At the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, his inner group of chosen disciples fled abandoning Jesus, at least according to the Gospel of Mark 14:50. Peter does show up at the ‘trial’ of Jesus, but then denies being a disciple of Jesus and claims he doesn’t even know Jesus (14:66-72). The inner group of disciples who had argued as to which of them was the greatest (9:34) were not there when Jesus’ corpse was taken down from the cross on which he had been executed as they all had fled in fear.
Fortunately, there were other disciples, ‘secret’ ones who were there to take care of the crucified Jesus. And among these ‘other’ disciples who were given no recognition, were those women who went on Sunday morning to anoint the body of Jesus, to complete the burial rites he had been denied when hastily buried before the Sabbath on Holy Friday. We read the Gospel according to St. Mark 15:43-16:8 :
Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus. And Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. And he bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud, and laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid. And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back; —it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, “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. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.
Certainly one lesson we learn from the Gospel tradition is that the “official” organization of disciples was not the only body of believers in Jesus own day. To this day, the Church which is the Body of Christ is composed not just of clergy or monastics, but is made up of all believers – all who follow Christ and seek His mercy, even if secretly. Everyone who follows Christ has a role to play and even to minister to the ‘official church’ and its chosen leaders. It is these ‘secret’ disciples, the women disciples of the Lord, to whom the Gospel of the resurrection is first announced, and it is they that run to tell the apostles, the official chosen inner church circle and leadership, the Good News. The apostles have to be evangelized by the woman disciples for it is the women disciples who first went to the tomb, not the chosen apostles.
In the Orthodox tradition of today we read the above Gospel on the third Sunday of Pascha (or the 2nd Sunday after Pascha Sunday). This Gospel lesson being read on this Sunday is thus another of the changes in Orthodox practice that occurred over time – a new practice replaced the more ancient tradition. According to Archimandrite Job Getcha:
“The third Sunday of Easter commemorates the myrrhbearing women, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus. The gospel reading appointed for the liturgy by the Typikon of the Great Church on this Sunday is Mk 15.43-16.8, recounting the burial of Christ and the empty tomb.[…] In the Jerusalem tradition, Mk 15.42-16.8 was read at the liturgy on Easter Sunday, while Jn 2.1-11 was read on the third Sunday of Pascha. It is only in Constantinople that this passage was read on the third Sunday of Easter, thus constituting an exception to the continuous reading of the Gospel of John. We can therefore deduce that the solemnity of this day is of Constantinopolitan origin. ( The Typikon Decoded, pgs. 247-248)
Though our current practice represents a change in tradition, the meaning of the Paschal celebration of the resurrection of Christ, remains the same. The proclamation of the resurrection of the dead remains foreign to those who see no value in God’s creation and who want the soul to escape the body.
Orthodoxy holds to that tradition which says Christ rises bodily from the dead. The body too is part of God’s creation and is good and redeemable and loved by the Creator. The bodily resurrection also affirms that death is not an ultimate power in the universe. Even the feeble, corruptible human body triumphs over death.
Fr. Georges Florovsky writes:
“The concept of the bodily resurrection was quite alien and unwelcome to the Greek mind. The Christian attitude was just the opposite. ‘Not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life’ (2 Cor. 5.4). As St. John Chrysostom commented on these passages, one should clearly distinguish the body itself and ‘corruption’. The body is God’s creation, although it had been corrupted. The ‘strange thing’ which must be put off is not the body, but corruption. There was a flagrant ‘conflict in anthropology’ between the Christian message and Greek wisdom.” (Georges Florovsky, Aspects of Church History, pg. 74)
At Pascha in the Church we don’t proclaim the immortality of the soul, but the resurrection of the body: