Women and the Resurrection

Women and the Resurrection April 26, 2020

Ted: Myrrh Bearing Women /flickr

Time is important. What happens in time doesn’t merely have temporal significance, it has eternal significance. The transcendence of eternity is an inclusive transcendence. While, theoretically, the transcendence of eternity could mean that eternity is not shaped by what happens in time, in reality, they are related to each other so that what happens in time shapes eternity even as eternity shapes time.  The interdependence of the two, the non-duality which connects the two, is one of the great revelations of the Christian faith. Eternity and time are shown to be united as one in the God-man, Jesus Christ. This is because he is what connects them together. He can be seen as the bridge which unites them and makes them one. In Jesus, temporal things are brought over into eternity. Thus,  Bulgakov is able to tell us: “The life of the future age is not a rejection or nullification of this age, but an eternalization of all things in this age that are worthy of being eternalized; just as the eternity of the future age is not a forgetting or abolition of time but a cessation of its changeable course.” [1] What happens in time is not lost in eternity. The ascension of Jesus shows us that what happens in time is taken up to its rightful place in eternity.

Not all events are equal, but all of them will find they have eternal significance. The central event in time is the incarnation, and central to the incarnation is the resurrection of Christ. Jesus brings all things together as one, not as cold, lifeless facts, but rather, as warming living-realities.  Death, and with it, the temporal ending death brings to those who have life, does not have the final say. All that has life will be brought to eternal life, realizing in eternity what they established for themselves in time. Important, foundational events in time will likewise find themselves holding important positions in eternity. Because the resurrection of Christ is what establishes this connection, it also holds a central place in eternity. This means what happened in and around the resurrection event likewise have great significance in eternity.

Who do we find around Christ, both in his death, and soon after his resurrection? Women. From his mother (who tradition says was the first to know of the resurrection), to the myrrh bearing women, Jesus had women around him as the first witnesses of the resurrection:

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” (Mk. 16:1-7 RSV).

It was women who stood by and kept watch over Jesus’ body.  When the Sabbath was over, they came to anoint it. “They prepared myrrh and spices, intending on the one hand, to honour the dead, and, on the other, to assuage by their anointing the stench of the body as it decomposed, for the sake of those who wanted to stay beside it.” [2]

It was women who first experienced the resurrection event. It is women, not men, who first proclaimed the resurrection of Christ. It was women who first led the church, for there was a time when only women were preaching the resurrection of Christ. We should, therefore, expect women to have a central place in the eternalization of the resurrection event, and therefore, in the church which is centered upon that event.

Despite the fact that the myrrh bearing women are rightfully remembered by the church, rarely are we told to consider the ecclesial ramifications of their actions. But St. Anthony of Padua suggests that we are to do so. The church is the body of Christ. By coming to anoint Christ, they came, in a fashion, to anoint the whole of the church, saving the church from the rot of sin and death. Therefore, St. Anthony of Padua says, when the myrrh bearing women brought spices, they came to anoint the body of Christ, and with it the church, with a mixture made from “the blood of Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit”:

The oil that is with which the infant Church was anointed on the day of Pentecost. It is made, then, from the Blood of Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit. From these two ingredients the apothecary must make his ointments, so as to anoint members of Jesus Christ, the faithful of the Church, as did the three women of whom today’s Gospel tells us: Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, brought sweet spices, etc.[3]

By their desire to anoint the body of Christ, they spiritually anointed the church. They prepared it so that it can be preserved from all the stench of death. That is, through them, we find that women stand at the forefront of the church and protect it from the sins of its members, from the unbelief of its leaders and the cowardly, if not wicked, actions of its leaders.

What do we see happen after their encounter with the resurrected Christ? The women were pushed back and men once again took prominence. Men, likewise, seemed to be fighting with each other, looking for honors, trying to determine which groups within the church should gain the most authority and respect. Infighting between the “Hellenists and Hebrews” was more than the apostles could handle by themselves, and so they appointed helpers to deal with the practical needs of the faithful:

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them.  And 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. (Acts 6:1-7 RSV).

Throughout history, we can see a sad fact repeating itself:  people within the church, especially its leaders, cause all kinds of harm to the faithful. Even at its inception, it could not get away from such sin. “Observe, how even in the beginning the evils came not only from without, but also from within. For you must not look to this only, that it was set to rights, but observe that it was a great evil that it existed.”[4] But perhaps this should be expected. At the resurrection event, we know that the church was divided between those who stayed with Christ (which was only a select few), and those who fled, seeking to preserve themselves and their livelihood, fearing the consequences they would face for having been Jesus’ disciples.

Jesus knew this would happen. He made room for it. But he also knew that would falter and sin, even as he knew many of them would repent and come back to him. He made room for all of this. He made sure that those who sought him out with love would not only receive forgiveness, but that they could experience the fullness of grace found in the resurrection. Not everyone falls in a grievous manner. Some fight and hold strong to the way of love. They might have minor faults, minor mistakes, but they hold on to Christ strongly throughout their life. The church is for them even as it is for those who fall away. Throughout time, the earthly manifestation of the church will find itself filled by both types of people. Those who truly follow Christ and do not fall away should not be surprised at those who fall. They should look to the fallen in the way Christ looks at them, that is with much love and hope. Then, like the myrrh-bearing women, they can go out and preach the resurrection, hoping for the restoration of the fallen.

We must keep in mind, that the first seven deacons were not to be the last; many more we called to such servitude, and we know were women were among them: “ I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well” (Rom. 16:1-2 RSV). As the earliest deacons helped reconcile the church from the conflicts which had emerged, it should not be surprising that women would be among those chosen for such a rank, because it reflects the work of the myrrh bearing women at the resurrection event. Indeed, it is hard not to see a diaconal role being played out by the myrrh-bearing women. For the service those women rendered to the body of Christ is now rendered by deacons in their own work to serve the church.

You commanded the myrrhbearers to rejoice, O Christ!  By Your Resurrection, You stopped the lamentation of Eve, the first mother!  You commanded them to preach to Your apostles: The Savior is Risen from the tomb! (Kontakion for the Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women)

We must now stop the lamentation of Eve from all the misogyny which women have faced throughout history. Christ shows us the central place they have in eternity by the place they have in the resurrection event. Women should hold more than a place of mere honor in the church. They cannot and must not be ignored.

[1] Sergius Bulgakov, Churchly Joy. Trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 112.

[2] St. Gregory Palamas, “On the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers” in Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies. Trans. Christopher Veniamin (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009),146.

[3] St. Anthony of Padua, Sermons for Sundays and Festivals. Volume I. trans. Paul Spilsbury (Padova: Edizioni Messaggero Padova, 2007), 227.

[4] St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles in NPNF1(11):89 [Homily 14].


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