The lectionary Gospel for Easter is Luke 24:1-12. (John 20:1-18 is always listed as an alternative, but this is Luke’s year, so we have an option from his Gospel.)
The women planned carefully, but there was no rush. Jesus, after all, had been dead since Friday afternoon. Faithful to God’s command, they rested on the Sabbath — sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
But they didn’t hurry to the tomb at nightfall Saturday. Maybe it wasn’t safe for a group of women to be on the streets of Jerusalem after dark. Or maybe they just knew: he would still be dead, in the tomb, on Sunday morning.
They had followed him in his ministry, two Marys, one Joanna, and others unnamed. They had started in Galilee but then went everywhere else he went.
And they had been the most faithful at the Cross.
- They stayed close enough to see him hung up between criminals,
- to hear him taunted,
- to watch him die.
And when Joseph of Arimathea claimed Jesus’ body (strange the way Jesus’ earthly life was bracketed by men named Joseph and women named Mary) they followed again, watching to know for sure where he was lain.
They volunteered to take on the responsibility of caring properly for the body of this man they loved. They prepared the spices that were needed for burial — maybe gathering them was what they did Saturday evening, once Sabbath was over.
It was their responsibility as his community of faith. It was their act of love.
When they got there, though, to this tomb they’d seen, where they had watched Jesus’ body sealed behind a great stone door, it was all wrong. They didn’t even have time to wonder how they would find someone to roll that great stone away.
It was wide open.
Had someone done this for them? No: No one knew they were coming.
They stepped to the door, through the door, up to the bier that had held his body.
But there was no body. Just the cloths that had been wrapped around him.
Who had taken Jesus naked body? Grave robbers? Soldiers? The Council? Nothing made sense. Every possibility was ghastly. Their heads were spinning.
And then the place was full of light, brighter than if they’d brought lamps. They gasped when they saw two men with light beaming from their clothing.
They knew the drill. They had to be angels.
Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here…” (Luke 24:5 NRSV)
Apparently even the angels were thrown off their game by the magnitude of the event: Any reader of the Bible knows that they were supposed to start by saying
Be not afraid!
And Christians still get thrown off by this surprising announcement. I think of the little church that boldly wrote those words on their big road-side sign at Easter to welcome potential visitors:
Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here…
It was better news to the women — even if it took some explaining.
The angels did explain. Jesus had risen from the grave. Remember? He had predicted the whole story that unfolded in the reading of Passion Sunday: Betrayed, handed over, tried, crucified, and now risen to life.
He’s God in the flesh, after all,” they might have gone on to clarify. “Death just couldn’t hold him.”
It was God’s choice to give the news to these women first — these who were so faithful in following despite never being in the limelight; these women who were braver, and more dutiful than the men, coming with their spices to prepare his body.
Orthodoxy does a much better job of honoring them than does my native Protestantism. The Orthodox call them the “Myrrh-Bearing Women” and they sing of them often.
I mean every single week — every Sunday is a little mini Easter celebration, so at Vespers on Saturday night and at Orthros/Matins on Sunday morning they regularly sing
Very early in the morning,
the myrrhbearing women
were hastening to Your tomb lamenting.
But the Angel appeared to them and uttered,
“The time for lamentation has ended;
weep no more.
Go announce the Resurrection
to the Apostles.”
And that’s just one of several hymns they sing, pretty much every week, about these women who were first to receive the news of the Resurrection.
Personally I find that beautiful — and highly appropriate. Honor where honor is due.
Unlike in Mark, in Luke the women did exactly as they were told. They rushed back to where the Apostles and others were cowering in grief and fear, and told them what they’d seen and what the angels had said.
In a way, this was the first proclamation of the complete Gospel. It wasn’t just a call to follow Jesus. They had news: Jesus has conquered death by death and now he’s alive again! New life for all has begun.
And the Apostles? They said, essentially,
Or maybe it was
Or the proper paraphrase might be
I don’t believe you for a minute.
The text itself says,
But these words seemed to them an idle tale,
and they did not believe them.” (Luke 24:11)
In short: The whole community of faith blew them off.
And so, perhaps we should not be surprised when the world does not receive our Good News either, at Easter or any other time. It seems so unlikely that Jesus who died would live again. It seems so contrary to observation that death is conquered, that new life has begun.
But we should look more closely: This tendency to blow off the Good News and its messengers is something we Christians do, just like our Apostolic leaders. We don’t grasp the significance of the Resurrection most of the time.
Even if we say we believe it, we hold back from living into it — or can’t figure out how we could.
Turning Back (Partway)
It takes some doing to get a grip on Easter, the empty tomb, this whole Resurrection business. Luke shows us this: In his entire narrative of Easter morning nobody has the singularly clarifying experience of actually meeting the risen Christ.
But while the rest simply disbelieved the news of the myrrh-bearing women, Peter was at least curious — Peter, who had denied Christ three times despite his bold words at the Last Supper.
Jesus had told Peter that, when he came back to faith, he should build up the others who had also fallen away.
He’s almost ready to turn back to faith now that he’s heard the women’s news — almost.
He has to know. So he runs to the tomb. Yes — empty, just as they said. No angels though. Just linen grave cloths. He wants to believe — and he almost does.
Not quite yet though. He has a lot to think about. In Luke’s telling it seems he wasn’t ready to talk about it with the others. He didn’t go back to the gathered community. He hit the road for home (cf. Luke 24:12)
And Peter’s response is worth taking as our own model. We hear this extraordinary news much more than second hand. It is hard to believe. We too need to do what we can to check it out. Then we need time to weigh it it, to take it in.
The tomb is empty.
Some tell us Jesus is risen.
Time to get away, go home alone, and think about it.
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