Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
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.

 
MOST REGULAR WORSHIPPERS in Byzantine churches have heard the terms “octoechos” or “eight tones.” Some think that these terms refer principally to the troparia of the resurrection sung at Sunday’s Divine Liturgy. In fact, the term Octoechos refers to much more. The Octoechos first of all refers to a system of eight musical tones in which liturgical music has been composed and arranged since the Middle Ages. Eight-tone systems are the basis of church music in several historic traditions. The Byzantine, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Latin and Slavic Churches all use an eight-tone system, although the music of each of these Churches is vastly different from any of the others. In Byzantine practice the Octoechos also refers to the eight-week cycle of texts and music for the daily services throughout the year. Each week in succession a different tone is used, beginning in the week of Thomas, the second week of the Paschal season. Every Saturday evening vespers begins a new tone which is used for all the services of the following week. These texts are contained in a liturgical book called the Great Octoechos or Paraklitiki, which offers a rich source for reflection. The idea of an eight-week cycle seems to have originated with the Jerusalem patriarchate in the fifth century. Noted hymnographers at the nearby Mar Saba Monastery such as St Cosmas of Maiuma and St John of Damascus composed hymns in this pattern. The system began to spread and was formally accepted at the Trullan Council in 692. As the system became popular in Constantinople renowned figures such as St Theodore the Studite contributed to the Octoechos. Their works form a good part of the Paraklitiki today. The Saturday evening and Sunday morning services in each tone celebrate Christ’s resurrection, leading to the often quoted idea that “every Sunday is a little Easter.” Themes for the other weekdays are:
  • Monday – Repentance, the heavenly powers
  • Tuesday – St John the Forerunner
  • Wednesday and Friday – The precious Cross
  • Thursday – Ss Peter and Paul and St Nicholas of Myra
  • Saturday – All the saints and the departed.
  • Proclaiming the Resurrection

    The changeable parts of our Sunday services in the Octoechos are concerned with Christ’s resurrection. During the forty days of Pascha these resurrectional hymns are not sung only on Sundays, but every day. On the five Sundays of the season they are combined with the hymns of Pascha itself and the specific commemorations of the day. The texts in each of the eight tones are different but they all speak of the paschal mystery. The examples cited here are all taken from the first and second tones, but the ideas which they express are representative of the other tones as well. Some of these texts recall the events described in the Gospels: the sealed tomb, the stone rolled away, the angels’ message to the women and the news they brought to the apostles. Thus we hear the following at vespers on Saturday evening: “The myrrh-bearing women came with haste to Your tomb, with their myrrh and their lament. Not finding Your most pure body, they learned from the angel of the new and glorious wonder. They told the apostles that the Lord is risen, granting the world great mercy.” At Matins on Sunday this is sung: “The soldiers keeping watch over your tomb fell down as dead, O Savior, at the lightning brightness of the angel who appeared and proclaimed the resurrection to the women.” We also hear this hymn in which the composer adds a striking image: “The women, coming early to Your tomb trembled at the sight of the angel. The tomb shone with life and this wonder struck them. And so going back to the disciples they proclaimed the Resurrection.”

    Meaning of the Resurrection

    Every Saturday evening vespers includes thirteen resurrectional hymns in addition to the familiar troparion. Over fifty others are prescribed for Sunday Matins. This arrangement gives ample scope for composers to add theology and poetry to their proclamation of this mystery. The greatest effect of Christ’s death and resurrection is that Death’s power to separate us from God is now destroyed. Death now need not affect more than the body – our spirits can pass with Christ through bodily death to eternal life. The hymns of the Octoechos constantly sing of the annihilation of Death: “granting life, He has slain Death… He has resurrected Adam, as the Lover of mankind…” (tone 1 vespers hymns). “You have transformed the shadow of death into life eternal,” we sing at matins (tone 1), “breaking the chains of man’s mortality... granting to the human race life eternal and great mercy…” “You raised up human nature, which was held captive and You enthroned it with Your Father in heaven…” (tone 2). The New Testament introduces the concept that Christ descended into the depths “… and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient” (1 Peter 3:19,20). The Octoechos echoes this teaching in many hymns: “…in Your power you descended into Hades and snatching, as from a mighty monster, the souls of those who awaited Your coming, You placed them in Paradise.” “Sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (James 1:15) and so the Octoechos often connects the resurrection to the defeat of sin. ‘Emmanuel has nailed our sins to the cross and… has delivered us from our transgressions… (tone 1 vespers).

