Myrrh Bearers at the Tomb

SERVICE IN THE CHURCH TODAY can mean many things. The clergy are said to serve the Divine Liturgy and other services. They are not improvising or directing or even celebrating; their role as servers suggests that their personality take a back seat to what they serve, much as good waiters are unobtrusive when they serve at table.

Church members serve in a variety of ways in the worship, teaching and fellowship activities of the community. In many places they are honored today as the Church remembers those who volunteered to serve at the Lord’s burial: Joseph, Nicodemus and the Myrrhbearers. Today we also remember the Church’s first ordained servants, the Deacons.

Both Myrrhbearers and Deacons had one thing in common: they served Christ the Unwanted. The Myrrhbearers served the despised and rejected Jesus, condemned by the Jewish leaders and abandoned in death by even His closest followers, These volunteers stepped forward to provide a burial for Him, when the alternative was to leave His body for animals to scavenge. The Deacons were set apart by the Apostles to serve Christ unwanted in the weakest segment of society: those who had no family to care for them in their old age.

Joseph and the Myrrhbearers

In Mark 15:44-16:8, which is read at this Sunday’s Liturgy, we see Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Council, arrange for Jesus’ burial. St John Chrysostom observes, “This was Joseph, who had been concealing his discipleship. Now, after the death of Christ, he became very bold. For neither was he an obscure person nor unnoticed. He was one of the Council, and highly distinguished and, as we see, courageous. For he exposed himself to death, taking upon himself the enmity of all by his affection for Jesus. He begged for the body and did not desist until he obtained it. Not only that, but by laying it in his own new tomb, he actively demonstrated his love and courage” (Homily 88 on Matthew).

In John 19:39 we are told that the seeker Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, helped Joseph in this task. Their service is memorialized in the troparion sung on this day, itself drawn from the Gospel of St Mark: The noble Joseph took down from the tree Your spotless body. He wrapped it in fine linen with aromatic spices and laid it for burial in a new tomb…

Mark notes that Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Joses (whom John identifies as the wife of Clopas – Cleophas in the King James Bible – and a relative of the Theotokos) saw where Jesus had been buried and returned with others on Sunday morning with more spices. Mark 15:40 tells of a Salome, one of those who had witnessed the death of the Lord, who accompanied them. These women were among those whom Luke says provided for Jesus’ needs during His ministry from their possessions. Others among them, according to Luke, were “Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Suzanna, and many others” (8:3). Matthew 27:56 mentions “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (i.e. James and John). Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, are included among them as well. As St John Chrysostom remarked, “They lamented over what had happened, beating their breasts. Meanwhile, the religious leaders were glorying in those very things for which the others were grieving, neither moved by pity nor checked by fear” (Homily 88.2 on Matthew).

The Jews did not embalm the dead like the Egyptians. Rather they anointed a corpse and surrounded it with large quantities of spices to counteract the odor of decay. Jn 19:39 says that Nicodemus brought one hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes for that purpose. When the women returned to the tomb at first light on Sunday morning, according to Mark and Luke, they brought more spices. The odor should have increased to such a degree that further masking would be needed if people were to visit the tomb. But the Lord did not need their spices; not subject to corruption, He had conquered Death and destroyed its hold over us.

The Myrrhbearers knew that the service they offered was fruitless in a sense – Jesus was dead and they could not change that. They could simply perform a last act of love and remain by the tomb in witness to their love for Him. Their faithfulness to serve Christ even in death was rewarded; they were blessed to see the empty tomb and to bear witness to the Apostles that Christ was risen.

The Burial of Christ

The role of Joseph, Nicodemus and the Myrrhbearers is particularly remembered in our worship at the Holy Friday service of the Burial of Christ. The hymns we sing before the image of the dead Christ make frequent mention of them:

Nicodemus and Joseph

are now joined by heaven’s hosts.

Within a narrow tomb

they place the precious body

of the One whom nothing

at all can contain.

The most noble Joseph,

With Nicodemus buried

You with myrrh in a new and strange way,

O Christ; and they cried aloud:

“Be afraid, O earth, and tremble with fear!”

Ointment bearing women

drew near to You, O Lord,

to offer myrrh in their love.

Ointment bearing women

came to anoint with myrrh

Christ, the true Myrrh of our God.

Ointment bearing women

came to Your tomb, O Lord,

to anoint You with their myrrh.

It is the custom in many places that members of the church council represent Joseph and Nicodemus by carrying the image of the dead Christ before its burial in anticipation of the Resurrection. Similarly, young women depict the myrrhbearers by walking in the procession and sprinkling scented water as they go.

The Parish Myrrhbearers

The holy Myrrhbearers are the patrons of many sisterhoods in Eastern Orthodox and Greek Catholic Churches. As the women in the Scriptures ministered to the material needs of Christ and His disciples, parish myrrhbearers serve their community by coordinating Sunday morning coffee hours and other parish meals. Some Myrrhbearers organize mercy meals for the departed or receptions for churchings and baptisms.

Elsewhere the parish Myrrhbearers may maintain the parish prayer list or ministry of intercession’ remembering the needs for which parishioners have asked their prayers.

In some Churches local Myrrhbearers undertake charitable programs at home and abroad. Orphan adoption programs and support for seminarians are supported by Myrrhbearers in several dioceses.

In some parishes the Myrrhbearers are the young women who exercise a ministry of hospitality at the church’s regular Sunday services by serving as greeters, and by distributing bulletins and other handouts.

In some parishes Myrrhbearers ring the church bells, tend the candle stands or bring the offerings forward for the priest to receive. They come into special prominence on Holy Friday when they keep watch before the holy shroud and scatter flowers before it in procession.