The Pure Fragrance of Love: The Myrrh-Bearers

Third Sunday of Pascha

Glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This morning we commemorate the myrrh-bearers. That group of women, together with Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who set out before sunrise to finish the anointing of the body of the Lord. On Friday afternoon, Joseph of Arimathea had to hurry: At sundown it would begin to be Saturday, the Jewish Day of Rest, so in their Law he had to wash and anoint Christ’s body, wrap it in the most basic linen cloth with a few spices, and close the tomb, all in the short time remaining before sunset. He had only begun the job before the sun went down and he had to stop.

Now the Sabbath was ended, so before the dawn Mary Magdalene and the other women came bearing costly spices and myrrh to anoint the Lord’s body.

Some vocabulary: Myrrh is a fragrant plant resin, often made into an oil and used in medicine, in perfumes, and in incense. As a gift of the Magi, myrrh was appropriate for Christ as a Healer.

The name Christ or Messiah means a person who has been anointed, as was done to set apart a prophet, a priest, or a king. The Word is God from before the ages, yet he has become a Man and been anointed with the Holy Spirit and revealed as King. Now his body lies lifeless in a tomb, and the women have brought myrrh oil to anoint him one last time.

Why have they come? No one asked them to do this. They don’t know the Lord has already risen from the dead before they leave the house, so they are not coming to express hope or faith. They are coming to offer one last act of love to the Master, Jesus Christ.

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I saw a poll recently, asking what people wish their pastors would preach about. The answers ranged from people wanting more teaching on how to build a more Christian society, more expository teaching on what the Bible says, more about how to live as a family in a hostile culture. One feature I appreciate in the preaching of St John Chrysostom, St Symeon the New Theologian, St Nikolai Velimirović, and our other greatest teachers, is that they assume they are addressing people who love God, however imperfectly and partially, and want to be conformed to Christ. The Fathers and great teachers are not like salesmen hyping a product and promising that Jesus will make your life better if you’ll just buy into the program. The question they answer, more often than not, is: Now that I am a Christian, a communicant of the Mysteries, and a disciple of Christ… now what? I’ve begun a life in Christ: How do I fulfill it?

The gospel of the kingdom is Good News to people who want to be (or become) lovers of God – purified and illumined and overflowing with the wisdom and peace and joy of Jesus Christ. Saint Paul notes that this message of the Cross is not always welcome:

Now thanks be to God who always causes us to triumph in Christ, and makes manifest the savor of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death leading to death; and to the other the aroma of life leading to life… For unlike so many, we are not peddling the word of God for profit; but as of sincerity, and as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ. (2 Corinthians 2:14-17)

So, knowing that the way to the resurrection is through the cross – and believing that we came here today hoping to be conformed to the image of Christ in this life and in the life to come, here is a word from Saint Ambrose of Milan:

“If we desire to be in good things after the death of this body, let us take every care that our soul does not become glued to the body, nor mingled with it, staggering around as if drunk with the passions of the body, trusting itself to bodily pleasures.” (St Ambrose, “Sermon on Death as a Good,” 9:40)

“Glued.” I sometimes picture the soul covering itself with velcro hooks, which are the passions, so that the soul tends to stick to stuff. In conversation or when walking down the street, we see or remember someone’s mean actions, or their sweet car, or their shapely body, and ZIP! our attention is stuck on that image or word. We walk around, even into church or daily prayers, our souls completely covered in velcro-stuck food, drugs, nice houses, sexy people, and imaginary arguments (which, of course, we always win.)

It’s like showing up for a sprint race wearing a scuba mask, air tanks, fins and speargun, our arms full of kettle-bells and bags of candy corn.

“Let us lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us,” says Saint Paul, “so that we can run with endurance the race that is set before us.” (Heb. 12:1).

In a few decades or hours, you and I will step out of this body… But how easily? I’m afraid of finding myself in that life, apart from the body, awaiting the future resurrection, with my soul starving for all the connections it has learned to crave. “Where is my pizza? Where is the new Star Trek episode? Where is my Facebook? I have hungered and thirsted for these things in my life, and for a while I was filled, but now I am only hungry and thirsty and nothing will ever fill me again!”

But “blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled” (Mt 5:6).

Saint John Maximovitch, in a sermon on the judgment seat of Christ, said:

When “the books are opened,” it will become clear that the roots of all vices lie in the human soul… When the body has died, some may think that sin is dead too. No! There was an inclination to sin in the soul, and that sin was sweet to the soul. And if the soul has not repented and has not become free from that sin, it will come to the Last Judgement with the same desire for sin. It will never satisfy that desire and in that soul there will be the suffering of hatred. It will accuse everyone and everything in its tortured condition; it will hate everyone and everything. “There will be gnashing of teeth” of powerless malice and the unquenchable fire of hatred.

It is easy enough to diagnose the human problem of compulsion and distraction, a life controlled by attachments to our stuff; the Buddha figured out that much 2500 years ago.

But together with the diagnosis, the Church offers a prescription.

Our first response when we see how controlled, compelled, and obsessed we are with stuff is to try and reduce the amount of stuff. Cut down on TV and gadget time, quit drinking or using drugs, move out of the girlfriend’s house… And these are wise choices, maybe necessary ones. But as a strategy, these things amount to managing our sins. But Christ did not come to make sinful people better. Jesus Christ our God became man in order to make the dead human race alive.

