The Empty Tomb(s)


When we think about the Myrrhbearing Women going to the tomb of Christ on that first Day of the Lord, we should not romanticize about the tomb of Christ.  These Holy Women Disciples of the Lord are not on their way to see if Jesus has risen – the resurrection is far from their minds because it formed no part of their experience of life.  They are on their way to pour funeral oils on a decomposing corpse.  Tombs for them were a bottomless pit into which the dead were placed never to be seen or heard from again.  Tombs were nothing but the entrance way into Hades, Sheol, that place of the dead.

Their Scriptures had taught them that death, the grave and Sheol all have an insatiable appetite – consuming every human being and always hungry to swallow more (See Numbers 16:30-33; Job 7:9; Psalm 89:48; Proverbs 27:20, 30:15-16; Isaiah 5:14; Habakkuk 2:5).  Hades was a prison from which there was no escape. It was a gulag from which no one returned alive.  The tombs were the all consuming mouth which was the entrance to the belly of Sheol.  It was a mouth always open, always ready to devour more people.  Sheol is never full, nor even half full for it is an endless abyss into which humanity falls.


And it was into this gaping mouth that the body of the Lord was placed.  One more victim swallowed up by death’s insatiable appetite.

The tombs were a symbol of God’s creation gone awry.  They reminded everyone that there were forces at work in the world over which they had no control.   The tombs reminded everyone that wealth and beauty are fleeting – they last only a short while, and you can’t take it with you.  The women going to the tomb of Christ knew how fragile life is for they already had many friends and family members in the tombs, in the bottomless pit of the belly of Sheol.

Jesus himself had said:  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.”   (Matthew 23:27)

27115684791_feab1caf2b_nYou could decorate the tombs and make them look quite beautiful, but they still contained rotting flesh and the bones which are all that remain of the dead.

So we remember the Holy Myrrhbearing Women, those saints of our church who were the first to hear of the resurrection, but who on that first day of the week 2000 years ago were in fact looking for Jesus, but thinking He was nothing but a corpse.

And we can think about our life in the Church today.  We too can make beautiful church buildings which are nothing more than the white washed tombs which Jesus criticized.  I remember years ago going to the main cathedral of a European city on Easter Sunday and though Easter mass was going on, the building was eerily vacant as few people were attending – the empty tomb had taken on a new meaning.

We have to make our churches full of God’s grace by becoming a living temple (1 Peter 2:5) because we each are alive in Christ.  Then people will not come to the church looking for the corpse of Christ, but to receive His resurrected Body.  There may be people out there like the Myrrhbearing women who are searching for something, but don’t even realize what they could find in the Church.  If we are the tomb of Christ – we need to become that tomb from which life will flow from us, and  in which all who die and are buried with Christ in baptism will also be raised with Him to eternal life.  We have to be true witnesses to Christ and live for the Kingdom of God, not for this world, live as if we actually believed in the life of the world to come.

The Myrrhbearing Women going to the tomb of Christ tell us to consider what we are as church – the empty tomb of the dead? a museum of antiquities?   A way to the past?     OR, the place where we hear the angels sing, “Christ is risen!”  The place where we encounter the Risen Lord, the place where we enter into eternal life.  God lives not in buildings, but in our hearts and in our midst.  If there is life in our churches, then we should be flocking to them ourselves to be nurtured and nourished in the way of life everlasting.  We should be there for prayer, worship, fellowship, bible study, peace making, charity and to do the ministry Christ needs us to do.  We should be living the Beatitudes, a light to the world.


And those same women also remind us that not only our church buildings, but our hearts within us can also be either the empty tomb, void of life, or the place where the Risen Christ abides, reigning in our hearts and through us giving life to the world.  Our souls, our hearts and minds are also to be beautiful temples for the Lord – the place where the Holy Spirit can dwell on earth to bring forth the fruit of paradise.

The Myrrhbearing Women tell us to look for Christ – we should know Him in our hearts and in our parish congregations.  He should be present with us, so that anyone else can see Him in us.


