On the Sunday of the Holy Myrrhbearers
Sermon by Fr. Antony Hughes for Sunday, May 11, 2008
The Reading is from Mark 15:43-47; 16:1-8
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen. Christ is Risen!
The Gospel reading today should be familiar to you. The verses from chapter 16:1-8 comprise the reading before the closed doors of the Church on the night of Holy Pascha. According to most Biblical scholars St. Mark's Gospel originally ended here on a dramatic note. The Angel asks the Myrrh-bearing women to go tell the disciples (and Peter in particular) the news that they would meet the risen Lord in Galilee, but according to this Gospel the women do not do as commanded. Instead they flee from the tomb: "for trembling and astonishment had come upon them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." We must not be too hard on them. Put yourself in their place. How would we respond to such a startling scene? A redactor, or perhaps an editor added what we know are two alternative endings to complete the story. This doesn't bother us at all. We have known all along that the Gospels are the collected memories of the communities that gathered around the Apostles. They are the product of the Church rather than single individuals.
See also here a contrast. St. Mark reports that often Jesus asked those who are healed or who witness a miracle not to tell anyone and yet, usually, they end up doing the opposite. Now the angel requests that the news of the Resurrection be told and yet the women keep it secret. Surely they were overwhelmed. The trauma of the crucifixion of Jesus, the fear of retaliation against His believers, the unspeakably intense experience of finding the tomb empty and dialoguing with an angel all in the space of some 36 hours combined would be more than enough to inspire a little quiet time behind locked doors.
What they witnessed was a theophany, a revelation of God like Moses
had on Sinai when he saw the burning bush and the Apostles Peter, James
and John experienced on Mt. Tabor as Jesus was revealed to them in His
glory. Every theophany comes with a commandment. For Moses it was to
go and "set my people free." For the Apostles it was, "Do not tell
anyone what you have seen." For the Myrrh-bearing Women it was to "go
and tell." The difference being that in this case the theophany came in
the form of a prophecy from an angel, "he is going before you into
Galilee; there you will see him as he told you."
How do all of the subjects in these three episodes respond? Moses hesitates and makes excuses saying that he is a poor speaker and cannot handle the task. In the icons of the Transfiguration we see the three Apostles sprawled on the ground out of "fear and astonishment" and then, not knowing what to say in such a strange situation impetuous Peter utters some nonsense about building booths for Jesus, Moses and Elijah to sit in. The Myrrh-bearing Women flee in terror. Later, of course, all recover from their fear and do just as they were told and more.
It is so with us. When we first catch a glimpse of the glory of God we are not often ready to respond as we should. It may take a long time for the message to sink in and for the image of God within us to awaken to the Divine Presence. We are so used to ignoring His voice when at last it becomes clear that the Lord is actually speaking to us, we run away out of fear like Adam and Eve in Eden. But St. John tells us that we do not need to be afraid. He came not to condemn the world, but to save it. Often in Holy Scripture we read that people fall on their faces in fear when an angel appears. The message nearly always is "do not be afraid." Once Peter begs Jesus to depart from him because he is a sinful man. Again Jesus reaches out His hand to comfort the shaken fisherman. Clearly the Lord does not want us to live in dread of Him.
This quote from St. Dionysius the Areopagite sheds light on the just how overwhelmingly powerful Divine mercy is.
Is it not true that Christ draws near with love to those who turn away from him? That he struggles with them, begs them not to scorn his love, and if they show only aversion and remain deaf to his appeals, becomes himself their advocate?
Even sinners need not be afraid! The message of the Gospel, of the life, death and resurrection of Christ is that God is love. He is the healer of wounds, the advocate for sinners, the corrector of the unjust, the lover of mankind, the one who stands at the door and knocks and knocks and knocks. If we turn away from Him, He draws closer. If we reject Him, He embraces us. If our hearts become harder, He searches infinitely for the inevitable crack through which to invade it. He woos us like a lover, cares for us like a mother, calls to us like a father and accompanies us like a brother. The unyielding love of honorable parents and faithful spouses is nothing in comparison to the love of God. The God who asks us to be patient is Himself the fountain of Patience. Although we are for now trapped in time the Lord's call echoes throughout eternity. We do not yet understand the extent of the victory that has been won by Jesus on the Cross and in the Empty Tomb. The spiritual life is a gradual journey into this greatest of mysteries.
The message of the Gospel is "do not be afraid." Go and proclaim that. Christ is risen!