A Provocation: Easter Sunday: April 16, 2017: Matthew 28:1-10

Matthew 28:1-10
28:1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.

28:2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.

28:3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.

28:4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.

28:5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.

28:6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.

28:7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”

28:8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

28:9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.

28:10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

A Question or Two:

  • The women in this scene have watched Jesus as he was tortured to death.  Now they come to watch his tomb.  In between they observed Sabbath.  What must that Sabbath have been like?
  • Where are the men?

Some Longer Reflections:

Perhaps the first thing to notice in this scene is that the women did not just go to the tomb to look at it.  They did not go simply to see it, no matter what the translator says.  The word in Greek is θεωρῆσαι, which is the root of the English word, theory.  It implies a sharply attentive kind of looking.  It implies that the women went to the tomb to watch it, to observe it, to reflect on the fact of death and the fact of human connection, this time expressed in loss.  They had been at the tomb when Joseph of Arimathea placed the corpse, wrapped for burial, into it.  They had been there when the stone was rolled over the mouth of the tomb, and they had watched when the tomb was sealed and the guards had been given custody of the site.

After the Sabbath they had returned to wait and watch, observing the human custom of sitting with the dead, remembering them as members of the family.

This act reveals their courage.

The corpses of the crucified were generally left to rot, rejected by all.  That was part of the point of this mode of public execution.  If Rome had just wanted a death there were many ways to accomplish that.  Crucifixion was not just a means to execute someone.  It was an object lesson is submission to Roman authority.  The victim, selected because he represented some sort of threat to Roman imposed stability, was beaten and then paraded through the streets to the place of torture.  The perp walk on the way to Golgotha was intended to tempt family or supporters to step forward and defend the victim.  Of course if any fools DID step forward, they would be crucified along with the one they claimed as one of their own.  And, of course, no one would step forward.  No one dared.

That was the point of the perp walk.

Would-be supporters were made to discover their cowardice.  THAT was the point.  Crucifixion was intended to prevent rebellion by teaching would-be rebels that they were cowards who did not dare to defend their brother, their leader, their hero.  Such lessons, once taught, are hard to forget.  And thus the corpses of the crucified were left to rot, unclaimed.  The lessons continued.

But the women in this scene are not so easily defeated.  Jesus has been tortured to death, but that does not stop them from following his corpse to the tomb.  This is an act of considerable courage.  It was dangerous to be publicly associated with someone the Rome had decided to torture to death.  And as dangerous as it would have been to stand observing his death on Good Friday, at least then they were part of a public crowd, and there is some slight safety in a crowd.  In this scene, however, they are alone, going to the tomb in the nearly-dark of the just-dawned day.  And they knew that there was a guard set around the tomb.  They went anyway.  This is an act of notable courage.

When they arrive at the tomb, there is an earthquake, a big one, one that is caused, we are told, by an angel coming down out of the sky.  The storyteller describes the angel as being like lightning.  That raises the possibility that the audience is meant to imagine that the earth shook because of a too-close lightning strike: deafening, terrifying, blinding, shaking the earth and human will.  The guards surely quake (the root of the word for their “shaking” is the same as the root of the word for earthquake).  They faint from fear.

The women do not faint.

We aren’t even told that they are afraid.  The angel tells them to “stop being afraid,” so perhaps we are meant to imagine that they were indeed afraid.  But the storyteller pointedly has the guards faint dead away, while the women stand unmoved, committed to their mission of observing the rites appropriate to mourning for a dead brother or son.  This shows that their courage runs deep and constant.

A teacher of mine, Dr. Martin Brokenleg, told me that among Lakota people it is that that “The people is never defeated until the hearts of women are on the ground.”  The hearts of the women in this scene are clearly not on the ground.  That means that the Jewish followers of Jesus are not defeated, despite Roman power and cruelty.  Jesus is dead, and the women still hold their hearts steady.  Their strength is admirable.

The angel delivers God’s message: Jesus has been raised from death.  The women see the empty tomb, and run with fear and great joy to tell the disciples what they have seen and heard.  It is worth noting that this is the first time we are told that they are afraid, but this fear is mixed together with joy.  This is not the fainting fear of the poor guards, who are presumably still lying around like corpses.  This is overwhelming reverence in the presence of God (in the person of the angel, the messenger sent from God) and in the face of the resurrection of Jesus who had been tortured to death.  They had borne witness to his horrifying death.  They had come to sit observantly with his tortured corpse.  And now they had heard of his resurrection.  They react with joyful reverence.  I do not know what word I ought to use for their reaction.  Reverence is the best I can do for now.  It catches the spontaneous holy response to an act of Life that overwhelms the effectiveness of death.  But what word really catches that mix of fear and joy?  I do not know.  If you have the right word, please send it to me.

Notice that the women respond with reverence upon hearing the message and seeing the empty tomb.

Notice that the storyteller takes this erupting joy and raises it by several orders of magnitude.  As soon as the women begin to run, carrying the message, filled with fear and joy, they encounter Jesus.  He greets them.  They fall to his feet, not like corpses, but as people fully alive, made even more alive in the face of the resurrected Jesus.  Notice that they were alive before: they had the living, defiant courage to watch as Jesus was murdered.  They had the steady heart that led them to come back to the tomb after Sabbath had passed.  They had the furious joy that let them leave the poor fainting guards lying on the ground as they ran back to pass the message of resurrection to the disciples.  And now they erupt in worship of the act of God that raised the person of the Messiah out of death.  When the larger group of disciples meets Jesus in Galilee a little later, some of them doubt.  Interpreters react to their doubt with elaborate excuses.  “Who wouldn’t doubt?,” they say, “resurrection is impossible.”  They are correct.  Most people would react with skepticism.  Regular people would doubt.

But the women do not doubt, and they do not faint from fear.  They bow in reverence before the eruption of life in the midst of a world regulated by death.  That phrase, “regulated by death,” I borrowed from Albert Camus.  He used it in his novel, The Plague.  He was describing the role death plays in creating boundaries and structure that control the ways we live and work and hope and dream.  Camus is correct, I think: life is ringed round by death, and cynical Imperial power uses that fact to hold people hostage.  Rome crucified people to make it clear that it held death and excruciating pain in its hands and used them gladly as tools, as technologies of dominance.  The women in this scene have looked Roman death dead in the face without flinching.  And now they look at God’s gift of life, and they worship.

Resurrection does not restore their courage.  The women in this scene never lost it in the first place.  And now they have seen Life.  Imagine what they will do next.

This imagining will explore the real force of Easter in a world that continues to be regulated by death.  Watch the women in this scene.  Observe them.  And reflect: just what IS this Easter?

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