by Angie Nasrallah
Mark 16:1-7 (NKJV)
16 Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. 2 Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. 3 And they said among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?” 4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away—for it was very large. 5 And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.
6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. 7 But go, tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.”
As a young lady, I always treasured the story of the Myrrh Bearing Women. Women, were after all, the first to receive the good news, that Jesus had risen from the dead. In the Orthodox Church we learn that the Myrrh Bearing Women were the first to see the empty tomb and the Risen Christ! These faithful women were bringing spices and ointments to prepare Jesus’ body when they discovered that He wasn’t in the tomb. Instead, they saw an angel who told them to “go, tell His disciples.” Jesus had risen and the women were the first to bear the light of this news! What an honor that He would choose these women to be the first to know!
Fast forward to Holy Week 2017. During this week, I was chatting with a dear friend, Lia, who lives in Portland, Oregon. I met Lia years ago when she walked into St. John the Wonderworker Orthodox Church in Atlanta, Georgia. With four kids under the age of ten, she drew near to see and learn about the ancient faith. I knew right when I met her that she was a person I wanted to know! Eight years and 3,000 miles later we are still friends and I am blessed to be the godmother of her youngest child, Abbey. On this day in April, she was telling me about Holy Week activities at their church out there in Oregon, St. John the Baptist. Then, she mentioned the Myrrh Bearing Maidens.
“What are the Myrrh Bearing Maidens?” I asked. Her answer is why I am writing this piece today! When I asked that question I discovered a most remarkable tradition, handed down woman to woman, parish to parish. This program invests in young ladies grades 3 – 8 and prepares them for a very important role to play during Holy Friday and Saturday services. I absolutely love this parish tradition and I want to hand it down to you as well.
Just as the Myrrh Bearing tradition has been handed down parish to parish, so has my discovery of its origin at St. John the Baptist! Lia connected me with Jennifer, who has daughters, 15 and 21, now graduates of the program. Jennifer, who has organized the Myrrh Bearing Maidens since 2005, learned about the idea from two Arizona ladies. They, in turn, participated in the program when their mother coordinated it.
According to Jennifer, the Myrrh Bearing Maidens are young ladies who serve during Holy Week by processing around the tomb of Christ on Good Friday. As they process, they toss rose petals around the tomb, then they follow the tomb outside in the larger procession with candles. The next night, at Pascha, they receive the first light from the priest to offer to the congregation and to the world. From there, they process outside, just behind the altar boys and greet the parishioners with singing and joy as they reenter the church. Jennifer shared with me last August, ” I have always loved this way for our daughters to serve during Holy Week, and the girls and parishioners love it, too. They wear white dresses and gloves, and have several important parts to play.”
The young ladies rehearse two or three times before Holy Week so that they are ready. Jennifer tells me, “On Lazarus Saturday we have a Myrrh Bearing Maidens retreat at my small farm, where the girls prepare a luncheon for their moms, hear a spiritual talk (given by Lia this year), and then play with the chickens, sheep, cats and horses outside.” A couple of weeks after, they meet to debrief on the event and eat treats. At this meeting , the outgoing maidens receive a small icon of the Myrrh Bearing Women. The cycle continues as some of the graduates serve as assistant coaches for the next season.
Here is what Petra Rich, 15, had to say generally about her experience: “For me, being a myrrh-bearing maiden was a chance to sacrifice a small amount of practice time for a special moment in the presence of God. It enabled me to connect with the young women of the church and I am now helping coach it with my older sister. Myrrh-bearing maidens bring the women of the church into light, which I believe there should be more of. Overall, this is a very special group, who join together each year to bring themselves before God. It is truly amazing.”
What I love about this story is how St. John the Baptist incorporates young women into the very sacred traditions of Holy Week. Rev. George Mastrantonis of the Greek Archdiocese reminds us: “…We are invited to enter the sanctuary of Holy Week, not as spectators, but as participants in the commemoration and enactment of the divine Acts that changed the world.” The Myrrh Bearing Maidens participate in this very important role as bearers of light to the world. As these ladies age – up and assist the younger groups coming through the ranks they maintain that light into the future. As you can see, this is a wonderful parish effort and blesses so many people during the service and then years after. Wouldn’t it be excellent, with the blessing of our pastors, to launch such a program at our own churches? And then, to hand this tradition down year after year, daughter after daughter? I definitely think so and I hope our mission can one day offer this tradition for our young ladies to participate and to remember.