Easter Vigil 2023

Those of you who lost friends and family might remember that multitude of tasks that hit you in the early days of each loss, which all seem insurmountable and yet keep you somewhat sane at the same time. I think it was like that for these 8 or so women, whose names the gospels mention in various combinations. The ones who refused to let their grief paralyze them because they had “work to do,” who dared to go beyond the safety of the city walls at night. Thereby, they were first to witness the dawning of new life, becoming “Apostles to the Apostles”. The Orthodox take a whole week of Eastertide to celebrate them, plus Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, as the “Myrrh Bearers”. 

Speaking of myrrh, what gifts Jesus received as a child? Gold as a king, frankincense – as a priest, and myrrh – as one already dead. Thus symbolizing the three facets of his purpose, these were the first and last gifts Jesus received – no gold at the end though, as nobody can bring it where he was headed… His life had come full circle from a venerated child, to an executed criminal, to one buried with 100 times more myrrh than needed or ever used even for the most prominent leaders whose burials are described in historical records. From these, we notice that ancient funeral rites included two stages. First, came the prayerful washing, anointing, wrapping in a shroud, and laying the body in the rock-hewn tomb. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had taken care of this part, as none of the women except for his mother were Jesus’ relatives, and thus it would be unseemly for them to touch him. But, they were all expected to take part in the second aspect, which was to visit the body over the three days that followed, bringing over the spices used for further anointing and burning to mask the odors (like people came to Lazarus’ grave).

The tomb would not yet be sealed to allow for this practice, as much as for fear of accidentally burying one alive – yet, Jesus was denied even this basic right. And, on top of that, of all his friends, only a few women felt that they still owed him this grim, yet sacred duty. Not surprising, perhaps, as they’d already given up so much for him when he was alive: reputation, finances, family ties. Likely, it was in return for the dignity and understanding that only he had given them. So, the tomb they went, out of both obligation and affection – and, in the flurry of all that was happening, either forgetting or not knowing that the tomb had been sealed! 

But in Matthew’s gospel, they do not have the time to worry about this problem as they do in Mark, nor do they get to fall apart thinking the grave had been robbed as in John: a terrifying angel in the form of an earthquake (or vice versa) rolled away the stone in front of their very eyes, despite the Roman guards’ presence! He also explained to them what had happened, and what to do next. I imagine they wondered if the disciples would believe them, yet, they felt compelled to try telling them, unlike in the unsatisfactory ending of Mark. What’s remarkable in this version, too, is that they meet the risen Jesus only after they leave the tomb. “Their” risen Jesus did not linger at his grave as he did in John. Maybe, what made Jesus truly alive for them at that moment was, in fact, simply the memories of him. I can imagine them running back and talking about all the wonders he did during his life, which made it seem possible that this miracle could be real as well. 

How often do we worry about the giant rocks that seem to be blocking our own paths towards wonder and newness? I believe that in those moments, our job is simply to get going, think “out of the box” which seems safe, but where we can’t move or see much. That’s what the Myrrh Bearers did. Their diverse group included pagan astrologists, a Pharisee, a member of the Roman government, wives and mothers and single women – young and old, wealthy and poor, Jews and Gentiles. What seems to have helped them all put one foot in front of another, may also help us. First, it’s the familiarity of our tradition that gives us something to do immediately in the face of a tragedy (or simply uncertainty) and buys us the time to reimagine the future. Then, it’s also the true care for our loved ones, dependents, those for whom we are responsible at work, home, and in community; love that surpasses obligation. Also, the memories of what God has done for us and others may keep faith alive in the face of a challenge. And finally, even if we don’t usually get a fearsome angel directing us what to do next, or a literal star guiding us overnight, we might be able to hear God’s voice in other ways: music, nature, art, church, meditation, friends… So I hope we consider making room for traditions, fostering an attitude of kindness, treasuring memories, and noticing the contexts that make us most open to the mystery, as a way to prepare for all those inescapable moments that will cause us to set out before dawn, and go beyond the city walls. Amen.

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