36 Third Sunday of Pascha: Myrrhbearing Women - May 11, 2008

Acts 6:1-7

Mark 15:43 – 16:8

At the center of this Gospel of the myrrhbearing women is the empty tomb. The significance of the empty tomb comes from the one who had been buried there, and how it was that he came to be buried there; and, finally, its significance comes from what it means that it is now empty.

Jesus, of course, is the one who was buried in the tomb. He himself tells us who he is and how it was that he would come to be buried there in his parable of the vineyard.[1] That parable takes up the prophetic image of the Lord’s vineyard. The Lord, in that parable, lets out his vineyard to tenants and goes away. In due season, the Lord sends his servants to the tenants of the vineyard in order to receive from them its yield of grapes. But the tenants take the servants and beat some of them, throw stones at another, wounding him in the head, and send them away empty-handed. The rest of the servants they kill. Finally, the lord of the vineyard sends his beloved Son to the tenants, thinking they will surely respect him. But the tenants of the vineyard, when they see the Son of their Lord coming, say to one another: “Here is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours. So they take him and kill him and cast him out of the vineyard.”

In this parable, the vineyard is Israel.[2] The inheritance would be Canaan, the land God gave to Israel, because it is from the land that the grape is cultivated and produced, the grape that represents not just life but divine life in the imagery of antiquity. The tenants would be the religious leaders of Israel: the king, the chief priests, the elders of the people, and in Jesus’ day, the scribes and Pharisees. The servants sent to collect the fruit of the vineyard, and whom the tenants beat and killed, are the prophets. And the beloved Son whom they killed and cast out of the vineyard – out of the Promised Land – is Jesus. If Jesus is the Lord’s beloved Son, that means that he is the heir-apparent, the one who is destined to sit on the throne as the King of Israel.

From this parable of the vineyard, then, we learn that Jesus, who was buried in the tomb, was the beloved Son of God, the King of Israel. And we learn that he came to be buried there because the religious rulers of the people envied him. Even Pilate could see “that the chief priests had handed him over because of envy.”[3] They envied him because the vineyard belonged to him, not to them; and so they killed him in the expectation that by killing him, they could steal the vineyard from the Lord and take it for their own. One doesn’t have to look very hard to see that this is the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden all over again. As the Lord predicted in his parable of the vineyard, the religious leaders of the people killed him out of envy and anger, and they cast him out of the vineyard. For, it says that after they had led him away to a hall where they mocked him and beat him, that they “led him out” of the city to crucify him.[4] They cast him out of the synagogue, out of the city, out of the vineyard, and there they killed him.

Now, on one level, Joseph of Arimathea unwittingly served the cause of the religious leaders of the Jews, the tenants of the Lord’s vineyard, when he took Jesus down from the Cross and buried him in the tomb and placed a large stone over the tomb; for in this, he removed Jesus from sight, so that if he is out of sight he will be out of mind, and the leaders of Israel will be free to take ownership of the vineyard and the wine, the divine life, produced from the grapes grown in that vineyard. But we learn from the Church’s own meditations on Joseph’s action, which we find in the Matins service for this morning, that it was the Lord himself who was directing this action. In the same way that he was not given up to death but rather, gave himself up to death, as we hear in the anaphora of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom so also it was he who did “not hinder the stone of the tomb from being sealed.” So the Matins verse goes.[5] So Joseph was a righteous man because he was ultimately serving the purposes of God. For the tomb is hell, the place of the dead, and the huge, heavy rock that is rolled across the opening to seal it off, represents the gates of hell, through which one may go in but out of which no one has ever come. Not even the dying-rising gods have ever come out of that gate; for, as I said last Sunday, even in their resurrection they are always dying again, always going back to the tomb. They never escape it once and for all. It is at the center of their so-called life, so that the life they are said to give to the world is a life centered on death and corruption.

The sealed tomb means that the dead God has been removed completely out of sight. The tomb is sealed by a huge and very heavy rock. The Greek says, in so many words, that it was a “super-duper-mega-stone”. In other Gospel accounts, it is clear that the religious leaders, the tenants in the parable of the vineyard, went to extreme lengths to make sure that Jesus was dead and that his dead body was sealed in the tomb so that he would never come back to trouble them anymore. That the tomb was sealed so completely by a super-duper-mega rock means that the disciples could not steal his body and claim he was risen from the dead. It means that Jesus was permanently expunged from the earth. So how is Joseph of Arimathea serving God’s purpose in burying Jesus in a tomb and covering it with a super-duper mega rock?

