The Courage to Believe

Second Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women

Acts 6:1-7
Mark 15:43-16:8

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit Amen. Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!

I had the good fortune this last Friday to attend and sing at the funeral of our parish’s newest member: The servant of God, Lev, in the final moments of his earthly sojourn, consented to his family’s fervent desire that he be baptized and receive Holy Communion as an Orthodox Christian. At his funeral just a few days ago the church sang some of the boldest, most audacious words about our brother’s death and what most assuredly will someday be our fate as well:

Thou alone art immortal, [addressing Christ]/ Who didst create and fashion man; / but we mortals were formed of earth, and unto earth shall we return, / as Thou who madest me didst command and say unto me: / For earth thou art and unto earth shalt thou return, / whither all we mortals are going, / making as a funeral dirge the song: // Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

IKOS of Kontakion after Ode 6, Funeral Service

How dare we? What kind of funeral hymn is Alleluia? Glory and praise to Yahweh? How can we Christians sing such songs in the face of death in which as the funeral service tells us:

All the bodily organs now are seen to be idle, / which a little while ago were active, / all is useless, dead, senseless; / for the eyes have sunken inward, / the feet are bound, the hands are stilled, / and the hearing with them; / the tongue is locked in silence, given up to the grave. // Truly all mortal things are vanity.

(Orthodox Funeral Service for a Layman, Prayers at the Final Kiss)

Could the one who alone is immortal leave his creation in the depths of such indignity? Ah, but you see, he did not. The Epistle of St. Paul to the Hebrews testifies that we do not have a Creator or high priest, “who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:14-16) And this only Sinless One took on our human nature and suffered this very indignity of death himself voluntarily, so that the grave might not be the end of our story.

In this morning’s Gospel, we read the testimony of those closest to the Lord Jesus at his crucifixion, death, entombment, and his first day resurrection. These Myrhh-bearing Women and secret disciples Joseph and Nicodemus show great audacity and courage in their relentless love for the Lord. We prayed on the eve of Great and Holy Friday the hymn dedicated to Joseph of Arimathea (and prayed a similar prayer last night at Vespers):

Come and let us bless Joseph of eternal memory, who came by night to Pilate and begged for the Life of all: ‘Give me this stranger, Who has no place to lay His head. Give me this stranger,  Whom His evil disciple delivered to death. Give me this stranger, Whom His Mother saw hanging on the Cross, and with a mother’s sorrow she cried weeping: “Woe is me, O my Child! Woe is me, Light of mine eyes and beloved fruit of my womb! For what Symeon foretold in the temple now is come to pass: a sword has pierced my heart, but do Thou change my grief to gladness by Thy Resurrection.”

(Dismissal Hymn of Orthros to Great and Holy Saturday)

Our Lord Jesus Christ did not merely endure a natural death, but one that is most humiliating and degrading. He was rushed from the cross without any proper burial rites, wrapped in a clean, white linen shroud, and placed in a tomb belonging to someone else. In this hymn, we hear the voice of St. Joseph referring to the Lord as a stranger (o ξένος, in Greek). It is a word rich with meaning; it partakes of both the Lord’s humility in death, that they mocked his true glory and he died nameless like those collectively placed in a paupers grave. And it partakes of His true nature: that He the deathless life went down to death and proved to be a stranger to corruption. His death became our life, his degradation our glory, and his crucifixion our Resurrection. And so we also pray at the funeral service on Friday,

With the saints give rest, O Christ, to the soul of Thy servant, // where there is neither sickness, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but life everlasting.

Along with those who attended the death of Christ, we pray with our dead for the resurrection. And we stand witness with them of what the Myrrh-bearers and disciples saw and experienced as they came to give Jesus a proper rest in the tomb:

Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they said among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away-for it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is 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 into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you. So they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Mark 15:43-16:8

They said nothing to anyone, but then they proclaimed Him later to the world! They trembled and were amazed, but the Lord by His holy angels, gave them gently the proofs and by degrees brought them along to true belief. As Venerable Bede comments, “Our Lord and Redeemer revealed the glory of his resurrection to his disciples gradually and over a period of time undoubtedly because so great was the virtue of the miracle that the weak hearts of mortals could not grasp the significance of this all at once.” In the face of such an awful reality, it took great courage for them to believe the unbelievable, that something so great and final as death could be overthrown.

So what were the obstacles they needed to overcome? It was both pressure from the world and doubts from within. The pressure from the world came from both Jewish and secular Roman authorities committed to the lie that the Lord’s disciples had stolen the body, and it was only a matter of time before this imposter was uncovered somewhere. The doubts also welled up for them from within, for who really rises from the dead? Can this unprecedented miracle really have happened in the way it was described, or could it be possible that Jesus rose in some other way, maybe spiritually, in the thoughts and minds of His followers?

This doubt has followed us to our own present day, especially here in scientifically inclined New England. The bodily Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is for many here a stumbling block, some embarrassing dogma from an antiquated past that modern science in all its supposed precision and authority has supposedly disproven. The great American novelist and poet John Updike has written a wonderful rebuttal of this common notion in the poem Seven Stanzas at Easter:

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

And what of us gathered here this morning? Are we wavering in our belief of such a great miracle? Our Mother the Church understands this and gives us these 40 days after Pascha to ask the hard questions. And today we have these witnesses in the Holy Myrrh-bearers and disciples to intercede for us in our timidity and doubt. May He who rose from the dead and gave many convincing proofs of his Resurrection to his disciples enable us to glorify Him in purity of heart. Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!

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