The Myrrh-Bearing Women
By Sheridan Larson
How did the early church picture the Resurrection? What was the first icon (artistic image) of the Resurrection?
The earliest icon of the Resurrection was from the 3rd Century and it is called, “The Myrrh-Bearing Women.” It depicts the women who came to Jesus’ tomb the morning of his Resurrection to anoint his dead body with myrrh and other spices and fragrances.
Myrrh is a pungent, bitter-sweet fragrance and an essential oil with healing and anti-parasitic properties. In Biblical times, it was used in a variety of ways. The Temple priests made special blends using myrrh for both incense and anointing oil. But it was used more commonly in marriage beds and lovemaking, as well as in anointing bodies for burial.
I’ve been fascinated by the Myrrh-Bearing Women for several Easters now. I’ve gazed upon various icons and read the Gospel accounts carefully (Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24 and John 20). I’ve studied some of the Orthodox prayers and traditions around the Resurrection and this icon of the Myrrh-Bearing Women.
But this Easter Season of 2020, the year of the Coronavirus, I’ve pressed into these things, hoping for more, praying for a fresh work of Resurrection in this our day. And so, I stumbled upon another prayer, one about suffering and myrrh. I offer it for us, for our day, from 14th Century theologian Johannes Tauler: “May Jesus Christ, the King of Glory, help us to make the right use of all the myrrh that God sends, and to offer to Him the true incense of our hearts; for His Name’s sake. Amen.”
Looking at the Gospel accounts, what do we know about the women who went “very early” to Jesus’ tomb? We know that they were not expecting an open tomb and a resurrected Lord. They were wondering how they would roll away the heavy stone.
But they were fearless. There is no record that they were at all worried about the guards that had been posted at the tomb. They came to minister to the body of Jesus and put more spices on it. This was because due to his violent death and the Feast of the Passover and The Sabbath restrictions, Jesus’ burial had to be done hurriedly. They came early in the morning on the day after Sabbath. They came to finish the burial of their Lord, to see that all was done properly and prayerfully.
They came expecting a body. This is true. Even though they might have heard and even believed some of the things that Jesus had said about His dying and being raised on the third day, they didn’t understand His words. Couldn’t imagine what those words might mean. And yes, this is probably true for us, who have the Scriptures and The Spirit and the Church’s doctrines and history. There are still things we don’t completely understand. Things we can’t picture.
So these women came to their much-loved Lord’s grave with deep sorrow, with weeping and with myrrh. There are seven women named in the Gospel texts who could have been in this company: Mary Magdalene; Mary, the Mother of Jesus; Joanna, the wife of Chuza; Salome, the mother of the sons of Zebedee; Susanna; and Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus.
Some of the icons of The Myrrh-Bearing Women have two or three women. Some have seven, but some have many, many women and more that appear to be coming through the hills and mountains of the icon, coming to our Lord’s empty tomb. They represent all the women who have come and continue to come to the graves of loved ones with jars of myrrh in their hands. They are wives and sisters, mothers and daughters and friends. We mourners of today join with the original myrrh-bearing women who came to Jesus’ tomb that first Easter. We file in behind them. We are all coming to seek Jesus. And so we come to the garden, the rolled-away stone, the gapping tomb and the bright light.
In the list of names of women who could have been part of this company of myrrh-bearing women there are several Mary’s. The name Mary is the Greek form of the Hebrew ‘Miriam’. And the name “Miriam” is made up of two parts: ‘myrrh’ which means bitter and ‘yam’ that speaks of seas/water. The first mention of a Miriam is in the Book of Exodus when the people of God are in Egypt. It is in a time of cruel slavery. And then when we read the Gospels, we find that Israel was once again under bitter captivity, this time to the Romans. And Mary (Miriam) was one of the most common female names of the time.
One of these Mary’s was, of course, the Mother of Our Lord. And though, we don’t know much about her early life, we can see in the words of The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) that Mary had been wrestling with injustice and crying out to God. In Luke 1:24-58, we notice that both Mary and Elizabeth quote Psalm 126. It is a weeping psalm of captivity. This psalm records a time when God flipped captivity into release, rejoicing and fruitfulness. And the psalm asks God to do it again!
There is a word in the psalm that gets translated “dream” or “comforted” but is more exactly translated (according to scholar Patrick Reardon, in his “Christ in the Psalms”) as “enraptured, over-joyed, over-shadowed, parakleted” even. Paraklete (or Paraclete) is a Resurrection word. From its synonym, “comforter,” it denotes the work of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent to be our comforter. It’s there in this little psalm and it’s there in the words of Mary and Elizabeth who at the time of their meeting in Luke 1 know something of what is beginning to happen in their day. But they don’t know it all! And we, too, don’t know it all! But we know the comfort of the Holy Spirit changes everything. Completely! And we are crying out to God, “Do it again!”
As you research images of the myrrh-bearing women, you will see that in some of them each woman is bringing her own myrrh (weeping ointment) to pour out—to give completely to Jesus. They are bowed and sorrowful, but they are up early, in the dark, moving toward the last place they knew their Lord to be. And there, they are met and encouraged. This is true today for us. With all the deaths and betrayals, and heavy burdens of our lives, we need to make our way to Him, to come to the place where we think we might find Him, to come bringing precious containers of tears and sorrow and even deep bitterness. Praying that we, like them, will be met and encouraged.
In some artistic renditions, we see the grave, though rock-hard and heavy, is rent open. And remains open. It is empty. The grave clothes (the shroud) are empty but look like swaddling clothes of Jesus’ birth in icons of the Nativity. His birth was marked as heading toward death but His empty tomb reminds us of birth and life!
Despite all the great artistic expressions of the Resurrection throughout time, the very first Resurrection icon is of the Women. They were the first witnesses of our Lord’s Resurrection. They received the first sight of the empty tomb. They heard the first words of Resurrection joy and were given the first commission to tell others. And they went and spoke those wonderful words—too wonder-filled to be comprehended: The Lord Jesus is Risen from the dead! Amen.
Some additional words and prayers from Orthodox tradition and liturgy:
“O ointment-bearing women why have you come to the tomb? Why seek the living among the dead? Take courage for the Lord is risen!”
“Why do you mingle tears with your ointments? The stone has been rolled away, the tomb is empty. Behold corruption has been trampled down by life! Behold the grave seals bear a radiant witness! The guards sleep. All the dead are saved by God. Hades is in mourning! Hasten! With joy go to the Apostles and tell them: Christ the firstborn from the dead, He has caused death to die, shall go before you into Galilee.”
“A radiant angel, dazzling in beauty, said to the ointment-bearing women, ‘Why are you seeking the living One among the dead? He is risen and has left the tomb empty.’ Understand that the immutable One has changed corruption into incorruption, and say to God: ‘How immutable are your works, O God, for you have saved the Human race.’”
“Why do you seek the living One among the dead, since He is Almighty and grants life and immortality, light and great mercy to all.”
“Christ IS RISEN from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs, bestowing LIFE!”