So they [Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome] went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:8)
The myrrhbearing women come to the tomb of Christ in the early morning of the Sunday following his crucifixion and burial. According to Mark’s Gospel after being told by a young man (whose clothes apparently caught their attention as they describe them with some detail) that Jesus was risen from the dead, they say nothing to anyone “for they were afraid.” But afraid of what or who? And why?
The women disciples of Jesus weren’t afraid to be at His crucifixion as St. Mark reports:
There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome, who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem. (Mark 15:40-41)
The women disciples of Christ were at the crucifixion, while on the other hand it is said of the male disciples: “And they all forsook Jesus, and fled.” (Mark 14:50) The women disciples were not afraid to be at the cross of Christ. One of the Pentecostarian Hymns (3rd Thursday, Vespers) says: “After following in the steps of serving Him with devotion, O Myrrhbearers, you did not forsake Him even after His death…” Unlike the male apostles who had!
On the morning of the great Pascha, it is the women disciples of the Lord who come to the tomb of Christ:
Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. (Mark 16:1-2)
Where are the men disciples? Mark doesn’t tell us much about them but John tells us that same day: “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews…” (John 20:19). The men disciples are trembling in fear behind closed doors – hiding, while it is the women who are out and brave enough to pay homage to their crucified Lord. The male chosen apostles are engaged mostly in self-preservation, which is no virtue in the spiritual Tradition of Orthodoxy.
The women disciples of the Lord were not afraid to be at His crucifixion, though the men disciples were. As another Pentecostarian hymn (3rd Thursday, Matins) says: “Bearing myrrh for Your burial, the women came secretly to the tomb at early dawn. They feared the hatred of the Jews and the strength of the guard, but courage conquered weakness.” The women disciples courageously conquered their fears, still wishing to serve their Lord even after His crucifixion, while the men disciples were not being manly but rather remained fearfully in hiding.
So what are we to make of Mark’s statement that the women disciples were so afraid that they didn’t want to tell anyone the Gospel they heard? They weren’t afraid of the Romans at the crucifixion or of the Jewish leaders for they were willing to be at the cross and were willing to go to the tomb of Christ. They didn’t fear their fellow Jews as the male apostles did.
One wonders if they were perhaps afraid of the men disciples – afraid of how they would be received, believed and treated. How was it possible that the almighty and all knowing God would chose to reveal His power, His salvation, His plan and His will to a group of nattering women rather than to those who imagined themselves sitting at the right and left hand of God? Indeed, Luke reports:
Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles; but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. (Luke 24:10-11)
The male apostles were incredibly disrespectful of the women disciples of the Lord, dismissing their Gospel as an old wive’s tale. These women who provided for Jesus and the males disciples out of their own means (Luke 8:3) find these same males as insufferable ingrates. Jesus, as He often did during His ministry, severely rebukes His chosen male disciples for their failure to believe and their behavior toward the faithful women:
“Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they sat at table; and he upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.” (Mark 16:14)
Though Mark originally reports the women were too afraid to tell anyone about the empty tomb and the resurrection, obviously they overcame their fear.
The Scriptures are silent about whether the male apostles ever apologized to the women disciples of the Lord for their treatment of them and for their disbelief. This is a silence that has existed for centuries in the Church, it has become part of the sad tradition of the Church. Women faithfully ministered to Christ, yet were often curtly dismissed by the male members of the Church, silenced and marginalized. And the male leadership has continued to remain silent, not offering an apology for such behavior toward those women or any other who remained faithful disciples even when the male apostles and their successors abandoned our Lord.
In a Church which bases itself in its faithful “spending the remaining time of their life in repentance” (from the prayers of the Liturgy), it is amazing how hard we find it to actually practice repentance and asking forgiveness and having metanoia. Church leaders are ever loathsome to have to apologize. Women disciples have often been marginalized in the Church like the Myrrhbearers, silenced and deprived of the diaconate which the Apostles themselves recognized for women. Even St. Paul recognized women deacons. The male clergy could today recognize this and do what we are called to do and repent. Consider the words of yet another Pentecostarian hymn (3rd Wednesday, Vespers): “Hearing the joyful words of the angels sitting in the tomb of the Word, the women who had run there with good intentions knew that the purpose of their group would be changed. No longer will you carry myrrh! Instead, you will preach to the apostles: “He who was hidden in the earth is risen from hell!” Initiate them into the mystery of Him who became man for us!”
It was women who initiated the male apostles into the Mystery of Christ’s incarnation and of His resurrection, not the other way around. The office of every male clergy of the church stems from the ministry and message of the Women disciples of the Lord. That is how God ordained it! The women Christians taught the male apostles how hard it would be to convert the world to Christ. They taught them that they would have to be incredibly reliable witnesses if they ever wanted the world to believe anything they said.