A Priest's Blessing
The Myrrh-Bearing Women
by Joanna Harrison
As a Christian in the Western Protestant tradition, I had often been drawn to the faithful, loving service of the women followers of Jesus who, in grief, visited the tomb very early on the third day following the Crucifixion, to have their profound mourning transformed into equally profound joy in the stunning proclamation of Christ’s Resurrection.
Over a number of years, early on Easter morning before sunrise three of us would walk up the hill near my home, very aware of those brave, loving women and so when I was received into the Holy Orthodox Church on the Sunday of the Myrrh Bearing Women in 2013, it seemed very fitting to choose as my Saint’s Name, Joanna. As the years have passed Joanna has become more than a name of one of a group but someone who has become more special as a person in her own right as each of these women are - very individual but united in their Christ transformed lives of love, faithfulness, courage, service and now a part of that Heavenly Crowd of Witnesses, Saints and intercessors before the Throne of God.
Traditionally the Orthodox Church names eight women as the Myrrh Bearers. Each Gospel gives a different aspect of the role of these women perhaps since they arrived in different groups at different times. They include:
Mary, the Holy Mother of God
Mary, the wife of Cleopas
Mary of Magdala
Martha of Bethany
Mary of Bethany
Apart from the Mother of God, the first we hear of some of the women in the Gospels is in Luke 8: 1-3
“Now it came to pass afterward, that He went through every city and village, preaching and bringing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with Him, and certain women who who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities - Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who provided for Him from their own substance”.
It seems that at least five of the women were wealthy and of sufficiently independent means in order to support Jesus and the disciples out “of their own substance”, often going before them to prepare hospitality throughout Christ’s demanding itinerant Ministry.
Each of their encounters with Jesus was totally life transforming whether through deliverance or healing or simply being in His Holy presence leading to their utter commitment to follow Him and the Way of Life, no matter where that journey may lead.
Through the Gospels we learn more of some women than of others though Holy Tradition may offer additional information. Mary Magdalene, as noted above was delivered from seven demons; we also know that she is mentioned as being by the Cross of Christ along with His Mother and Salome ( Matthew: 27:56) and then has the beautiful encounter with Jesus on the morning of His Resurrection after mistaking Him for the gardener. (John 20: 11-18) She is known, not only as the Apostle to the Apostles, along with the other Myrrh Bearers, but also Equal to the Apostles proclaiming the Glorious Resurrection to the Disciple and going on to be a faithful and courageous witness.
According to Tradition Mary Magdalene assisted the Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian in His evangelical labours in Ephesus where she remained until her repose and was buried in the city. It is also told that during a dinner with the Emperor Tiberius, Mary proclaimed the Truth of the Resurrection and when he scoffed that a man could no more rise from the dead than the egg in her hand could turn red, the egg immediately did indeed turn red! This is suggested as a reason for dyeing eggs at Pascha.
We also know rather more about the two sisters, Martha and Mary of Bethany who we read of in the Gospels as welcoming Jesus warmly into their home on more than one occasion and who represent the importance of taking time to “be” in His Presence as well as actively serving. They are also of course the sisters of Lazarus, raised from the dead and who through the trauma and triumph of that time drew ever closer to Christ in understanding, exemplified in Mary adoringly anointing the feet of Christ “ahead of His burial.” (John: 12: 1-8).
According to Tradition it is told that after the martyrdom of Stephen and persecution against the followers of Christ began, Lazarus was cast out of Jerusalem. The holy sisters then assisted their brother in the proclaiming of the Gospel in various lands. They reposed in Cyprus where Lazarus became the first Bishop of Kition.
Salome and Mary were both relatives of the Mother of God. Mary was either her sister or cousin and was married to Cleopas, one of the disciples on the road to Emmaus following the Resurrection, who encountered Jesus on the way and recognised Him in the breaking of bread. (John 24: 13-35)
Salome was a daughter of Joseph and so stepdaughter of the Theotokos. She was also married to Zebedee and the mother of James and John.
We only hear of Susanna by name as mentioned above and by inference along with the other Myrrh Bearers at the Cross and the tomb. However as she is linked with Mary Magdalene and Joanna in Luke 8, we know that she also was a woman of means able and faithfully willing to support Jesus, having had her own healing, transforming encounter with Him. It may be that she knew both Joanna and Mary beforehand as they were all apparently wealthy but certainly after the women would have been united in their love and service, spending much time together.
Joanna has strong connections to the court of Herod, being the wife of his Steward, Chuza. Apart from that information given in Luke 8 and his mentioning of her as one of the faithful women at the tomb there is no other scriptural record of her but there is a strong Tradition that Joanna recovered the head of St. John the Forerunner and secretly buried it.
