“He is not here, for he has been raised” (Matt. 28:6). These are among the most important words of the entire Gospel. In fact, we can say even more than that. In them is contained the substance of the entire Gospel.
Today we celebrate Easter, the greatest day in the Christian calendar. “This is a time of abundance and joy, of feasting and thanksgiving” (Mark A. Villano). For the Lenten journey we have traveled together these past several weeks has led us here, to this place, the empty tomb.
The women discover the empty tomb as the dawn was breaking. On the first day of the week of creation, God said: “Let there be light.” On this first day of the week, there is the light of a new morning, a new creation. The newness of a morning dawn, so beautiful in itself, is a parable of the new life that bursts forth from the darkness of the tomb (Frederick Dale Bruner).
The Gospel authors struggle to find language to express the enormity of the event. How can it be otherwise? How do you find words to express the inexpressible?
For his part, Matthew prefers the word seismos, from which we get our word “seismic.” Jesus’ presence in this world is earth shaking, especially during Holy Week.
Did we not see on Palm Sunday that when Jesus entered through the gates of Jerusalem, the holy city shook? And on Good Friday when Jesus died on the cross, the earth shook, and the rocks split apart, and graves broke open (Matt. 27:51). And on this day too, Easter Sunday, the earth shakes. “For an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it” (Matt. 28:2).
The soldiers guarding the tomb shook and became like dead men (Matt. 28:4). And no doubt the same fate would have befallen the women, if the angel had not given the supporting command: “Do not be afraid” (Matt. 28:5).
The great biblical revelations are terrifying. When the Lord descended on Mount Sinai to give his people the Law, there was thunder and lightning, blazing fire, and a loud trumpet blast. Indeed, the sight was so terrifying that Moses himself said: “I am trembling with fear.”
No wonder then that throughout the entire resurrection account, the women remain speechless. Only from God’s side, to which the angelic belongs, can the resurrection event be spoken.
And that is good, because news this good can only come from God. According to Jewish belief, the testimony of angels is greater than that of men. In any event, we need to hear a word from God, whether spoken by an angel or a man, because our minds cannot really conceive of an event this wonderful.
Remarkably, however, the angel does acknowledge that it is Jesus the women are seeking. “O God, you are my God, early in the morning will I seek you” (Psalm 63:1). The words of the Psalmist find their deepest meaning, their deepest fulfillment, in the women’s early morning walk to see the tomb.
Parenthetically, the early morning devotion of the women on this morning should be an example for all Christians to devote the first hour of their day to Bible study and prayer. It’s a good, even essential, practice that I can recommend wholeheartedly to all of you.
We need not doubt the sincerity of the women’s devotion. Nor need we doubt the authenticity of their testimony.
The witness of the women is reliable. If the Gospel authors had fabricated a story about the resurrection of Jesus, they certainly wouldn’t have cast the women as the central characters in the drama. Jewish law at that time did not accept the testimony of women. “From women let no evidence be accepted, because of the levity and impertinence of their gender,” according to the Jewish historian Josephus, a contemporary of Jesus.
The great second century opponent of the Christian faith, Celsus, found it incredible how anyone could accept the testimony to the resurrection from “hysterical women.”
The church fathers were of a different opinion. St. Augustine said: “The woman Eve in the Garden announced death to her husband Adam. Now the women in the church announce salvation to the men. The Apostles were to announce the Resurrection to the nations, but the women announced it first to the Apostles.” Many of you perhaps know that Mary of Magdalene has been dignified with the title: “The apostle to the apostles.”
Ironically, perhaps, the angel does not entrust to the women an exotic message about otherworldly phenomena, at least not in the sense we might expect. The message is not accompanied by choirs of angels, blasts of trumpets, or visions of glory (Frederick Dale Bruner).
As extraordinary as the appearance of the angel is, there is a certain ordinariness too. There is no ecstatic, dreamlike, mystical experience to report here (Mark A. Villano). There are only the simple words with precise instructions: “Go and tell his disciples: he has been raised from the dead. He is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him” (Matt. 28:7).
Matthew tells us that the women go out with fear and great joy.
Parenthetically, I once heard a story about a skeptic in an adult Sunday school class. After making dismissive comments about the angel in our lesson, he turned his attention to the women. He asked: “how in the world can one experience fear and joy at the same time? Don’t these two emotions cancel each other out?” To which a young man in the class confidently replied: “Fear and joy can co-exist at the same time. I should know; I just got married!”
