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  • Writer's pictureElisabeth Sesi

The Holy Myrrhbearers

Updated: May 10, 2020

‘With faith and love draw nigh’…the words of the Divine Liturgy that call us to receive Holy Communion. Was it faith? I’ve read that the Holy Myrrhbearers had tremendous faith, setting off to a heavily sealed and guarded tomb, expecting to anoint their Lord’s body with myrrh. In other places, I’ve heard that it wasn’t about faith, it was really a question of love. Then there’s yet another suggestion that, in a state of grief, the myrrhbearers weren’t able to think that rationally about the task that lay ahead – they just set out to do it - and that was that.

Looking at Wikipedia’s entry about the Holy Myrrhbearers, two interesting statements struck me: firstly, that the Orthodox church is the only church that commemorates the Holy Myrrhbearers as such; and secondly, that the account that they, as women, were the first to hear of the Lord’s resurrection makes the whole story much more credible; a fabrication would rather have placed men (and important ones at that) at the centre of the action.

Women were the only ones actually there, braving the dawn to do what was necessary, and so becoming the witnesses to the first sunrise of the risen Son. They were, as we might say, doing the right thing, in the right place at the right time. For a while, they alone were the beholders of the truth and for those first precious moments became its leaders, its guardians and its harbingers. They were entrusted with the faith – right from the start: they were its soldiers...

This week will see the 75th anniversary of the end of World War 2 in Europe. But on thinking about the Myrrhbearers, I reflect on something that happened while Europe was, effectively, still in the aftermath of that war. During my university days, I was studying German in Leipzig, which was then in East Germany – part of the Soviet-controlled bloc. It was during my time there that I stepped into an Orthodox church for the first time: the Russian one, which, despite the prevailing atheism, was allowed to stay open (presumably in case any of the substantial cohort of Soviet soldiers in the area might want to go there, even if they weren’t encouraged to do so). On my only visit, I remember that there emerged from the shadows of the dimly-lit church an old lady, a typical Russian ‘babushka’. I don’t remember that she spoke any German, but she indicated somehow that I was welcome to view the icons, which I did. I’ve thought about her quite a lot since – and women like her, who were the guardians of the churches right across the USSR and neighbouring countries during the years of unbelief.

These are truly among the Holy Myrrhbearers of our age. Without these women, so few churches would have survived in tact - and the faith would not have been safeguarded for the post-Communist age. These women gave their lives in quite a different way from the warriors of World War 2 that we rightly remember for their sacrifice, but they were great leaders in the great struggle – against atheism, persecution and apostasy. Any soldier will tell you that the battlefield isn’t always an arena of great combat…it’s often a place of seemingly endless waiting, fighting the hostile elements rather than the active physical enemy: read the poem ‘Exposure’ by Wilfred Owen if you want to know more! So it was with those babushkas: the witnesses, the guardians, the stalwarts of the faith.

Is it faith or love that drew them near? Was it an irrational act to spend years tending churches in an atheist state? At this time of year, I seem to be encountering countless statements about the ‘important role’ of women in the church – as mothers, grandmothers, sisters, chanters, food preparers, prosphora bakers. sewers, iconographers, translators, teachers, parish councillors – the lot – all very worthy undertakings, of course. But it’s not a question of being important. It’s a question of being essential. Looking at all the Myrrhbearers of our age, they are simply doing the right thing, in the right place, at the right time. Their developing heritage is ours to witness, guard - and even fight for.

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