Friday, July 24, 2009

Sunday of the Myrrh Bearing Women

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Christ is risen!
Indeed, He is risen!

If we were like those thematic made up American kind of churches, then today would be Service Sunday. Because today is the day on which both the readings from the epistle and the gospel speak to us of service in Christ. Fr. Alexander Schmemann declared at a lecture when he was being berated by some social activists in the 1960s in Chicago – he was speaking there and they were saying, “How can you come and tell us all this stuff about the kingdom of heaven, and liturgy, and about worship of God when we’re busy integrating schools, and registering voters, and fighting the was in Vietnam?” And I won’t tell you what his answer was, but I will tell you how he began it. He said, “Christian social action is the work of the body of Christ, for the body of Christ, by the body of Christ, on behalf of the body of Christ.” In other words, whatever we do in the world that has any meaning is because we’re Christians, not just because we decide that we’re going to do a good deed every day.

We find that the Sunday named after Joseph and by inclusion Nicodemus, they were members of the Sanhedrin, they were Jewish elders, rabbis, probably priests as well, they sat on the counsel of the seventy that ruled Israel as far as they were given power to do so, and they both believed in Jesus. Joseph may have been Jesus uncle. But both of them were scared to say anything. The term for fear of the Jews is the term that’s used by St. John – in fact, he tells us that many of the priests of the Jewish faith believed in Jesus during His lifetime, but that they didn’t say anything because, the Evangelist tells us, they loved the praise of man more than the praise of God. But when Jesus was crucified, Joseph and Nicodemus became courageous. They came, they besought Pilate to give them the body of the Lord; Joseph took is own new tomb and he buried our Lord there. It was he with Nicodemus who directed the rushed preparations that had to take place. No time to wind the body in the winding sheet, but place simply some blocks of myrrh around it, and later at the tomb drape the cloth over, and wait till the Sabbath had passed to come back and finish.

And with them were the same women who had gone to the cross. At the end of every passion narrative it says, “And the women saw from afar off.” These were women who – what is it I had heard yesterday the king of Persia said during his battle with the Greeks when he had one female sea captain who alone escaped the wrath of the navy, he said, “My men have become women, and my women have become men.” These women had become courageous. They went and they dared the Roman authorities to do anything about it, or the Jewish priests or elders. And they also followed when the body was taken down and watched where it was laid. We call these women “the Myrrh Bearing Women” and we see them in to icons – one is at the deposition of our Lord, the other is the one here where our Lord’s winding sheet is laid in the tomb and the angel is saying to them, “Why do you seek among the dead what is living?”

Today I’m going to talk to you about another kind of service. The courageous service of these women speaks for itself. There was only one order of ministry in the church as it began, and that was that of Apostle. Those who the Lord had sent out. He had appointed twelve and had said, “Ye who have followed me will sit upon twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” They were the reconstitution of the patriarchs of Israel. The reestablishment of the new Israel. And one of these, Judas, was the one who betrayed Him. So the apostles immediately discerned that there had to first be twelve for the twelve tribes of Israel. So what did they do? They picked out two men, and they had special requirements for those guys. They had to have traveled with the other Apostles from the beginning, and been with Jesus from the start, and seen all the things He did, because they were to be witnesses to what Jesus had done and said. And they chose two: Joseph Barsalamus, who later became an apostle, and Matthias. And they cast lots and God showed them Matthias was the one He had chosen. So Matthias was added to the twelve, and we have a list then of the twelve apostles to Israel. Later these twelve would send out other men, and these would become the seventy apostles – apostles to the whole world. Among them are the evangelist Mark and the Evangelist Luke. But as they began to preach and to teach in Jerusalem, the community became very large. It grew by five thousand by Pentecost, and by three thousand a few weeks later. Now you had eight thousand people, and these people had come to Jerusalem for a pilgrim feast – the Feast of Weeks, the feast that celebrated forty-nine days after Passover, a week of weeks. If you hadn’t been able to come to Jerusalem for Passover you could kill a Passover lamb and roast it on that day of Pentecost and have you Passover Sadr. It was allowed in the Jewish tradition for pilgrims who couldn’t, because of the tempestuous seas, get there for the beginning of the celebration. This feast celebrated the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai by God to Moses. So everybody was gathered there, like the people at the foot of Mt. Sinai. And when the apostles began to preach, the Spirit moved the people and five thousand converted and a little while later, three thousand more. And some of these people were Jews from Jerusalem and Palestine, and their language was Aramaic, a language not unlike Amharic – the language spoken in Ethiopia, and also in Eritrea and in parts in Syria too, a dialect of it. In fact some people believe that Mohammad originally wrote the Koran in Aramaic, and that it was just simply a heretical Christian book, and that then when the Omyads – the big bad Baghdadis – got a hold of it that they turned it into something else – the turned ripe clumps of large grapes into seventy virgins, among other things. It was a made up religion from the beginning.

