Who were the women bearing myrrh to the tomb of Jesus? Why do Byzantine icons of Easter show white-clad women standing in front of the Holy Sepulchre? And why do hundreds of Byzantine hymns praise the Myrophoroi as "holy" woman of "godly-minded," "wise," "God-loving" and "God-bearing?"
The answer lies in the four Gospel accounts of the Resurrection. The evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John transmit in their pages the unanimous tradition of the apostolic church that these women are the first authoritative witnesses and proclaimers of Christ Risen from the dead. Christian belief in the Resurrection of Jesus thus rests ultimately on their word.
When Christ was crucified and buried all his male disciples had fled and hidden. Earlier one of the twelve had betrayed him for a few pieces of silver and another had denied him three times. Not so, however, the female disciples. They followed Christ to the end, faithful and strong as a rock. They stood close by, watching and sharing the pain and death of their beloved teacher and friend. At dawn, three days later, carrying myrrh, they went to the tomb where He was buried and found it empty. Their grief soon changed to joy. And their loyalty and love were rewarded. The Risen Lord appeared and spoke to them, entrusting these women to announce the evangelion, the good news of His triumph over death. The first Christos Anesti - "Christ is Risen" - fell from their lips. The male disciples learned of the Resurrection from the women disciples. The male disciples, moreover, did not believe the women, causing Christ to rebuke them for the hardness of their hearts and their lack of faith (Mark 16:14).
The Orthodox Church, in turn, preserves this tradition inherited from the apostolic church. It recognizes as Myrophoroi Mary Magdalene, Salome, Joanna, Martha and Mary of Bethany, Mary of Kleopas, Susanna, Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the disciples James and John, the sons of Zebedee. It acknowledges them to be true authentic disciples (mathetriai) of Christ, "the first who saw the Resurrection," "the first evangelists." Clearly then these remarkable women followers of Christ are the first mothers of the church, and indeed its true founders. Without the witness of the women bearing myrrh there would not have been a Christian kerygma of the Resurrection. It is striking how often Byzantine theologians, preachers and hymnographers apply the word first (protai) to the Myrophoroi.
It is manifestly not enough once a year to say on the second Sunday after Easter that we "honor" the Myrophoroi. (Words come all too easy whenever we ignore their meaning.) The primacy of the Myrophoroi in the Easter story related in the four Gospels, their position as recognized in the apostolic church of the first century, have implications for our church today as it reconsiders the role of Orthodox women in the ekklesia.
Archbishop Iakovos announced that a meeting would be held which will review the status of women within the body of Christ. Orthodox tradition indicates that any such discussion should begin with the Myrophoroi, the women whom Christ called to discipleship, to be the first witnesses of his Resurrection and the first to proclaim it. The women bearing myrrh provide appropriate models and theology for expanding women's participation in the rich life of Orthodoxy, for restoring to women a wider diakonia. Christ's truest disciples, the Myrophoroi challenge the church today to recognize the calling of Orthodox women to unrestricted service to God and humanity.