    Images of the Resurrection

    Since this bestowal of eternal life is beyond our senses, the Church often uses images to describe it in a manner our senses can grasp. The destruction of Death’s power is often depicted graphically. “O Christ, you put to shame him who held them in thrall and showed him naked and destitute by your Divine Rising” (tone 1). “O Christ the gates of Death opened before You in fear and the gatekeepers of Hades were filled with dread at the sight of You. You smashed the gates of brass and crushed the posts of iron. Then You burst our chains asunder and led us out from the darkness, away from the shadow of death” (tone 2). The Octoechos often employs Scriptural allusions to glorify the resurrection, invoking images of:
    The Creation and Fall (Genesis 1-3)
    “The one who planted a soul within me by His divine breath, submitted Himself to slaughter and surrendered His soul to death. He loosed the everlasting bonds, and has raised the dead with Himself, glorifying them in incorruption.” “You have abolished the curse of the tree by Your cross … and cancelled the decree that was written against us”. “Paradise is again offered for us to enjoy…”
    Cain and Abel (Genesis 4)
    “The earth of old was cursed, dyed with the blood of Abel from his murdering brother’s hand. Now it is blessed, sprinkled with the divine stream of Your blood.”
    Jonah and the Sea Monster
    “You have brought us up from Hades, Lord, by worsting the all-devouring monster of the deep, O All-powerful, and destroying his power by Your might…” and
    The Temple Priesthood
    “He is our forerunner into the holy place” (cf., [cite-pericope]Hebrews 9:24[/cite-pericope]) or
    Social Custom
    “You rose from the tomb as from a bridal chamber” i.e. showing that the heavenly marriage had been truly “consummated” and that God and mankind were one again.
 
“THE NOBLE JOSEPH took down from the tree Your spotless body, wrapped it in pure linen with aromatic spices and laid it for burial in a new tomb.” This troparion, which summarizes the Gospel account of the Lord’s burial, is sung as the holy shroud (epitaphios) is placed in the tomb on Great Friday evening. It is sung again on the Third Sunday of Pascha, but with this addition: “But on the third day, You arose, O Lord, and bestowed great mercy upon the world!” The noble or righteous Joseph of Arimathea, along with Nicodemus, is commemorated on this Sunday together with the myrrhbearing women who ministered to Christ at the tomb. As we read in the Gospels, Joseph was “a rich man” (Matthew 25:57) and “a prominent member of the council” (Mark 15:43). This “council” may refer to one of the regional courts in Israel or to the Great Sanhedrin, the chief religious court of the Jews which met in Jerusalem. In any case, Joseph and Nicodemus, whom John describes as “a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1) and one of those in the high priest’s circle (cf., John 7:50-52), had sufficient influence to approach Pontius Pilate and ask to bury Jesus’ body. Jesus is often described as being poor – He Himself alluded to this when He said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Matthew 8:19-21; Luke 9:58). He had put aside His carpenter’s craft to preach the kingdom of God and depended on others to provide His needs. He attracted other tradesmen, like Andrew and Peter, James and John who did the same. His followers included the poor but also some prominent individuals as well. The Evangelist Matthew was a tax collector, a civil servant in the Roman administration, as was Zacchaeus who had grown rich in that pursuit (cf., Luke 19:1-10). Others, like the rich young man whom He invited to follow Him (cf., Matthew 19:16-22), were attracted to Jesus but could not break with their wealth or position to follow Him.

