14 May 2019

Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearers: Homily at the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 12th May 2019

Why are we looking at the visit of the myrrh-bearing women to the Empty Tomb today, a fortnight after events? Their role was noteworthy on Good Friday, when we knew that there was a matter of hours between Jesus’ death and the beginning of the Sabbath for Joseph of Arimathea to procure the Holy Body, wrap it in linen and fragrant spices, and lay it in the Tomb. There is not enough time for the women to anoint him, but, like Joseph who lived in expectation of the Kingdom to come, they follow faithfully beyond the end, witnessing the place where He is laid. On the Sabbath morning when nothing can be done, in the midst of death, all they can do is to cry out, “O Christ as You foretold, show us Your resurrection.”

It is twenty-four hours before they can come to anoint the buried Lord properly. Thirty-three years earlier, three wise men had come with gold for a king, frankincense for a God, and myrrh for anointing the one who is to suffer and save us. Likewise on the first Pascha, Mary Magdalen, Salome and Mary the mother of James come as Wise Women to replay the scene in the cave of the Nativity in the cave of the Burial and see it borne out, honouring the one whom they recognise as The Lord, the Divine Son, and the Servant who must suffer. But although they have been told of the Resurrection like the other disciples, and desire with Joseph to see it , they do not expect it when it comes.

This is why we have waited for two weeks to hear the account of what confronted them, for it to dawn on us as it needed to dawn on them.

The Gospel we have heard today is from the close of St Mark’s Gospel, widely recognised to be the earliest of the Gospel texts to have been written down. Famously, there are several versions of how it ends. In our Church, we have the long ending, which summarises The Lord’s appearance to Mary Magdalen who then goes on to announce the resurrection to the mourning apostles (which is told in fuller detail in St John’s Gospel) , then His appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (which we know from St Luke’s Gospel), and finally to Peter and the other Ten remaining apostles exhorting them to baptise the whole of creation and bring those who believe into the Kingdom of heaven (which we hear in St Matthew’s Gospel). What we have in St Mark’s Gospel is the presentation in the hours and days immediately after the astonishment of the resurrection, a vivid moment in which The Lord is both drawn up into heaven and remains working with the apostles to confirm their words by new miracles - in other words by the Holy Spirit that He sends and gives in power. But only a few verses before, are the words describing the first reaction of the myrrh-bearing women, the last words of St Mark’s Gospel on which all authorities and Churches are agreed:

They went out and ran away from the Tomb, trembling with amazement. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Why should the gospel end there – which of the endings is original – have we lost the true ending? Well, that is not how to look at it. The entire thrust of St Mark’s Gospel, which relies so heavily on the direct witness testimony of St Peter himself, is how those who are drawn to follow Jesus genuinely believe Him and everything He says about the Kingdom of God (some of it very difficult to hear); and, while they accept that it must all be true, because of the casting out of evil forces and the miracles that confirm His words at every significant turn, but that they barely have faith in Him until after the resurrection. Until that confronts them, they fail to grasp what He means about the coming of the end that will lead to the coming of God. It has not sunk in about the God Who will endure through and beyond it all (Mark 13.31), Who will be seized and made to suffer because His prayer in the Temple alone is valid as that of the Divine Son of Man, Whose appearance as the true Messiah is made clear not because He curses a fruitless fig tree, but because the attachment of His body will bless the Cross that will kill Him, yet be the source of inexhaustible forgiveness and salvation. They cannot absorb His principle that only through entering into this dark reality can one age end and another achieve its inauguration. Indeed the disciples believe His words and love His talk of the reign of God, His Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven; but it is not the faith by which their lives are shaped - until they have been through what is to come and come out the other side.

So James and John the sons of Zebedee asked Him (Mark 10) if they could sit on either side of Him in the glory He kept talking about in the Kingdom; and He replied that they would have to be baptised with His baptism, and drink the cup that He must drink, and become a slave bound to the service of all - a ransom for the release of all the rest, and not His own, if He would truly be set free. To drive home the point, The Lord straight away goes on to heal a blind man, who has cried out, “I want my sight back”. The message could not be louder: the disciples are sunk in complete mystification; despite everything they have heard, they are dazzled by a fantasy. Instead, it takes someone who is physically blind to perceive that here is a simple question of faith. Can The Lord endure, can He be trusted to save, can He be relied on to turn the impossible inside out? The blind man has foreseen the Cross, because He trusts that Jesus’ mercy can cause His fruitless vision to wither, like the fig tree did, into the clear sight of Christ in His true light. The disciples had seen this on the mount of Transfiguration; they worshipped, but in that moment they only saw the light, without realising where the light was to come from and how it would shine in our side of the firmament of creation. For the One Who is all Glorious Light in Heaven must in this world inevitably take the form of a human body beaten on the head with dead wooden sticks and disfigured on the beams of a tree.

Those with faith like the blind man, those who had been along the same path of sorrow yet knew to trust and endure, had an instinct that the light of Transfiguration, the darkness of destruction in one age, and the beginning of the new, were all part of one piece; a seamless robe, so to speak.

Mary Magdalen, Salome, and Mary the mother of James had been through it all with Jesus, to the Cross, to the Tomb with Joseph, and now came back to be first witnesses that the Tomb was empty of burial and death. Their belief and trust was transformed by the Cross and the resurrection into the life of faith. It is too great to absorb, so they run away and say nothing out of sheer fright and shock. But they do go to Peter and tell him of the new beginning, back in Galilee where it had all started out. Thus Peter, who denied the Christ he followed, becomes a man of faith in the Risen Lord Who endured the shame to give His life as a ransom for the release of all. Thus the wise women who kept seeing and recognising The Lord anoint not the buried Christ, for he has been raised. Instead, their anointing is realised in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit for the new age that is the Church, producing for ever more not just believers and followers, but people who have embraced the whole of Christ as He has embraced the whole of them, people of faith whose entire life and mind and soul has turned on this point, that The Lord who was dead is risen.

It took the three women hours to deal with this realisation. It took the other disciples and apostles days. It took St Thomas a whole week. We have been given two weeks to absorb that the Son of Man risen from the dead dies no more and what that means. This changes everything about how we view the creation, the purpose of our belief, other people in it who do not follow in this belief, the nature of religion, our relationship with the Person of God the Son, and the entire dimension and trajectory of human nature. Our faith is not some department of our personality, an add-on belief system. Since Christ is not dead but raised in our own flesh, our faith is simply how life is. As the man who wanted his sight back realised, Christ has turned the impossible inside out and the resurrection is now in our nature.