Acts 6: 1-7; Mark 15:43-16:8
Christ is Risen!
We live in a time in which it is easy to think of ourselves as isolated individuals whose purpose in life is to get whatever we happen to want. Personal freedom is a great blessing from God, but since Adam and Eve we have abused it by thinking and acting as though fulfilling our immediate desires is the only thing that really matters. Our Lord Jesus Christ conquered the corrupting consequences of that prideful, selfish attitude in His glorious resurrection. Raising us up with him from slavery to all the distortions of our souls that root in the fear of death, He has restored our true identity as His beloved sons and daughters, making us members of His own Body.
Today we celebrate those who, in moments of great personal crisis, did not think only of themselves, but instead ministered to the Body of our Lord with selfless love. With broken hearts and in terrible shock and grief, the Theotokos, Mary Magdalen, two other Mary’s, Johanna, Salome, Martha, Susanna, and others whose names we do not know went early in the morning to the tomb of Christ in order to anoint His Body. They had not anticipated the resurrection and expected to find Him in the grave like anyone else who had died. By doing what they could to show one last act of love to the Savior, the myrrh-bearing women opened themselves to the tremendous blessing of being the first to hear from the angel the good news of the resurrection.
Along with them, we also remember today Joseph of Arimathea, who bravely asked Pilate for the Body of the Lord and took Him down from the cross with his own hands. Nicodemus helped Joseph bury Him. These were both prominent Jewish leaders who surely risked a great deal by associating themselves with One Who had been rejected as a blasphemer and publically crucified as a traitor.
In the events of our Lord’s Passion, none of His followers had received what they had wanted or expected. John was the only disciple to stand at the foot the cross, for the others had run away in fear. Peter, the head disciple, had denied the Savior three times. They were disappointed and shocked that their Messiah had failed to satisfy them by setting up an earthly kingdom; instead, He had been killed by His enemies. They believed that death had been the final word on Jesus of Nazareth. And probably out of a mixture of fear, disappointment, and the belief that He could do nothing else for them, they simply fled.
The myrrh-bearers, along with Joseph and Nicodemus, were surely just as grieved as the disciples. They had not gotten what they had wanted either. But they resisted the temptation to think only about themselves. Notice that they responded very differently from the disciples because they still kept their focus on serving Jesus Christ as best they could. And that meant doing the sorrowful task of giving their departed Lord and friend a decent burial. They probably all put themselves in danger by identifying publically with One Who had just been crucified. They must have all struggled not to be paralyzed by fear and pain. Still, they found the courage and strength not to focus on themselves, but on showing love to Christ as best they could.
Our reading today from Acts describes something similar in the early years of the Church’s life. The Christians in Jerusalem had shared all things in common and provided food daily to the widows. A problem arose when the widows of Greek cultural heritage complained that they were being neglected. We know from Acts and many other New Testament writings that disagreements and struggles between different groups of people have existed in the Church from its earliest days. Instead of the apostles attempting to solve the problem directly, they created the office of deacon, which literally means “servant.” The community chose seven men to fulfill the role of servants who would directly manage such practical issues in the Church. Following their ordination and ministry of service, we read that “the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.”
These first deacons have a lot in common with the women and men we commemorate today, for they also cared for the Body of the Lord when they served the Church. They addressed the physical needs of the members of the Body of Christ, directly entering into what must have been a stressful situation of conflict in the Church. Instead of leaving the problem to others or ignoring it, they took it on. By undertaking that ministry, they may not have been getting what they had wanted. If they had thought that the Church would be a place of perfect peace or that they could devote themselves to cultivating spiritual experiences on their own terms, they may have been surprised to find themselves organizing a fair distribution of food to the widows. Regardless of anything else, they accepted their new ministry and performed it faithfully for the flourishing of the Church.
As we continue to celebrate our Savior’s great victory over death on this Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, it should be clear that the new life He has brought into the world requires our active faithfulness, regardless of whether we think that we are getting what we want. The first Christians definitely did not get what they wanted at the Lord’s Passion, because He had something far better in store for them. It would have been much easier to follow a Messiah like King David who would establish a great earthly reign and give them worldly power. It was infinitely more difficult to take the dead Christ down from the cross, bury Him in a tomb, and then go to anoint the Body still bearing the wounds of torture and crucifixion. But it was through the courageous, humble, and loving service of those actions that a certain group of women opened themselves to receive the unbelievably good news of the resurrection.
We should learn from their holy example that the way to participate in the joy of the empty tomb is in serving Our Lord in His Body. It is in putting aside our preferences in order to love Him in the members of the His Body, the Church. That includes addressing all the practical challenges that any parish faces: from cutting the grass and teaching Sunday School to chanting and caring for the needy. And since the Savior identified Himself with every person in need, this calling extends to every area of our lives and every person we encounter. As the apostles knew when they ordained the first deacons, no one can perform every ministry in the Church. No one of us has to do it all. But we must all use our gifts to do what needs to be done for the flourishing of the Church, even if it is not what we would prefer to do. In other words, all of us need to get over the self-centered individualism that so easily leads to making God in our own image and judging Him by our own standards.
Just as Joseph, Nicodemus, the myrrh-bearing women, and the first deacons did not flee when their hopes were dashed, we must not abandon His Body the Church when our desires go unfulfilled, when our problems do not go away, and when God does not give us everything we want. Like them, we will participate more fully in the joy of eternal life by getting over ourselves and doing what needs to be done in loving and serving our Lord in our parish, our neighbors, and our families. Pascha is not about fulfilling the plans and desires of individuals, but about how something far greater, and totally unexpected, came into the world through their bitter disappointment. If we will love and serve Christ even in the midst of our most difficult struggles in life, then we also will be healed of our prideful selfishness and become more fully who our Lord has enabled us to be through His glorious resurrection. We will then be in the place where it is possible to hear the good and completely surprising news that what He has in store for those who love and serve Him is far better than anything we can ever come up with on our own, for Christ is Risen!