The Myrrh-Bearing Women Icon can have from three to seven women depicted. They are shown as either an assembly by themselves, holding the jars of spices used to anoint the dead, or at the tomb where they are met by the angel who announces the Resurrection. The central figure is always St Mary Magdalene, Mary of Magdala, from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons, and to whom He first appears. She is shown by her bright red robes.
Tradition, through Sacred Scripture, preserves these names as the women who came to fulfill their duty to their slain Lord on Easter Sunday morning:
• Mary Magdalene , who is known in the liturgy as “equal to the apostles”, and whose name Magdalene means either from Magdala, or being a hairdresser;
• Mary, the wife of Cleophas , and mother of James and Joses; traditionally said to be relatives of Saint Joseph;
• Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza, who held a very important position under King Herod and Joanna benefited from his high place in the royal court; but Joanna is credited with rescuing the head of Saint John the Baptist from Herod’s court, and she abandoned a life of luxury and power to follow Jesus in His preaching ministry;
• Salome, the mother of the sons of Zebedee, James and John – she and her sons left Zebedee and a comfortable life as middle-class fishermen in order to walk with Christ;
• Susanna – of whom nothing is known other than that she is one of the women who supported Jesus out of her own pocket;
• Mary, the sister of Lazarus , the one who sat at Jesus’ feet in Bethany and anointed Him before Palm Sunday;
• Martha, the sister of Lazarus , the one who was “busy with details of hospitality” but after the death of her brother testified to her living faith in Jesus as the Son of God and the Messiah.
Saint Luke writes that there were “many” women who followed Jesus during His preaching ministry, and that they supported Him “out of their own substance”, i.e., from their own money. These were women who came not only from lives of content, and even privilege – Joanna being from a palace – but had their own sources of income, either from their farms, families or from their own crafts. They also are women who also had the courage to break out of the traditional semi-enclosure of Jewish women in that time and publicly follow this rabbi, without their male relatives to chaperone them.
We don’t always realize just how radical Jesus’ preaching and ministry was in Galilee. Men were never supposed to be alone with women to whom they were not related by marriage or blood. But Jesus defies that barrier, along with other barriers. His family is composed of those who “hear the word of God and act upon it.” The disciples included married and single people, young and elderly, former public sinners and upright citizens. And they were a mixed company in gender – even today such things would be considered unusual in most of the Asian world, and Jesus and his fellow Jews were indeed Asians. Those who push for women’s ordination and claim that the early Church responded to patriarchal pressures by not ordaining women forget that that same early Church was a radical community, which kept up Jesus’ other radical practices, including having women who led house churches, not their husbands or sons. What the Church lost was that radical equality of men and women. Ordination is not the answer. Mutual charity and respect on an equal level are perhaps harder to achieve than ordaining women. Women are supposed to be leaders and faith models, as they were when following Jesus and working with Paul. That’s what we still need to regain.
The liturgical tradition also remember Saint Joseph of Arimathea and sometimes Saint Nicodemus as well, since they were the ones who went to Pontius Pilate to retrieve Jesus’ body from the Cross and arranged for the burial in the new grave owned by Joseph. But today’s emphasis is properly on these holy women. While it was their religious obligation to finish the anointing and wrapping of the body of Jesus, they came at dawn, as early as possible after the Sabbath, a sign of their great love for Christ, and they came in grief. Mary Magdalene’s plaintive conversation with Jesus, when she thinks that He is the gardener, shows us how much she wishes to care for the sacred Body.
Jesus chooses to have these women be the first witnesses of the Resurrection. The angel tells them to go and announce the good news to the disciples – the men – and to give instructions to the men to go to Galilee. Jesus Himself appears to Mary Magdalene, and charges her to testify, to witness, to Peter and the other apostles. Women had no ability to testify in Jewish law courts (a situation inherited by Mohammed in Islam), and they needed a man’s testimony to back them up. Jesus does not provide a soldier, or a gardener, or any other male figure. He empowers them by His Risen Presence, and sends them forward on their new mission to announce this new piece of Good News.
Notice that the women do not debate the niceties of Jewish law or custom with the Risen Lord: they are “incredulous for joy” and fulfill His charge. They become the first evangelists, the first announcers of the complete Good News: Jesus has come as Son of God, died for us, and been raised for us, and now raises us up to a whole new level of spiritual existence in Him.
These women can teach us many things. For starters, they teach us to be faithful despite personal fear or disappointment – out of love, they came to care for Jesus’ wounded body. For another, they represent us, the ordinary folks of God’s Church who are not ordained or consecrated or called to be killed as martyrs, but who, while walking through daily life, find God and serve Him. Next, they teach us to be brave and take our inspiration from our faith in God, even in the face of what looks like human disaster. Finally, they show us the path to holiness, through obedience, joy, and love – if we obey God, are happy in God, and love God, then all else falls into place. The prejudices of the world and the problems of the fallen world can not interfere with God’s divine plan as long as we trust in Him, as these women did on that fateful Sunday dawn.