On May 8, the western Catholic church celebrates the Fourth Sunday of Easter, often called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because of its Gospel: Jn 10:27-30, where Jesus speaks of his sheep.
However, for the Eastern Catholic (and Orthodox) churches, May 8 is the Third Sunday of Easter (Holy Pascha). It is also the “Sunday of the Holy Myrrhbearers,” those who first learned that the Lord had risen. As the apolytikion (a type of hymn in Eastern churches) for this Sunday proclaims: “Standing by the tomb, the angel said to the Myrrh-bearing women: ‘Myrrh is for the dead; but Christ has shown himself stranger to death.’ So go and cry aloud, ‘The Lord has risen and granted the world his great mercy.’”
The Holy Myrrhbearers are mostly women — though two men are also in the usual list: The women are “the other Mary” who (in Matthew and Mark) is called “the mother of James;” Mary Magdalene; Mary, the wife of Clopas; Joanna; Salome; Mary and Martha (the sisters of Lazarus) and Susanna.
Mary Magdalene appears in all four Gospels. We also know Martha and Mary of Bethany from the Gospels. Mary, the wife of Clopas, is considered a relative of Jesus (most often told is that Clopas was a brother to St. Joseph).
Joanna is identified earlier in Luke’s Gospel as the wife of Chouza, a steward of Herod Antipas (Lk 8). Salome is identified in both Western and Eastern church tradition as well as in Bible dictionaries as the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee.
The “mother of James” is also identified as “the mother of James and Joses.” She is also “the other Mary” in Matthew’s account. The “Mother of James and Joses,” in Eastern tradition, is considered to be the Mother of Jesus as well, with James and Joses being sons of Joseph by a previous marriage. In Western tradition, this Mary is more often considered to be a sister of the Blessed Virgin, with James and Joses being Jesus’ cousins. However, the possibility of Joseph being married before is part of Western church teaching, often explaining “the brothers” in Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3.
Not much is known about Susanna except that she is among the women who helped provide for Jesus’ ministry (Lk 8:1-3).
The men on the list are Joseph of Arimathea, who asked Pilate for Jesus’ body and placed it in the tomb, and Nicodemus, who brought 100 pounds of aloes and spice to anoint Jesus’ body for its hasty burial (Jn 19:39).
Since Jesus died on Friday, the eve of the Sabbath, his burial was hasty because Jews were not allowed to work — much less bury the dead — on a Sabbath. And this Sabbath “was a solemn one” — Passover. So Sunday morning would have been the first time anyone could go to the tomb to properly prepare Jesus’ body. Which is what the women did.
Instead of finding a body, they found angels and, some of them, saw the risen Lord himself.
In the Eastern tradition, where Mary, the mother of the Lord, is considered one of those at the tomb, the belief is that she never left. In other words, Mary was at the tomb from Friday until the resurrection itself.
Western tradition is that Jesus appeared to his mother on Saturday, which is why Saturday is a weekday dedicated to Mary. Also, during Easter, the daily Angelus is replaced in the prayers of the church by the Regina Caeli Jubila (“Rejoice, Queen of Heaven”) and goes on to say: “For he whom you did merit to bear, Alleluia, has risen, as he said, Alleluia.” The hymn dates to the late sixth century and Pope Gregory the Great. The pope wrote the hymn down after hearing angels sing it in a personal vision on Easter.
John Fotopoulos, a professor of theology at St. Mary College at Notre Dame University in Indiana, notes that the Eastern tradition of the Blessed Mother staying at the tomb dates to the second century and a document called the Diatessaron, “a harmony of the four Gospels widely used by churches in Syria until the fifth century.”
Centuries later, St. Gregory Palamas, a 14th century priest and Orthodox theologian, explained the belief more in depth: “I believe that the life-bearing grave opened first for (the Blessed Mother). For her and by her grace all things were revealed for us, everything that is in heaven above and on the earth below. For her sake the angel shone so brightly, … He was, after all, that same angel of the Annunciation, Gabriel …”
Another item about the myrrh-bearing women is that the Gospels do not agree as to which women were at the tomb:
Lk 24:10: “The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James …”
Jn 20:1: “Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning …”
Mt 28: 1: “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb.”
Mk 16: 1: “When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go and anoint him.”
Several writers from the Eastern tradition explain this as snapshots from varying times that first Easter morning. For example, the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America notes at its website (antiochian.org) that, “Each of the four Gospels gives a different aspect of the roles of these eight women at the cross and at the tomb on Easter morning, perhaps since the eight women arrived in different groups and at different times.”
However we choose to look at these women, we know their actions deserve honor for many reasons. Not the least is that they were performing a corporal work of mercy of “burying the dead,” as well as the spiritual work of mercy of “praying for the living and the dead.”
Sources: Biblestudytools.com; goarch.org; johnsanidopoulos.com; Public Orthodoxy, a publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University at publicorthodoxy.org; St. Mary Byzantine Catholic Church, New York City, at stmarybcnyc.org; orthodoxyinfo.org and patheos.com.