Anyway, some of them spoke Aramaic, they were what we call Hebrew-speaking Jews. It wasn’t Hebrew they spoke, it was Aramaic. Others were the pilgrims who had come from all over the Diaspora, and their language was Greek. They heard the Scriptures read in the synagogue in Hebrew, but then the rabbi had to interpret the Scriptures into Greek so they could understand them. And he would use the Septuagint, which is the Orthodox bible, to do that.

And so what happened was that as the widows and the orphans and the women who had dedicated themselves to being virgins and serving the church, and those who had chosen to follow the myrrh bearing women were to receive food from the donations made by those who had money with them. And it was kind of rough at first because you didn’t go on a trip and bring all your money with you. People had to, as we know from the Acts of the Apostles, send back home and sell their houses and their land and when the money came in they would distribute it. The women who spoke Aramaic got the attention of the apostles. The women who spoke Greek found it harder to get their attention. So it turned out that these Greek speaking women were being ignored in the distribution of the handouts every day, of the food and of the money for the needs of their families. And the word came to the Apostles, “Can’t you guys do something about this?” The apostles said, “Do you want us to stop spreading the gospel and become waiters? Choose seven men: godly men, righteous men, men who you approve of, and we will give them a service.” And so the chose seven, and it’s interesting that all seven of these have Greek names. And they became the first order of priesthood in the Church established by the apostles: the order of deacon, diakonos – dia, “around;” oikos “the house” Household servants of the house of God. They became Levites of the new covenant. Now we’re going to have on the 12th of July, on that Sunday, another deacon ordained here. Fr. John’s trying to find out about cuz he wants to snatch him for over at St. Herman’s, so I’m telling you very little about it. But we’re going to have Michael Tarris ordained, and he is only going to be a deacon for a short time because Michael has made the commitment, the decision to become a heiromonk, to become a monastic in the church, and so he’ll be ordained to the priesthood as soon as he’s ripe enough. We’ll knock on his head and if it sounds like the seeds are rattling around in here, then the bishop will come back and make him a priest. But you see, he’s going to be ordained to this diaconate, and it is not an inferior order. It is the first order of priesthood in the church. It is the first order established by the apostles, because service to the body of Christ, by the body of Christ, for the body of Christ, is the first commandment of the new covenant: “In as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren ye have done it unto me.” So the deacon’s job is to look after the welfare of the community and its physical needs, and the maintenance of the temple and the altar in their physical needs.

They have to help them another order, probably one the deacons suggested, called subdeacons. These are guys who are kind of deacons, or almost deacons, or to put it a little more frankly, the work under the deacons. And their job is to help the deacons to polish the holy chalice, they can take things of the proskomedia table – they can do things that are reserved for ordained clergy even though they are not themselves totally ordained.