With these thoughts in mind I did a little more research and discovered that in the Western Christian writings there has been conjecture that Chuza could be the Nobleman in John 4: 46 who asked and received healing for his son. Of course this cannot be verified but if so it could account for his acceptance of his wife’s commitment to Christ. I began to wonder also whether Joanna had heard John preaching and was aware of the One who was to come after him, the Messiah. In any case being the wife of such a prominent and important member of Herod’s household she would certainly have been aware of John’s imprisonment and execution at the Palace fortress of Machaeus on the Eastern side of the Dead Sea and may even have been present.
John had been imprisoned for his outspoken condemnation of Herod for marrying his brothers wife, Herodius (his own wife still living). During a feast at the palace mentioned above, Herodius’ daughter, Salome danced so bewitchingly that Herod promised her anything she desired and so at the prompting of her mother, asked for the head of the Baptist.
John’s disciples recovered his body but Herodius had the holy head tossed in an unclean place, thought to have been a dung heap! According to Orthodox Tradition Joanna retrieved the head and secretly and no doubt reverently, buried it in earthen vessel on the Mount of Olives where Herod had a parcel of land. This must have taken great courage and conviction of purpose in honouring St. John in dangerous times.
Joanna, as we know, along with the other women, faithfully followed Jesus, along with them supported Him in His Ministry and His way to the Cross, along with them prepared the spices and Myrrh and along with them very early in the morning visited the tomb not knowing whether the soldiers would prevent them or how they would move the stone but impelled by the depth of their devotion went with their offering of bereaved love. And then, what unimaginable joy was theirs in the discovery of His Resurrected Life.
In reading the names and the little known facts of the lives of the Myrrh Brearing women there are enticing glimpses of ordinary women in differing circumstances and social standings but who are united in their love and devotion for Christ. They have much to teach us of their commitment, faithfulness, piety, witness and ongoing serving of their Lord and Saviour. I am sure also that they were a source of great encouragement and love for one another and all the brethren in Christ, encompassed then and now with the incomparable example, love and intercession of the Holy Mother of God, herself one of the wonderful Myrrh Bearing Women.
May their holy prayers encourage and enable us to follow their example. Amen!
The Icon of the Holy Myrrh-Bearers
Who's Who in the Icon?
Orthodox Parish of St. Alban, Protomartyr of Britain, Luton at a Glance
HISTORY OF THE PARISH
by Joanna Harrison
The Orthodox Parish of St. Alban in Luton grew and developed from a small group of people seeking to understand more about the Orthodox faith through conversation and asking questions. Aidan Pyle, who had recently become Orthodox, facilitated the meetings throughout 2011-2012. Father Raphael Armour, Archpriest of St. Ephraim's Orthodox Church in Cambridge, faithfully led those meetings fortnightly in Luton and over time took the group through the Catechism of the Holy Orthodox Church, giving them the opportunity to ask questions and grow in understanding. From that highly significant and helpful time, most of the group, mainly British converts from Protestant backgrounds, were baptized and/or chrismated into the Church. Others of various nationalities including "cradle" Orthodox joined us and we grew together as a Community forming a small choir, buying Liturgical items and baking prosphora for the Divine Liturgy which Father Raphael served once a month initially in the Anglican Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Great Offley.
In November 2013 Archbishop Elisey of the (Moscow Patrirchate) Diocese of Sourozh gave his blessing to the community to form a parish within the diocese. On 16th February 2014, we were all delighted to welcome the Archbishop as he celebrated the Divine Liturgy at St. Thomas' R.C. church in Caddington where we continued to worship and gather together.
Fr. Raphael celebrated the Divine Liturgy with us once a month until, sadly, health difficulties prompted him to step down and in the spring of 2018 Fr. Stephen Platt, the Archpriest of the Orthodox Parish in Oxford became our "temporary priest" until such a time as permanent priest could be appointed. Fr. Stephen supported us in our move to to St. Anne's Anglican Church on Crawley Green Rd., Luton where it was felt that we would have greater opportunity to grow and hopefully, in time, to serve the local community in the love of Christ.
Fr. Stephen continues to faithfully travel from Oxford once a month to serve the Divine Liturgy and we have also been blessed to forge links with a sister mission church - the Orthodox church of St. Cedd in Southgate, who also gather for worship on a monthly basis. Through supporting one another, we have the opportunity to celebrate the wonderful yystery of the sacrament of communion at least twice a month and to continue in prayer to God in His Mercy for our on-going development in our respective parishes, together with growth in the fullness of life within His Holy Orthodox Church.