If you’re coming to the Orthodox Faith from another Christian tradition, then here is something you may not have heard clearly taught: The habitual sins that entangle us reflect not only habits, but passions. That word comes from the same root that gives us pathology, psychopath, and pathetic — it means a suffering or infirmity. (That’s also why we call Christ’s suffering The Passion.) The passions are spiritual illnesses. And that is good news, because illnesses can be treated – and even healed.

Along with changing our behavior – perhaps avoiding buffet restaurants or liquor stores, or biting our tongue when unhelpful words want to come out – we have the possibility of uprooting the alien cancer that corrupts and compels our actions. The life of God is here to heal the “sticky” places in our soul and make us whole. When Judas and the soldiers came to arrest the Lord, he said, “the prince of this world cometh, and he hath nothing in me(John 14:30). The Lord was “in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The temptations that came to Christ were very real; but no corresponding passions existed in him; temptation is ineffective on a Person whose soul is not sick with passions.

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Have you ever driven right past the store you meant to go to, because your brain and body already know the way to work? You’re running on automatic, on a script you’ve written through years of habit. In the animal kingdom, we see squirrels and ants carrying out complex behaviors without rationally choosing what to do: They’re following scripts without any decision or conscious thought.

The first time a person commits a sin that wounds and harms his soul, he might have to force himself to it. The act may be repugnant to him. But with repetition, he no longer has to decide to commit his usual sins; instead it takes effort and struggle to do something other than mindlessly follow the usual script. When stress comes, he reaches for a bottle, or lets violent words hurt his wife and kids, or he takes hollow comfort from some political or pornographic website. Compulsions gain power by becoming automatic in us, so that it takes effort to resist them. In confession and repentance we weed the garden of our soul, and plant the seeds of new ways of thinking and acting.

So the healing therapy for our passions is seen first on a moral level – in what we allow or don’t allow ourselves to do. But you know we can’t just fight our impulses and programmed behaviors by white-knuckled denial. The more we stand our ground and face and fight against a temptation, shouting “Not gonna do it!” the more we invest our energy and our heart in that sin. We build our identity around being the Person Who Has This Sin (or This Trauma, or This Journey), and that is the image that we become transformed into.

So: instead of believing we just need more willpower, we have to plant new behaviors with which to displace the old. If we are prone to judge and condemn, then we need to learn mercy by giving alms and serving others. If we are compelled to use alcohol and other drugs, then we need to write new scripts for our stress to follow: patterns of behavior that include meaningful conversation, forming non-dependent relationships, confession and absolution, and healthy ways to identify and address our stress before it takes the wheel.

Others outside the Church know this, too: Any twelve-step program or counselor will tell you the same thing.

What is unique in the Church is the healing of the soul, which begins to straighten the inward brokenness underlying our passions.

People who are coning to Orthodoxy to investigate it, or to evaluate the Church’s radical claims – and those of us who have become convinced that this is in a unique way The Church – tend to spend a long time studying doctrine and sacraments and canons, learning all about the Faith.

And then, at the very beginning of life in the Orthodox Faith, your priest introduces you to daily prayer, a rule of fasting, frequent confession and communion, reading scripture, almsgiving.

None of our disciplines or canons will earn you anything. These things are therapy and discipline. If you’ve got a broken ankle, you need more than ice bags: Your doctor will prescribe some exercises. If you don’t do the exercises, you probably won’t go to hell… but you won’t get well, either. If you want to walk then you’ll follow the therapeutic prescription.

If you’re an okay pianist or athlete or martial artist, and you ask an Olympic coach or a master musician or a sensei to mentor you, he may prescribe some specific ways of eating, times for sleeping, and a lot of inconvenient, repetitive exercises that cut into your TV and party schedule. These are called “disciplines” (and if you don’t have disciplines you aren’t a “disciple.”) The Olympic coach or sensei sees potential in you, and all his rules and corrections are there to form in you the image that he sees you can become. He is going to help you prune away the things that you think are part of your self and your identity that are in fact defeating you. The Orthodox name for this process is purification

We Orthodox often want to talk about rules, or miracles we heard about, or why we are smart for having picked the Right Church. We are quick to post memes and quotes from the Fathers. And we have so many opinions about ecumenism, tollhouses, and canons. We are experts on Orthodox trivia.

Now if we could all just go back to Orthodox Basics 101, review the part about simple weekly fasting, daily prayers, almsgiving, forgiving and forbearing, guarding our lips and our eyes… and do these things… then the Orthodox Internet might be a less septic environment. And more importantly, in purification we would begin to be healed.

Imagine, not only having fewer distractions for our shattered attention, fewer compulsions driving us into unthinking scripted behaviors — but beyond this, having a firsthand, personal, here-and-now experience of the mercy and peace of God that makes us less “sticky,” and more ready to cooperate with the action of God in us.

At Gethsemane, the Lord said, “The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me” (John 14:30). The tempter owned no territory in Him. There were no passions in Christ for a temptation to stick to.

That is what all our disciplines and canons are for. That’s the Olympian gold-medalist that the coach sees in us. The Church will continue pointing us all back to these basics – to the purification and illumination which are practiced daily by monks, nuns, and every Christian being perfected through faith — “till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man [a completely-grown adult], to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13).

To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.