There is something earthy, something real about the angel’s message. The women’s encounter with the angel does not result in an ecstatic flight from the real, but in a task to be done in Galilee, in this world, in the here and now.
So also when the Apostle Paul calls us in our first lesson to “set our minds on things above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 4:2), he is not urging us to adopt an unhelpful otherworldliness. We should not misunderstand him here. He is not trying to turn us into people who are so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. Instead, he is inviting us to let our perspective on ourselves and on things in this world be shaped by the reign of the resurrected Christ, who is seated at the right hand of God.
Because Christ has been raised from the dead and now reigns victoriously, we of all people have reason to face the harsh realities of this world with courage and hope and even joy. The Greek Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann famously said that our stance toward this world should be marked by a “bright sorrow.” Most of us will probably prefer to use more upbeat language, but we all understand what he means.
With the reception of the angelic message comes conviction. It has taken root in the hearts of the women. It mobilizes them to go out and tell the disciples what they have heard.
But here the account takes a dramatic turn. Before they reach the disciples, they encounter the resurrected Jesus, who greets them.
And here we have to admit that our English Bibles do us a disservice. They translate the word as “greetings.” But the word in other places is translated as “rejoice” or “be glad.” That brings out better the significance of the encounter. Is this not the most appropriate form of greeting to come from the resurrected Jesus?
That greeting induces them to fall down at his feet and worship him. Should not the mood expressed in that greeting also infuse our worship of him today and all days?
And yet this event does not terminate in worship, but in mission. Jesus repeats the message of the angel. The women are to tell the disciples to go and meet him in Galilee, as we have already heard.
And why Galilee? It is the place of beginnings. Galilee is the place where Jesus first preaches the kingdom of heaven. Galilee is the place where the disciples were called. Galilee is the place where Jesus first went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, thereby demonstrating that God was with him.
In instructing the women to tell the disciples to meet him there, Jesus is signaling that there will be new beginnings, for his disciples then, and for his disciples now. As long as this world lasts, we disciples will always have the task of mission in our own Galilees.
“He is not here, he has been raised.” To us, the church, God entrusts today the Easter message of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Let us embrace this message with courage and conviction. Let it first minister to us and relieve our doubts and fears. And then let us bring it to the Galilee in which God has placed us. For it is just as relevant today as it was on that first Easter morning, because the problem to which it addresses itself is the same yesterday and today and tomorrow, until the end of time as we know it.
The dream of overcoming death is as old as the human race, and as young as transhumanism, embraced by some of our contemporaries, who see death as a problem to be solved by technology (Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz).
The awareness of our inevitable death can enshroud our future like a cold fog. Some try to cope with this awareness by adopting a stoic apathy, while others try to numb it by escaping into whatever distraction is available at the moment. Still others, usually among younger people, seize the inevitability of death with a heightened sense of urgency. You hear them say: “Go for it” and “you only live once.”
Whatever may be our methods of coping, the approach of death affects us, and even drives us. And we experience the fear of death as an absolute fear, because death seems to be the absolute master, in the words of the great German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (Volf and McAnnally-Linz).
Death robs us, not of this or that moment, but of our very being.
And yet the Easter message declares to us that this absolute fear is not truly absolute, because death is not the absolute master. It is subject to the power whom Jesus called Father. The empty tomb proclaims that the love of God is stronger than death. The resurrection of Jesus is love’s conquest of death.
And with the sending of the disciples, as we will discover in the course of Eastertide and Pentecost, Jesus releases the power of this love into the world, a world that persists in its opposition to him and is bent on death.
Nevertheless, of this power, the Apostle Paul wrote movingly in his Letter to the Romans: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-39).
Here is the power that heals souls, illuminates minds, and inspires new directions (Mark A. Villano). Here is the power of God going out into the world to save, to bring new life out of death.
Many today do not look into the Christian faith, because they have decided it is not for them. But why have they decided this?
No doubt there are myriad reasons. But for many there is too much water under the bridge. Too much bad stuff has happened to ever make their situations right again. At least that is what they tell themselves. Is there anyone in your circles of friends and acquaintances of whom this can be said?
The Easter message declares that there are no hopeless situations. There are no hopeless cases that are beyond God’s reach. The risen Lord is there to meet people wherever they are. He is not there only for church people. Did he not prove this during his earthly life? He preferred the company of tax collectors and sinners, whom the church people of his own time rejected.
But he wants them among his own people, so that to them as well as to us the promise in our first lesson can apply: When Christ who is our life is revealed, then we will also be revealed with him in glory (Col. 3:4). Amen.