Jesus’ Secret Disciples

While Joseph is not mentioned in the Gospels before Christ’s death, Nicodemus is featured twice in John’s Gospel, giving us an insight into the struggle which a member of the Jewish establishment would have experienced when drawn to Jesus. Nicodemus first approached Jesus at night when he would not be noticed. This encounter is described in John’s Gospel: “There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.’ “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ “Jesus answered, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ “Nicodemus answered and said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?’” (John 3:1-10). Nicodemus appears in the Gospel a second time when the chief priests and Pharisees, alarmed at the people’s reaction to Jesus, were considering how to deal with Him (cf., John 7:45-52). Nicodemus offers a timid resistance to their resentment. “Does our law judge a man before it hears him and knows what he is doing?” (John 7:51). In response the Pharisees ridiculed him: “Are you also from Galilee? Search and look, for no prophet has arisen out of Galilee” (John 7:52). Their rebuke may have served to increase Nicodemus’ attachment to Jesus. He next appears as a public follower of Jesus at His death, assisting Joseph of Arimathea in burying His body. “Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury” (John 19:39-40). While the Jews regularly buried their dead enshrouded in spices, there is something more indicated here. Pope Benedict XVI, in his three-volume study Jesus of Nazareth writes: “The quantity of balm is extraordinary and exceeds all normal proportions: this is a royal burial. If Jesus was manifested to us as high priest by the casting of lots for his robe [Christ’s chiton, like the high priest’s, was seamless], so now he is revealed to us as king by the manner of his burial.”

After Christ’s Burial

There is no further mention of either Joseph or Nicodemus in the Gospels or other contemporary sources. Many later writings, such as the Gospel of Nicodemus, became popular in the first millennium adADbut are not regarded as historical today. One of the most popular is a homily on the Burial of the Divine Body of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ attributed to St Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis (c.310–403). It is often read in monasteries on Great Saturday and an excerpt is frequently sung as people venerate the holy shroud. “When evening had come – for the sun of Righteousness had then set into Hades – a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a secret disciple for fear of the Jews, came with Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus by night. Two secret disciples came to conceal Jesus in a tomb, thus teaching by this concealment the mystery of God concealed in Hades in the flesh. Each of them surpassed the other in their affection for Christ. Nicodemus proved his magnanimity by the myrrh and aloes while Joseph proved worthy of praise by his daring and boldness before Pilate. “Now when Joseph went in he acted very shrewdly in order to achieve his desired goal. He did not employ high sounding and pompous words but a humble plea: ‘O Judge, I have come with a trifling request. Give me a dead man for burial: Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus the poor, Jesus the homeless, Jesus the crucified, the naked … Give me this Stranger, for what profit does this body bring you? Give me this Stranger whose country we know not, whose Father we know not, whose place of birth and ways we know not …’ “Tell me, O Joseph, do you really bury toward the East a dead man who is the Dayspring of the East? Do you close the eyes of Him who opened the eyes of the blind? … Do you empty out myrrh upon the celestial Myrrh who emptied Himself and sanctified the world? … Do you wash with water God’s body which cleanses all and bestows purification? … “Fearlessly Joseph and Nicodemus bury Him before whom the cherubim stand with reverent fear. Looking upon You dead, stripped and exposed, in his grief and tender compassion he lamented, saying: ‘How shall I bury You, my God? How shall I wrap You in a winding sheet? How shall I touch Your most pure body with my hands? … I magnify Your sufferings. I sing the praises of Your burial and resurrection, crying: O Lord, glory to You!’”
 
Why do we have deacons in the Church? The emergence of this order came about in response to a specific issue which the apostles faced in Jerusalem. In Acts 6:1 we read that the “Hellenists” were complaining against the “Hebrews” “because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.” Almost from its beginning it seems the followers of Christ concerned themselves with feeding their poor. In first century society women who had outlived their breadwinner husbands were especially vulnerable, particularly if they had no sons to care for them. Needless to say, they had nothing like today’s workplace where they could be employed. In Jerusalem the synagogues tried to ease the hardships faced by these women. Early on Friday men from the synagogues would canvass the city for goods and money for the widows. These would be distributed that afternoon, before the onset of the Sabbath. The Jewish believers in Jesus would naturally do something similar. These first followers of the Lord lived with the memory of His preaching, His miracles, His death and resurrection and the descent of His Spirit fresh in their minds. Yet, human weakness made itself felt as well. The local believers – the Aramaic-speaking Jews of the Holy Land, whom Acts calls the Hebrews – seemed to be more attentive to their poor while neglecting the “Greeks,” those Hellenized Jews more inclined to embrace Greek culture, perhaps from places like Antioch or Caesarea, who had come to Jerusalem seeking help. Wanting to address this problem without allowing it to distract them from their proper task of preaching the Gospel, the apostles instituted the order of deacon to deal with the matter.

