I’ve never known stories and not known this story. And so I don’t know what it would feel like to hear this story without knowing what would happen in the story. Even entirely secular people have heard the summary of the story and so nothing about this is surprising. But I wonder what this might be like to hear this story anew, or even more, to experience this story from the perspective of a character.
How would this story read if it wasn’t ingrained in the cultural psyche? I would imagine it would have felt like what we see the women experience here. Early when the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were on their way to the tomb. In Luke’s and Mark’s gospel we are told that the women came with spices to anoint his body for burial, but this is expressly not the case in Matthew’s gospel, for Jesus was already unexpectedly prepared for burial while he was still alive.
And so the Marys go to the tomb, perhaps it was to process their own grief, as we often do, perhaps it was to see if for sure for sure he was dead, as if they had a hard time believing their eyes, believing their recollection, perhaps wondering if the last couple of days were just a terrible dream. But whatever the reason, the Marys were on their way and it was probably quiet on their journey, the kind where you can hear yourself breathe without trying to hear it, it just appears in your ears because it is the loudest thing around.
And as the Marys get there, just as they get there, the story seems to imply that they see what’s happening, but there’s an earthquake, an angel comes down, rolls away the stone, and sits on it. And here we have this reversal of the encounter between the kingdom of Rome and the kingdom of heaven. It looked like the kingdom of Rome won, but here we are again, and the power of the kingdom of heaven is so strong that simply its existence makes the kingdom of Rome paralyzed with fear and trembling. And Rome threw the best of its violence at the kingdom of heaven, and yet the kingdom of heaven can defeat the kingdom of Rome without a single piece of force. No violence, no might, and Rome loses all of its power.
But these Roman soldiers cannot stand in the presence of these angels, but the women can. And the angel speaks to them, “Don’t be afraid, I know you’re looking for Jesus he’s not here, look this is where he was and he’s not here. Now go and proclaim this message to his disciples, now go” The urgency of Matthew has been building to this point, and we can see this here, too, that this message of life among the dead is so important that it can’t wait until later. And we see the women leave with fear and joy, that word fear might strike you as odd, especially since the angel told them to not be afraid. But I think that like many words that we use, context can give a lot of shading to a word. The soldiers were stricken with fear, but this fear that the women left with was different. The soldiers were stricken with terror, while the women were overcome with awe, which is also a color that this word can have, and fear and joy paired here gives the indication that this is what is happening here. That it is fear in terms of awe and reverence. So they were filled with awe and joy, knowing that they had an encounter with a heavenly being.
But I want to go back to the earthquake. At the beginning of the week, the city was in turmoil, literally, it was trembling, and we might see this as the power structures shaking. The city was trembling because something was going to upset the power structures. Here, the earth is quaking because the created order just had a shift, it had a change, a change so significant because the ground literally shift below their feet.
I sometimes wonder if our familiarity of this story has removed some of the spark of it, the literal earth-shaking reality shifting significance of the resurrection. There’s a great icon of the resurrection, and it has Christ, in white, standing on the broken gates of sheol, or hades, with the locks broken and an anthropomorphized death bound in the pit. Christ is pulling up Adam and Eve from the grave, signifying humanity, as the now risen Christ is surrounded by figures from the Old Testament, especially. Solomon, David, John the Baptist (who was dead by this time), Abel, Moses, and sometimes others.
But it’s an icon that allows us a window into the existence-shaking reality of the resurrection. That this completely changed existence as we know it. And this is why the Resurrection is the central mystery of Christianity, and why today is the holiest of days in the church year. Because this is the day that everything is fundamentally different after than before. While Adam and Eve may have broken the world, this is the day, so many centuries ago, at which those breaks begin to be mended.
And so we have the angel proclaiming the risen Christ, entrusting the two Marys with the Gospel message to carry it to the world, and on their way to proclaim the first Easter sermon, we see the Risen Christ showing up to them. And here we see the importance of hearing and experiencing, and this is what the church has in Word and Sacrament. In the Word we hear about the promises of Christ, and in the Sacrament we have a real experience with the real living Christ.
And so let us remember this day, not just because of the eggs or the flowers or the candy or the ham, but let us remember this day because this is the day that life overcomes death, this is the day where Christ, seemingly weak has become victorious, this is the day where the last before first, this is the day with those who lose their lives will find them. Let us remember this day because this day, so long ago, is where real human life finds its object and goal and restoration. Let us remember this day for the urgent message of life. Let us remember this day because, in the words of St. John Chrysostom,
Christ is risen and you, O death, are annihilated!
Christ is risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ, having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To him be glory and power unto ages of ages. Amen.
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