And the deacons were set apart in the church and their job was to support the bishop. An early commentator likens the bishop to God the Father who rules the diocese, and the deacons to Jesus Christ, because like our Lord they go about doing good. So we’re going to have three deacons here. And someday, when Anthony finishes his work, we may have four – but we won’t because by that time Michael will be a priest. Butyou can’t have too many deacons as long as they’re doing their job, because their job is to serve, their job is to remind us that Jesus Christ, the night that He was betrayed, took off His clean outer garments, wrapped a towel around Himself, and washed the filthy feet of His disciples and He said, “If I do this, so ought you to.” And He said, “He who would be greatest among you should be the servant of all.”

Now, later, as the Church spread, it started to exist in other cities. And the apostles appointed in those cities men who were to oversea the work in those cities, and they became bishops. Bishop is episcopos – that is overseer. So at that point, you had apostles who traveled around, you had deacons who did the service of the apostles, and you had bishops who took the place of the apostles in that city but their job was not to travel around, it was to stay put. And that’s why they’re not called apostles. Some of the apostles became bishops, some of the bishops were sent to become apostles, but you weren’t just necessarily both an apostle and a bishop. Peter was apostle to Rome. Peter was bishop of Antioch. He was never bishop of Rome, in spite of what the Pope says. He’s not even on their list of bishops of Rome.

And by this time the Church was developing, and the bishops needed men to advise them – they needed teachers and co-rulers of the household of God. So they chose men and these men were called presbyteros, that is to say, “elders,” and they would sit on the right side, and the left side of the bishops as he ruled in the local church, and before him would stand the deacons, ready to do his work. And in time, when there got to be more than one church in a town, the Church decided that for the sake of unity, there should be only one bishop in every big city, but that the bishops could lay hands on the presbyteros, the elders, and make them priests also. Up to that point, the office of priest had been given to the bishop only: only he presided at the liturgy, only he presided at baptism. So we priests have two orders, fused together: we are presbyteroi – elders of the church – which is why the cannons say you shouldn’t be ordained a priest till you’re thirty, and we are also erei – that is we share by delegation in all of the bishop’s power sacramentally except that of ordination. We have been given that by the bishop as a gift to us, as a designation to us, but it is not something we possess in our own right. We can’t go and set up our own church somewhere and become our own boss, we can only serve because we’re under the bishop.

And so you see that every rank of service in the church is a rank based on service: that it is from the people that all the orders arise, it is by the declaration “Axios! He is worthy” by the people that orders can be conferred, and that the whole body of Christ is not some kind of terrorist monarchy in which some guy at the top sends down commandments and orders which then his cronies, his capos enforce, and that his soldiers impose, like the mafia. But the church is a pyramid in which power rises upward, and anyone in the church who pretends that they have absolute authority over anyone else is abusing the body of Christ. For the Lord said, “It is the princes of the gentiles who exercise authority over them, who boss them around.” Everything must be by request, by example, by plea, by suggestion, and it must be given out of love, freely, never taxed, never assessed, never commanded.

So today we celebrate service: Service of the myrrh bearing women with Josehp and Nicodemus, service of witness at the cross, and of burial and, of coming at the rising of the sun to find the tomb empty. We celebrate the service of the apostles and their servants the deacons whom the established to be ministers to the body of Christ, or especially to the house of God, to the temple of the Lord – to preserve it’s decorum, to cleanse it, and to minister at it’s altar – and by extension, to the bishops and priests whose labors became necessary as the spread of the body of Christ occurred. And each one of us has to commit of ourselves – himself and herself – to continue this witness. And as an example of this, we’re given finally Stephen, the first chosen of the deacons, who, as soon as he finished his work distributing the wealth of the church to the widows and orphans, turned around and went out and started preaching and got himself martyred. And so to this first deacon, is given three titles. When I take the particle, I say, “For the holy apostle, the holy protodeacon, the holy protomartyr, Stephen.” For he was first among the deacons, first among the martyrs, and by going forth and preaching, he became worthy of being called an apostle. So through the risen Lord may we feel ourselves also called to be apostles, to be deacons, to be ministers to the body of Christ.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Christ is risen!
Indeed, He is risen!

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