The First Deacons

Acts identifies the first seven deacons and describes how they began their ministry. They were chosen by “the whole multitude” (v. 5) and presented to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them. Prayer and the laying-on of hands has been the rite prescribed for the ordination of deacons, priests and bishops ever since. Each of the seven listed in Acts bore Greek names. They may have been Hellenized Jews, the very people who felt as a disadvantage in the Jerusalem community. One, Nicholas, is identified as “a proselyte from Antioch” (v. 5) and would have been of pagan origin. The only two who appear elsewhere in Acts are Stephen and Philip. Stephen, described as “full of grace and power” (Acts 6:8), incurred the resentment of some Jews with whom he disputed. They denounced him to the Sanhedrin where he was condemned to death and executed (Acts 7). The Church honors him as the Protomartyr, the first to die because of his faith in Christ. Chapter 8 of Acts tells of the activities of the deacon Philip who preached the Gospel in Samaria and converted an Ethiopian on the road to Gaza. Various local traditions connect Prochoros with Nicomedia, Nicanor with Cyprus, Timon with Bosra, and Parmenas with Macedonia. According to St Irenaeus, the name of Nicholas was connected with the Nicolaitians, a sect condemned in the Book of Revelation. It is not known whether he was actually a part of this group or, as Clement of Alexandria believed, they corrupted his teachings.

Deacons in the Early Church

The importance which deacons assumed in the first-century Church is shown in 1 Tim 3:8-13 where the qualifications for deacons closely resemble the requirements for bishops, with this exception. Potential bishops should demonstrate hospitality (as the head of a family) and an ability to teach (see 1 Tim 3:2). From the first the role of deacons has been connected with a developing range of administrative responsibilities, beginning with the distribution of goods to the poor. During the Roman persecutions they ministered to prisoners. The third-century Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, tells how deacons served as intermediaries with the authorities to improve the condition of the prisoners and to communicate between the prisoners and their families. They arranged for the baptism of those who were catechumens and brought Holy Communion to the baptized, encouraging each one to remain strong in their witness to Christ. As the Church developed, deacons were easily targeted during the persecutions. Their activities in tending to the needs of widows, orphans, the sick, and the imprisoned made them highly visible to the authorities. Since deacons were responsible for an increasing amount of sacred items such as liturgical books and vessels as well as funds for the needy, it was lucrative to seek them out and seize these treasures. In AD 258 the Archdeacon of Rome, Lawrence was arrested and ordered to hand over the Church’s treasures. He gathered all the poor and the needy in his care and presented them to the Prefect, saying “Behold the treasures of the Church.” Lawrence was martyred and today is commemorated in the Church on the anniversary of his death, August 10. Other early deacon-martyrs remembered in our Church are Saints Benjamin the Persian (October 13), Vincent of Saragossa (November 11), and Habib of Edessa (November 15).

Were There Women Deacons?

