Time to reconnect with our roots.
The Third Paschal Sunday, known as The Sunday of the Ointment-Bearing Women.
Our Venerable Father Theodore the Sykeote.
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2:19 PM 4/24/2012 — Initially I wanted to do something different with this Sunday of the Ointment-Bearers this year; but, casual observation makes it clear that last year's points need to be repeated.
From a purely historical point of view we know why these women go to the tomb: the Jewish burial ritual is a lengthy one: the body must be anointed with perfumed oils; but, since Jesus died in the afternoon, and the Sabbath was beginning, there was no time for this. So, on Sunday morning, at the crack of dawn, these three women, who had cared for our Lord’s simple needs in life, went to the tomb to provide just one more service for him in death.
There are, of course, implications both theological and spiritual to the fact that these women, and not the Apostles, are the first to see the Risen Lord; and we’ve talked about those in past years. There are other spiritual lessons as well which we can derive from the most arcane details: the miraculous rolling away of the stone; the angel dressed in white; the fact that the women do not come to the tomb empty-handed; the fact that they do not, at first, recognize our Lord. All of these have significance; but we focus today on only one: the fact that all of it happens on a Sunday.
Before our Lord’s Passion, his followers kept the same Sabbath as all the other Jews around them: beginning Friday at sundown and ending Saturday at sundown. The tradition comes from God himself, as spoken to the Hebrew people through Moses: “Thou shalt remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” But almost immediately after our Lord’s resurrection, the Christians began to keep another day; and this passage we just read is the reason. Jesus rises from the dead on a Sunday. His resurrection is witnessed by these three women at daybreak, just as the sun itself is rising in the East. And it was almost immediate that the Apostles and their disciples began to refer to Sunday as the “new Sabbath”; and, to this day, when a Christian examines his conscience, when he gets to the Third Commandment, he understands it to mean that he should keep holy the “Lord’s Day,” meaning Sunday.
It’s also important to note the parallel the early Christians made between the rising of Christ from the dead and the time of day at which it happened: just as the sun was rising in the East; hence, the earliest manuscripts we have which describe how the first Christians worshiped show them performing the Lord’s Supper on an altar which faces the East, as they themselves faced the East; and they did this, as far as possible, just as the sun was rising, because they saw in the rising sun a symbol of our Lord’s resurrection.
To this day, our churches, whenever possible, face the East; and, when it’s not possible for a church to face East, we pretend that it does, with all of us, priest and congregation, facing the same way as well, as if to see, in the rising sun, our risen Lord.* The spiritual implications are unmistakable: Jesus is the rising Sun which should light our day from its first moments. The whole day becomes different when it is illumined by the Lord.
Unfortunately, like all of the most ancient traditions of the Church, it’s old and easily becomes pasé in the minds of Christians. The “Sunday obligation,” as we have come to call it, becomes nothing more than something we were taught in our catechism; just another rule that we’re supposed to obey, and confess when we don’t. And when something is viewed as nothing more than a rule to be followed for its own sake, the motivation for following it becomes pretty weak—as do the excuses we grant ourselves for ignoring it from time to time: “It’s the first day of Spring.” “It’s the last day of Summer.” “It’s a long weekend and I’ve got a chance to get away.”
Sometimes it’s helpful to remember what many of the early Christians went through in their efforts to keep the Lord’s Day: steeling away to underground caverns in cemeteries, or hidden away cellars in the homes of wealthy Christians, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper—the Divine Liturgy, as they began to call it—during times of violence against the Church, endangering—and sometimes giving—their lives for the privilege. For them, the motivation was not a rule they had to follow or an obligation they would have to confess if they didn’t; it was the promise of receiving into themselves the Body and Blood—the Soul and Divinity—of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion. They did not—and could not—see it as a burden.
If we have come to see it that way—as a burden—it’s because, somewhere along the way, we’ve lost our connection with those earliest Christians who handed these traditions on to us down through the centuries. Reconnecting with them—and to the traditions of our faith—is something that can only be done by each one of us in our own hearts.
Here's an exercise that might help to clarify our minds on the issue: next time to you get up on Sunday morning to come to church, as yourself why. Is it because it's an obligation you need to fulfill or else you'll feel guilty? Or is it for the reason that the women in today's Gospel went to the tomb on the first day of the week: because they loved our Lord?
Father Michael Venditti
* The question of which way the priest should face is often discussed, but rarely in the context of a correct understanding of liturgical history. Those who claim that the early Christian community gathered "around the table" as at a meal have never been able to produce textual evidence to support that presumption. The earliest liturgikons (missals) in existence show the early Christians adhering to the practice exactly as described by St. Augustine and in use today in the Christian East, with both priest and people on the same side of the altar, both facing the East. The way the question is often framed today—i.e., should the priest have his back to the people?—would be incomprehensible to the early Christian community, which would more likely frame the question this way: should the priest stand in opposition to the people with the altar forming a clerical barrier between them? The essence of the question, in fact, is: Who is it exactly who is being worshiped? As St. Augustine points out, we do not face East because we believe that Christ is there to exclusion of other directions on the compass, but because, as corporal beings, we need to direct our attention somewhere, so why not toward the Risen Christ? The priest and congregation face the same direction because they are united in the worship of Christ. While the priest stands at the head of the congregation, leading the prayer, they pray as one, as opposed to dividing the community into two groups, one clerical and one lay, as if praying two different prayers to a God who stands between and separates them.