RESURRECTION OF OUR LORD
Prayer of the Day: O God, you gave your only Son to suffer death on the cross for our redemption, and by his glorious resurrection you delivered us from the power of death. Make us die every day to sin, that we may live with him forever in the joy of the resurrection, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.” Matthew 28:1.
Why were the women going to see the tomb on the first day of the week? Matthew says nothing about their motivation. It is tempting to interpolate from Mark and Luke who tell us that they were going to anoint the body of Jesus with spices according to custom. But given the fact that, according to Matthew, the tomb of Jesus had been sealed and was under Roman guard, it seems unlikely that the woman would set out on such a hopeless errand. So what were they expecting to “see” at this tomb they could have had no hope of entering?
I cannot get inside the heads of these women, but I wonder whether they had an inkling, a hunch, an irrepressible hope that the Jesus story was not over. I wonder whether there they were driven to the tomb by an inexplicable expectation that God still had more to do with Jesus. Professor Stanley Hauerwas goes so far as to conclude that “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary believe what Jesus has promised, that after three days he will be raised.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, from the series, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, (c. 2008 by Stanley Hauerwas; pub. by Brazos Press) p. 244. Accordingly, they go to the tomb in order to witness the fulfilment of that promise. They have been chosen to be the first witnesses of the resurrection and charged with directing the disciples to return to Galilee where they, too, will see the risen Jesus. Ibid.
I find Hauerwas persuasive on this point. There is much in Matthew’s gospel to suggest the prominence of the women as witnesses. The genealogy at the opening of the gospel running from Adam to Joseph the husband of Mary includes, contrary to custom and practice, four women. Moreover, the four women mentioned, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and the wife of Uriah, Bathsheba, all played pivotal roles in the ancestral line. Finally, after laying out his elaborate genealogical tree, Matthew abruptly chops it down with the words, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way” and proceeds to inform us that Jesus was conceived quite apart from Joseph’s involvement. Matthew 1:18. Once again, the woman is the primary actor. As it was in the gospel’s beginning, so it is at the end.
For the two women, then, faith preceded the appearance of the angel, the empty tomb and their encounter with the resurrected Christ. They believed in the resurrection before there was any basis other than Jesus’ promise. It all goes to show that “seeing” is not necessarily “believing.” We read later on in the same chapter that some of the disciples who returned to Galilee and met the resurrected Christ still “doubted.” Matthew 28:17. The miracle of Easter apparently did not convince everyone who witnessed it in real time. How much less those of us who rely on the testimony of others. Like the women who set out to see the tomb, we proceed on the strength of a promise.
In our modernist arrogance, we are prone to assume that if only we could get behind the scriptural witness, pry away the theological biases of the biblical witnesses and view the events taking place on Easter Sunday with a cold, objective and empirical eye, then we would know with certainty what “really” happened. If only we had a time machine that could take us back to that first Easter Sunday, then we could believe-or not-on the basis of what we know. But I am not convinced a time machine would resolve our doubts. If an encounter with the resurrected Christ could not do that for the disciples, there is no reason to believe it would help us. Only faith can see mysteries.
By faith I do not mean blind acceptance of assertions that defy undisputed fact. To be sure, it is a fact that human beings are mortal. Everything we know about human physiology runs contrary to the notion that death is reversible. But faith insists that there is more to be known than we are capable of knowing. Faith also understands that the empirical method enabling us to split the atom, walk on the moon and unravel the human g-gnome is not the sole or even primary means of discerning truth. Poets, musicians, dancers and playwrights also testify to truths that are real and worthy of our contemplation. Moreover, let us not forget that the greatest advances in both theory and technology begin not in the lab, but in the imagination. Faith does not insist on certainty about what is. It challenges us to remain open to what might be. The women in our gospel went to the tomb on the first day of the week because they could imagine a love so strong and fierce that neither the Roman Empire, nor its armies nor death itself could contain it. Faith claims that what they imagined, what they sought and what they claim to have found is real.
Faith, says the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, is the assurance of things hoped for. Hebrews 11:1. That sounds a little contradictory. We are not accustomed to linking “hope” with “assurance.” But I don’t know how else to make sense of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary setting out that morning to visit the tomb of Jesus. I don’t know how else to make sense of doctors, nurses, pastors and counselors working year after year in refuge camps where life for the people they serve shows no sign of getting better anytime soon. I don’t know how else to make sense of teachers I know working for their students in schools that are chronically underfunded in neighborhoods that are dying for salaries that can barely support them. I don’t know how else to explain the work of hospice caregivers. All of this only makes sense if you can imagine a “new heaves and a new earth” where war gives way to peace; where the divisions between human beings are erased; where the mighty are cast down from their thrones and the poor exalted; where even the reign of death is ended. All of this can be imagined, hoped for and, yes believed. Christ is risen. There are no limits to what might be! Alleluia and Amen.
Here is a poem by Joyce Hernandez that speaking to Jesus’ resurrection which, though it leaves “no scratches on the world” to which we can point, is nonetheless real and visible to the eye of faith.
When Jesus early rose and breathed
The pungent air of new-dug earth,
Passed the stone, and passed the flesh,
Passed the mourners of his death,
(and left them dazed, but following)
He rose with such a limpid flight
As wind or wings could only clutter,
And left no scratches on the world,
No broken twig or parted cloud,
To draw our eyes away from him.
(c. 1972 by Joyce Hernandez) Joyce Hernandez is a teacher, nurse and poet living in Yakima, Washington whose publications include The Bone Woman Poems (c. 2009, pub. by Allied Arts and Minuteman Press). She is also, coincidentally, my sister.