In Romans 16:1-2 we read, “I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the Church in Cenchrea that you may receive her in the Lord…” It is thought that Phoebe may have brought St Paul’s epistle to the Church at Rome. The Greek word translated here as “servant” is diakonos, giving rise to the idea that Phoebe was an ordained deacon. Both Clement of Alexandria and John Chrysostom recognized Phoebe as a deacon and she is commemorated as such on September 3 with this troparion:
Enlightened by grace and taught the Faith by the chosen vessel of Christ, you were found worthy of the diaconate; and you carried Paul’s words to Rome. O Deaconess Phoebe, pray to Christ God that His Spirit may enlighten our souls!
There are a number of references over the next few centuries to women deacons, but their place in the Church is debated. Many say that they ministered to women, particularly catechumens, preparing them for and assisting in their baptism where the presence of men would have been unseemly. They were ordained in a rite similar to but not identical with that of deacons. Perhaps the best known deaconess in the Byzantine Church was St Olympia (July 25) who headed a community of some 250 women. She is known for her care of St John Chrysostom, attending to his garments and preparing his meals, which she sent daily to the episcopate. Other leading deaconesses of her community known to us by name were the Pentadia, Procla, Sylvina, and Nicarete. As Christianity became the norm in the Byzantine Empire the adult catechumenate – and the deaconesses’ principal function – came to an end. Deaconesses survived for a time only in women’s monasteries. They all but died out in the Armenian. Georgian and Greek Churches after World War I but have since been revived. Deaconesses in the Coptic Church are comparable to Catholic sisters. They are not ordained, but blessed.
 
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. 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 read at this Sunday’s Liturgy we see Joseph of Arimathea arrange for Jesus’ burial. In John 19:39 we are told that the seeker Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, helped Joseph in this task. This 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 – Cleopas 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 from their possessions during His ministry. 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. 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. John 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 not change that. They could simple perform the 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 bear witness to the apostles that Christ was risen.

The Seven Deacons

Among the unwanted in the first century AD were widows who had no one to care for them. If a widow had surviving children or other relatives they had someone on whom they could rely. If a widow had no children or relatives she was reduced to the status of a beggar. In the Acts of the Apostles the first Christians are described as faced with a growing problem of caring for those who came to them for help. The Apostles were torn between the needs of those indigents and the mission from Christ to spread the Gospel. They ordained seven men as the first deacons for the purpose of caring for these widows. While the deacons served the material needs of the people, the apostles concentrated on the spiritual: “We will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4). Over the ages the deacons’ ministry of service to the poor evolved to include care for church property and service to the priest at the holy table. As the deacon handled the material side of the Church’s affairs – particularly its charitable ministry – he also came to care for the material side of the Liturgy. He received and apportioned the holy gifts, carried the Holy Gospel, incensed the church and directed the work of the servers. In icons saintly deacons are often shown holding a censer – symbol of their liturgical ministry – and a church or cashbox, representing their material responsibilities.

Serving the Unwanted Today

In many traditional societies people would come together to bury those who died alone; that is not the case in our culture. In contrast, groups of Catholic high school students have dedicated themselves to caring for Christ the Unwanted in the St Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Society. They act as pall bearers for the poor and provide a Christian burial service for the deceased who do not have the funds to be buried at a private cemetery, many of whom have no one at end of their life to pray for them or to carry them to their final resting place. Members serve as pallbearers, lead prayers, read Scripture passages and offer condolences to the decedents’ family and friends. In the Louisville, KY chapter teens assist the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office’s indigent burial program. They have been called upon to bury the homeless, some of whom had died on the streets. They buried murder victims who had died at the prime of their lives. They buried babies and children whose death tore at the hearts of their parents. They buried the elderly and disabled who had lost touch with their families. At some of the funerals, grieving family members were present, thankful for their prayers and presence. While at others, there was no one, but the society members and the staff from the coroner’s office. Youth from a chapter at St Ignatius’ High School in Cleveland OH witnessed how their service in the society helped develop their own faith. A thirteen year-old reported, “At my first funeral, as we walked the casket to the exit of the church, the doors opened and there was so much light coming though the doors. I felt God’s presence, and the image it gave me was that I was carrying this person to a new life.” As another student reported, “God walks along side us, helping to carry the casket. He stands with the mourners, giving them comfort. He is with the soul of the deceased, carrying them to rest.” The unborn, the handicapped, the lonely and victims of prejudice of every sort have been identified as among our society’s Unwanted. Those who respond to these marginalized brothers and sisters are the spiritual heirs of both the myrrhbearers and the seven deacons. By their untiring concern they both serve Christ in the Unwanted and make palpable the presence of Christ to them as well.

Shopping Cart

Your shopping cart is empty
Visit the shop

Questions? © 1995-2020 Melkite Eparchy of Newton · All Rights Reserved RSS Feed