The Myrrhbearing Women:  “Witnesses of these things”

During the week following last Sunday’s commemoration of the Myrrhbearing Women, the Vespers and Matins hymns focused on these extraordinary women and their role as apostolic witnesses, implying their role as “apostles to the apostles.”  Their eyewitness testimony of both the empty tomb and the Risen Lord continues to amaze me, and I can only imagine the excitement and intense response with which this testimony must have been greeted when they shared their experience with the other members of the earliest Christian communities.  Their timeless witness is with us until “the end of the world.”  As the New Testament scholar, Richard Baukham writes, “These women, I think we can say, acted as apostolic eyewitness guarantors of the traditions about Jesus, especially his resurrection but no doubt also in other respects.  As we have seen, that their witness acquires textual form in the Gospels implies that it can never have been regarded as superseded or unimportant.  For as long as these women were alive their witness, ‘We have seen the Lord,’ carried the authority of those the Lord himself commissioned to witness to his resurrection….  They were well-known figures and there were a large number of them.  They surely continued to be active traditioners whose recognized eyewitness authority could act as a touchstone to guarantee the traditions as others relayed them and to protect the traditions from inauthentic developments”  [Gospel Women, p. 295].

If “fear and trembling seized them” when they departed from the empty tomb [Mark 16:8], perhaps in our more focused moments we, too, can experience that same “fear and trembling” when we again read or listen to Saint Mark’s account in the Gospel.  There is something unforgettable and awe-inspiring about that ever-memorable morning when the sun was just rising and the stone to the tomb had been rolled away, followed then by the appearance of the “young man” dressed in “white robes” announcing “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, Who was crucified. He has risen, He is not here; see the place where they laid Him” [Mark 16:8].  The angel understood their amazement, because the women sensed the presence of God filling that empty tomb with an other-worldly reality.  Their own disorientation at this unexpected turn of events when they left the tomb is probably behind their initial silence.  (This does not mean that the women failed to fulfill the command of the angel to tell the disciples that they would see Jesus in Galilee.  It probably means that they did not share this news with others until the time the risen Christ appeared to His disciples confirming the proclamation of the angel that He had indeed risen).  We, in turn, have to always guard against over-familiarity dulling our response to the Good News of Christ’s Resurrection from the dead.  This in not a message to be nonchalant about!  The Resurrection has changed the world and certainly change the lives of Christian believers.  And we, too, are “witnesses of these things” [Luke 24:48].

The role of the Myrrhbearing Women has always been treated with great respect and recognition within the Church.  In one of our most beloved Paschal hymns, “Let God Arise,” two of the stanzas are dedicated to the Myrrhbearers and their witness.  These hymns build upon the scriptural accounts of their visit to and discovery of the empty tomb, poetically developing those terse scriptural verses in a more embellished manner that weaves together a host of scriptural messianic images together with the Gospel accounts:

Come from that scene, O women, bearers of glad tidings,
And say to Zion: Receive from us the glad tidings of joy of Christ’s resurrection.
Exult and be glad,and rejoice, O Jerusalem, seeing Christ the King,
Who comes forth from the tomb like a bridegroom in procession.

The Myrrhbearing Women, at the break of dawn,
Drew near to the tomb of the Life-giver.
There they found an angel sitting upon the stone.
He greeted them with these words:
“Why do you seek the living among the dead?
Why do you mourn the incorrupt amid corruption?
Go, proclaim the glad tidings to His disciples.”

As an aside of sorts, when listening to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture,” I always feel that he musically captures the excitement and energy of the Myrrhbearers discovering the empty tomb.

The Myrrhbearing Women did not mysteriously disappear following the Resurrection of Christ.  There were many of them, and we have the names or a reference to at least the following: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Joseph the Little and Jose, Salome, Mary of Clopas, Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, Susanna, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.  And, of course, the “mother of Jesus,” as she is referred to by the Evangelist John [19:25], was at the foot of the Cross.  They must have shared their experience innumerable times, and their credibility is what lies behind their inclusion in the Gospels.  They must have therefore been very prominent figures in the apostolic era of the Church.  I would again stress their presence in the liturgical services of Pascha.  Their presence permeates these services as the empty tomb is always an object of pious and reverential celebration:

Before the dawn, Mary and the women came
And found the stone rolled away from the tomb.
They heard the angelic voice:
“Why do you seek among the dead as a man the One Who is everlasting light?
Behold the clothes in the grave.
Go and proclaim to the world: “The Lord is risen.  He has slain death,
As He is the Son of God, saving the race of men”

To again include a fine summary by the New Testament scholars, Richard Baukham writes, “As prominent members of the early communities, probably traveling around the communities, they were doubtless active in telling the stories themselves.  They may not usually like the male apostles, have done so in public contexts, because of the social restrictions on women in public space.  But this is no reason to deny them the role of authoritative apostolic witnesses and shapers of Gospel traditions, since there need not have been such restrictions in Christian meetings and since they could witness even to outsiders in women-only contexts such as the women’s quarters of houses” [Gospel Women, p. 302-303].

Jesus turned things upside down by proclaiming joy to the world through the Cross.  Overcoming social prejudices, He raised to great prominence these humble women who would otherwise be unknown to the world.  He granted them an integral role in proclaiming the Good News to the world that the sting of death has been overcome through His rising from the dead.  As long as the Gospel is proclaimed, we will venerate and celebrate the memory of the Myrrhbearing Women and rejoice with them.