The Resurrection in Our Life

“How the facts of Christ’s life perplex us! Never are they exactly what we are expecting. And yet they go even further and are more positive than we were expecting. Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus, but Jesus is He whom no sepulchre can contain or restrain.

The women bring aromatic spices to the tomb; now it is a God already risen whom they plan to anoint. A woman breaks a jar of perfume on the Lord’s living body, in order to give Him glory; now Jesus says that it is with a view to His burial that she performed this act. The cross seems to destroy hope, but the resurrection destroys despair.

The divine acts, which ruin our plans, go beyond either hope or despair. Thus it is with each of Jesus’ interventions in our personal life. Every one of them makes something explode, but also makes flight possible. Jesus won’t fit into any of our plans. His presence, His word, break every bound.

(A Monk of the Eastern Church, Jesus, a Dialogue with the Savior, pp. 19-20)

Holy Myrrhbearing Women

As the true friends of the Creator were saying this,

Mary, who was following, said,

“Initiates of the Lord and his truly fervent lovers, do not think like this;

but be patient, do not lose heart.

For what has happened was a dispensation,

so that women, as those who were the first to fall,

might be the first to see the risen One.

He wishes to grant to us who mourn the grace of his ‘Rejoice!’,

he who grants resurrection to the fallen.”

On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, p. 170)

Frequently, the Patristic writers see the Gospel events as an “undoing” of the Fall of Eve and Adam.  In the poem above, St. Romanos the Melodist, explains  that the Women Disciples of the Lord learn about the resurrection before the chosen Apostles so that woman would be given the opportunity to “reverse the curse”.  Eve fell before Adam, but now the women get to share the Good News with the men.  All sin is forgiven in the resurrection as humans are put on the path to the Kingdom of God and allowed to enter into Paradise again.

God Fearing Women?

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.

Women Disciples of the Lord

3rd Century Christian theologian Origen commenting on Romans 16:1-2 notes that the Myrrhbearing women were not the only females to have served the Church.  Women continued serving in recognized offices in the Church throughout the early centuries of Christianity.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you  may receive her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may  require from you, for she has helped many and myself as well.’ [Romans 16:1-2]

This passage teaches us, with apostolic authority, that women were appointed to the ministry of the church. Paul describes Phoebe, who held office in the church of Cenchreae, with great praise and commendation.   He lists her outstanding deeds and says, she has helped many, ready whenever they were in difficulty, and myself as well, in my troubles and my apostolic labors, with full devotion.

I would compare her work to that of Lot; because he always offered hospitality, he merited to receive angels as guests. Similarly Abraham, who always went out to meet strangers, merited that the Lord and his angels would stop and rest in his tent. In the same way, Phoebe, since she offered and provided assistance to everyone, merited to become a benefactor of the Apostle. This passage provides two lessons: women served as ministers in the church and those appointed to the ministry of the church should be benefactors to many and through their good services merit the praise of the apostles. The passage also encourages Christians to honor those who commit themselves to good works in the church; whether they serve spiritual or fleshly needs, they should be held in honor.” (J. Patout Burns Jr., Romans: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators, Kindle Loc. 7510-18)

The Empty Tomb and Enlightenment

One aspect of the Gospel stories which tend to make me believe they are conveying events rather than contriving events is the women disciples of the Lord go to His tomb not to see if in fact Jesus had risen from the dead but to anoint his corpse in a more proper burial than they apparently believe He had on the day He died.  News of the resurrection is totally unexpected by them and they don’t know totally how to process the information.

Their response to finding Christ’s tomb empty is also not an immediate, “He is risen!”, but rather dismay that grave robbers apparently had beaten them to the tomb and stolen His body.  They can’t imagine what else the empty tomb would mean, nor what robbers would want with a corpse.   One of the hymns from Matins from the Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women commemorates their confusion and looking for some kind of hope in the empty tomb.  All they want is His dead body, they are not yet believing in the resurrection of the dead.

The Myrrhbearing Women reached Your tomb and saw the seals of the tomb broken.

Not finding Your most pure body, they lamented, saying: “Who has stolen our hope?

Who has taken the dead One, naked and anointed, the sole consolation of His Mother?

