Today is the 3rd Sunday of Pascha which commemorates the Myrrh-Bearing Women, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. According to the Gospel narratives, the known Myrrh-Bearers were: the Virgin Mary who was also the step-mother of James and Joses, the sons of Joseph the Betrothed. There was also: Mary Magdalene; Susanna; Joanna, wife of Chouza who was a steward of Herod Antipas; Salome, mother of the Apostles James and John; and Mary and Martha who were the sisters of Lazarus.
Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy and noble Jewish man who asked for the Body of Jesus from Pontius Pilate. He bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud, and laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. (Mk 15: 43-46) This tomb belonged to Joseph but out of his love for Jesus, bequeathed it to Him.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee and prominent member of the Sanhedrin. We first hear of him in John 3:1-21 when Jesus dialogues with him: 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…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.” Here, Jesus was referring to Baptism and Chrismation which is the Rite of Initiation, when we all experience our "first death" and begin our "new life" in Christ.
The 2nd account of Nicodemus is in Jn 7:50-52: Nicodemus (he who came to Jesus by night, being one of them) said to them, “Does our law judge a man before it hears him and knows what he is doing?” They answered and said to him, “Are you also from Galilee? Search and look, for no prophet has arisen out of Galilee.” Here, Nicodemus defends Jesus on legal grounds not theologically. Nevertheless, he denoted courage before his fellow Jews. It was possible that the Jews could have been threatened by Nicodemus’ affiliation with Jesus and either had him expelled from the Sanhedrin or put to death.
The 3rd occurrence was Jn 19: 39-40: And 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 strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury. Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’ burial.
The other three Gospels do not mention Nicodemus at all, just John. Also, in each instance that John mentions Nicodemus, he always makes reference to the one who came to Jesus by night. This is no coincidence; John is emphasizing that Nicodemus was a secret follower of Christ, while at the same time showing a transition in his faith in Christ. At the first encounter, Nicodemus displays some ambiguity in his faith in Jesus as God. In the 2nd encounter, he defends Jesus and by the third, Nicodemus boldly comes forth to assist with Jesus’ burial. Certainly, this was noticeable before the Roman authorities.
Similarly, with Joseph of Arimathea, there is emphasis by John that being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate gave him permission. So, he came and took the body of Jesus (ibid, 19:38). The Evangelist Mark writes that Joseph of Arimathea coming and taking courage, went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus (Mk 15:43). So, Joseph was cautious with the Jews but bold before Pilate. Thus, he was watchful but nevertheless courageous.
Both Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea feared the Jews and were discreet about their faith in Christ. Perchance, before Pilate they felt some ease because he was a Gentile and only ordered Jesus to be crucified out of fear of a riot or uprising, not out of enmity. You, who cover Yourself with light as with a garment, were taken down from the Cross by Joseph, with the help of Nicodemus. When he saw You dead, naked, and unburied, he took up a moving lamentation; and stricken with grief he said, "Alas, O sweetest Jesus! When the sun saw You hanging on the Cross just a little while ago, it wrapped itself in darkness; and out of fear the earth was quaking; and the curtain of the Temple was torn in two. And now I see You voluntarily undergoing death for me. How am I to bury You, my God? Or how can I wrap You in a shroud? With what hands shall I touch Your immaculate body, or what songs should I be singing at Your departure, tender-loving Lord? I magnify Your Passion, and I extol Your burial and Your resurrection, as I cry out: O Lord, glory to You! (2nd Festal Doxastikon of Vespers)"
Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were the last two people to see Christ before His burial, but, were not the first witnesses to the Resurrection. Instead, Mary Magdalene who was one of the Myrrh-Bearers, was first to see the Risen Christ. Jesus chose women to be the first to behold the Resurrection. What a paradox! It was a woman (Eve) who was first to sin in the Garden of Eden but ironically, women were first to receive the Good News. Possibly the reason for this was the Myrrh-Bearing Women continuously displayed great piety and courage. Some of them were by Jesus’ side at the Cross and as soon as the Sabbath was over, at dawn, they went to His Tomb to anoint His Body. They did not reckon for one moment their own safety, rather focused only on serving Christ. Certainly, this is a lesson for us all.
Christ restored humanity in His Resurrection. As we see in the Resurrection Icon, Adam and Eve were the first to be redeemed from Hades. The gift of life may have first been given to a man but the Good News, the "new life" Christ ushers with His Resurrection was proclaimed to a woman (or women).
Christ is Risen!
Glory to His Holy Three-Day Resurrection!
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.
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BONUS: Y2AM has released a brand new ministry training course. And check out our "Live the Word" episode for the Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women: