Sunday of Myrrhbearers
We read a great Bible story every year on Holy Saturday morning. It tells of the evil King Nebuchadnezzar who builds a golden idol and commands all his subjects to worship it. Three of his court officials refuse to do so. They are known to us as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego. They are brought to trial before the king, who was determined that his power never be questioned. He demanded that they worship the idol; if not, he said, “If you do not worship, you shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?”
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego were Jews living in a foreign land. They held their positions because of their competence, but their positions were always tenuous. They had a choice to make- to serve with integrity the God in whom they believed but whom they could not see or touch, or to obey Nebuchadnezzar and worship the idol. To many of us, their position would seem hopeless. But their answer was based on nothing but hope. They responded, “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.”
The rest of the story is well known. They were thrown into the fire to die; the men who threw them in were killed by the heat of the fire, but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego survived, because God protected them.
On Holy Friday evening every year we read an account of a vision seen by the Prophet Ezekiel (chapter 37). He tells how he was conveyed to a valley full of dead men’s bones. He said, God “caused me to pass by them all around, and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry.” Can anyone imagine a scene more bereft of hope than this one. God asked Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Ezekiel did not know how to answer, but to say, “O Lord God, only you know.” God said to Ezekiel, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They indeed say, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!’”
Those familiar with the story know that God commanded Ezekiel to call the bones to life, and the bones are given flesh and life; the people who possessed those bones come back from death.
“Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They indeed say, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!’ Therefore prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it.”
Both these stories- that of Ezekiel and that of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego- are stories of people who clung onto hope in times when there was none to be found, or at least none which could be seen. The three young men of Nebuchadnezzar’s administration saw nothing before them but a scorching furnace and an angry king. Ezekiel was surrounded by a valley filled with bones. But it did not matter. Nothing mattered but their faith in God.
In Orthodox Christian tradition we honor today two groups of people- the two men who buried Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea and Nikodimos, and the women collectively known as the “Myrrh-bearers,” those who went to the Lord’s tomb early on the Sunday after His death so that they might anoint His body, thus giving Him a proper Jewish burial, and who instead were the first to learn that He had risen. Like Ezekiel before them and like the Three Holy Youths, they had no reason for hope. Jesus was dead; their teacher was gone. But they did what was right, they hoped when there was no reason to do so, and for this we honor them.
We all have moments when life resembles the valley filled with dead men’s bones, or when before us is a hot, fiery furnace and an angry king. That moment may present itself in the death of a loved one, betrayal by a friend, the loss of a job, the implosion of a marriage, etc. We all have moments when our only refuge seems to be a bottle or a pill or a fit of self-pity or simply complete despair. Christian faith guides us not to deny these moments, but rather to look beyond them. We cannot deny that there is ugliness and disappointment in this life, but we always look beyond them to what God promises us.
“In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world,” says the Lord (John 16:33). In another place He says, “In your patience you will gain your souls” (Luke 21:18). In still another place (Revelation 21:4) we read, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”
The point is that God does not promise us a carefree life now, but rather a carefree future, if we live as He would have us do so.
We have this idealized mental picture in which the people in Jesus’ life saw so many miracles and heard so much marvelous instruction that all went well with them, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Gospel that we read today tells us that Jesus was buried by people who had until that time refused to publicly associate themselves with Him, because His closest associates were too frightened to do so. They, too, had their moments in the valley of the bones. But God is faithful to us, whether we see it or not.
In the words of Psalm 3:
"Many are they who say of me,
'There is no help for him in God.'
But You, O LORD, are a shield for me,
My glory and the One who lifts up my head."