How can the Life of the dead have died?  How can the Capturer of hell have been buried?

But arise in three days as You said, O Savior, and save our souls!”

The empty tomb is evidence, “science”, rational proof of something: the body of Christ is no longer there.   The Myrrhbearing Women however cannot discern the meaning, the full truth from the evidence right before their eyes.    Their rational thinking leads them to conclude that body snatchers were at work.  Evidence and rational thinking are not enough to understand what they see.  They are far from the truth.  Pure rationalism does not help the women understand what the evidence is telling them.  The missing piece of the puzzle is faith.  They must remember the words that the Lord Jesus taught them, and they must believe in Him and believe what He taught.   To see the empty tomb as an act of God and not of men, they have to have faith.  Another hymn from Matins for the Myrrhbearers states:

The Myrrhbearers came early to Your tomb, O Christ, seeking You to anoint Your most pure Body.

Enlightened by the Angel’s words,  they proclaimed joyous tidings to the Apostles:

“The Leader of our salvation has been raised; He has captured death,

granting the world eternal life and great mercy!”

The empty tomb in itself does not enlighten the Women Disciples of the Lord – they neither understand what the empty tomb means nor do they believe in the resurrection.  They did not go to the tomb looking for an act of God, and could not see the evidence before them as testifying to the truth.   It is the angel who explains the evidence to them, who brings them to faith in Christ.  They stop looking for a human explanation for the evidence, and begin to see the events in the light of the teaching of their and our Lord.


The Myrrhbearing Woman

The Third Sunday after Pascha is dedicated to the memory of the Holy Myrrhbearing Women Disciples of the Lord.  Saint Gregory Palamas (d. 1359AD) says in a sermon:

“The Resurrection of the Lord is the renewal of human nature, and the renewal, re-creation and return to immortality of the first Adam who was swallowed up by death because of sin, and through death went back to the earth from which he was formed. In the beginning, nobody saw Adam being made and brought to life, for no one existed yet at that time. However, once he had received the breath of life breathed into him by God (Gen. 2.7), a woman was the first to see him, for Eve was the first human being after him. In the same way, no one saw the second Adam, that is the Lord, rising from the dead, since none of his disciples were present and the soldiers keeping the tomb had been shaken with fear and became like dead men. But after the resurrection it was a woman who saw Him first of all, as we heard today in Mark’s Gospel, ‘Now when Jesus,’ it says, ‘was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene’ (Mark 16.9).” (The Homilies,pg.144)

The Gardener at the Tomb

This weekend we Orthodox commemorate the Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women.

Syrian Orthodox author and poet Jacob of Serugh (521AD) takes the scene from John 20:11-18 and poetically creates a dialogue between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, whom she supposes to be the Gardener.  Mary is speaking first:

“‘O gardener, if you have taken delight in It and carried It off,

show me where the fair Fruit is placed;

give It to me that I may take It from hence,

from this garden of yours, so full of treasures.

Do not hold me back, O gardener; give It to me, for It is my due.’


Our Lord was pleased to be likened to a gardener,

for it is He who opened the gate of Paradise for people to

enter in;

it was He who broke the cherub’s sword,                                  (Gen. 3:24)

and thus the banished Adam entered into his inheritance.

Rightly did He resemble a gardener at His resurrection!”

(Treasure House of Mysteries: Explorations of the Sacred Text Through Poetry in the Syriac Tradition, pg. 264)

Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Woman (2013)

 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:

Christ is risen from the dead,

trampling down death by death,

and upon those in the tombs

bestowing life!

Love of Neighbor

“Love for God begins to manifest itself and act in us when we begin to love our neighbor as ourselves and not to spare either ourselves or anything belonging to us for him, as the image of God; when we endeavor to serve him for his salvation in everything we can; when, for the sake of pleasing God, we refuse to gratify our appetites, our carnal vision, our carnal wisdom, which is not subjected to the wisdom of God. ‘For he that loveth not his brother, whom he hath seen, how can he love God, Whom he hath not seen’ (St. John IV. 20)? ‘They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh, with the affections and lusts’ (Galatians V.240.” (St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, pg. 228)