He who knew no sin could become sin and die in the body, so that by dying in the body and becoming really dead like us, He could destroy death and raise us up in the body and make us really alive, healed in body and soul; so that we who were dead in our trespasses might be made alive to become in the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ the righteousness of God.