When the women come to the tomb and discover that the stone has been rolled away, it can only be because a mighty deed, beyond the powers of man, has taken place. It can only mean that death has been destroyed once and for all. The Lord of Life cannot be held captive by it. He is mightier than death, more powerful than hell, stronger than the gates of hell. There is nothing now that separates the living from the dead because the gates of hell have been shattered, just like the super-duper mega rock that covered the tomb was torn off its hinges and cast aside as though it were a tiny pebble even a little boy can pick up and skip across the surface of the lake. The tomb lies open. That means that those who are dead can come out, and those who are living can go in – and come back out, victorious over death. Death no longer holds us captive. The way that leads to the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of divine life is open. This, it turns out, not Canaan, if one reads the prophets more closely, is the Kingdom that God gives as an inheritance to those who keep his commandments.[6] Canaan is just an icon of this spiritual land that stretches from the setting to the rising of the sun – in other words from the death to the resurrection of Jesus.[7] 

There is but one problem. We’re not talking about tombs in general; we’re talking specifically about the tomb of Jesus – i.e., the baptismal font. To find this path that leads through the shattered gates of hell and to the Kingdom of Heaven, one must come with Jesus to the Jordan and to the baptismal font, and one must die in the likeness of his death to discover in the waters of this death the better and changeless path that ascends to God; and to experience the tomb of Christ as the font of our resurrection.

The messenger tells the myrrh-bearing women: “He is not here. He is risen as he said. Go and tell his disciples that he goes before you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he said to you.” This word of the angel at the tomb, with his directive to go to Galilee, takes us back to the beginning of Mark’s Gospel: “In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John…And after these things Jesus came into Galilee preaching the Gospel of God and saying: ‘The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.’”

The Gospel is the Law of the Spirit that has overthrown the tyranny of the law of the flesh. The Law of the Spirit is the Law of love for God and neighbor. Its fruit is divine life. The law of the flesh is the law of greed and self-love, envy and anger. Its fruit is death and corruption. Repent – turn away from greed and self-love and turn towards the teaching of the Savior. Believe in the Gospel – “be baptized every one of you in the Name of Jesus for the remission of sins.” In the Name of Jesus – submit to his commandments. Be not hearers but doers of his Word. “There you will see him.” There is the land that the Lord shall give to those who keep his commandments. That land is the inheritance of the Kingdom of God which is not of this world. It stretches from the setting to the rising of the sun, from the death to the resurrection of his beloved Son. This is the vineyard of the Lord, a land whose borders encompass heaven and hell. Let the tenants, the rulers of this world, have their king. Let them have their promised lands on earth. Let them be consumed by their envy, their anger and their hatred of God and his Word. Our King is the Lord of heaven and earth. Him and his holy Resurrection we shall fear. Our Law is the Word of his Beloved Son who in his death and resurrection has transformed the tomb into a bridal chamber, who has shattered the gates of hell to become the Royal Doors of his holy Church through which we pass to become partakers of the divine nature, children of God. The vine that grows in this vineyard is the beloved Son of God, the Law of God incarnate as grace and truth. Its vinedresser is the Father. The wine that flows from its cluster of grapes[8] is the Holy Spirit. With the myrrh-bearing women, let us draw near this great mystery with trembling, in the fear of God, for that is the beginning of Wisdom, the beginning of repentance, the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.[9] As myrrh-bearing women, let us say not a word of his mysteries to his enemies, like the wise man who speaks no unrighteous thing,[10] like Job who put his hand to his mouth.[11] And in fear and in stillness, let us treasure him in our hearts, that we may receive him in faith and in love and become communicants of life eternal. Amen. 

[1] Mark 12:1-8

[2] Isa 5:7, “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel.”

[3] Mark 15:10

[4] Mark 15:16-20

[5] Pentecostarion, p. 113, From the first Sessional Hymn of Sunday Matins.

[6] Joshua 1:4.

[7] Joshua 1:4 – 15. (v. 15 should be translated: “…beyond the Jordan to the rising of the sun.”)

[8] Cf the Feast for the Exaltation of the Cross: “..Christ, whom the Cross carries like a cluster of grapes full of life.”

[9] Mk 1:1

[10] Wisdom of Solomon, 1:8

[11] Job 40:4-5