EASTER – April 16, 2006
Pilate said to them, “THE GUARD IS YOURS; GO SECURE IT AS BEST YOU CAN.” SO THEY WENT AND SECURED THE TOMB BY FIXING A SEAL TO THE STONE AND SETTING GUARD (Matt 27:65-66)
If there is any doubt of the outlaw nature of primitive Christianity, one has only to read the facts surrounding Easter morning as told in Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew’s Easter story, Pilate assigned a Roman guard to watch Jesus’ tomb, lest his disciples steal his body and claim that he had risen from the dead. The guard affixed the seal of Rome on the tomb.
On Easter Sunday morning as the women reached the tomb an earthquake struck the area and an angel appeared and rolled the stone from the tomb. When the angel did this, the seal of Rome was broken. To break the seal of Rome without authorization was a criminal act, an act of civil disobedience. Yet, more than a seal was broken and a far more serious threat to Roman power was initiated. For when the state condemns a man to die, goes to the bother to put him to death, he is supposed to remain dead. To rise to life again poses the greatest of threats to the power of the state. The state has no greater power over its people than the threat of death. To rob the state of this ultimate power is to threaten the state at its most basic level. Easter made Jesus the ultimate threat to a death-based state and anyone who professes to follow the risen Lord ought to be seen as a co-conspirator in this criminal enterprise. Simply put, the very act of rising from the dead was an act of civil disobedience.
Matthew’s text says the Roman guards were so filled with fear at the sight of the angel they became like “dead men.” The term “like dead men” is an ironic phrase in this context. Roman soldiers were men of war. They were the best killers in the world at the time. It was they who instilled fear into others throughout the known world. Yet, at the sight of Jesus’ resurrection and at the sight of an angel of God, it is they who are gripped by fear. So much so, that they, the living, become the dead while the one they killed became the living.
WOMEN AND THE RESURRECTION
That women were the first to witness and testify to the Resurrection of Jesus is one of the oldest and surest traditions in the New Testament. Along with the empty tomb, the presence of women to witness and testify about the Risen Lord is in all four gospels.
In the Gospel of Mark (Mark 16:1-11), argued by many New Testament scholars to be the first gospel, it is Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James, and Salome who get to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. Once there they discover the stone’s been rolled away, enter the tomb and see a young man (in Greek a neaniskos; not an angel [angelos] or angels [angeloi] as in the other canonical gospels) who tells them Jesus “has been raised.” Then the young man points to the empty tomb and tells them Jesus is not there. He tells the two Marys to tell the disciples and Peter to go to Galilee where they will see Jesus. The original ending closes with the two Marys fleeing the tomb saying “nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
A later added ending to Mark’s gospel has Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene (cf. John 20). Then she goes to announce the Good News to Jesus’ “companions” who did not believe her.
In the Gospel of Matthew (28:1-10) it is Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary’ who go to the guarded tomb. Upon their arrival an earthquake strikes the site, an angel appears and rolls the stone away. The Roman guards are immobilized from fear. The angel tells the two Marys not to be afraid and to go tell the disciples the Good News that Jesus has been raised and that he will meet up with them in Galilee. On their way to the disciples, Jesus appears to them. The two Marys kneel and embrace his feet. Jesus tells them not to be afraid and to tell the disciples they will see him in Galilee.
In Luke’s Gospel (23:55 – 24:12) a much larger number of women witness and testify to Jesus’ resurrection. There was Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward, Mary the mother of James and an untold number of women who accompanied them. Some of these women are the same ones mentioned in Luke 8:2-3 who bankrolled Jesus’ ministry. These women followed Joseph of Arimathea on Good Friday to be sure they knew the location of Jesus’ tomb. Then on Easter morning they returned to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. When they got there they found the stone rolled away, they entered the tomb and found it empty. While they were “puzzling over” the empty tomb, two angels appeared to them. They told the women that Jesus is risen just as he foretold he would be. The women remembered Jesus’ words and they believed. Then the women returned to the disciples to announce all they saw and heard. Upon hearing the women’s testimony the “Apostles” did not believe because “their story seemed like nonsense.”
John’s Gospel is thought by scholars to be the last to reach its current form (i.e., it went through a series of editions which would help to explain its two endings in 20:30-31 and 21:25). In John 20:1-18, only Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb on Easter Sunday morning. When she sees the stone has been rolled away she runs back to tell Peter and John, the author of the gospel. She reports that someone has stolen Jesus’ body and she does not know where they put him. Then Peter and the ‘other disciple’ (i.e., the ‘beloved disciple’; whose actual identity is not known) run to the tomb. The other disciple gets there first and stoops to look inside the tomb. When Peter reaches the tomb he immediately enters. He sees that the tomb is empty, the burial cloths and the cloth that covered Jesus’ head in separate piles. The text says at this point the other disciple “saw and believed.” (The ‘beloved disciple’ is claimed to be the source of these traditions [21:24] and ‘authorship’ [not necessarily in its final written form but at least in oral form] does have its privileges.) The text says they did not understand the scriptures that supported that Jesus had to rise from the dead. They returned home.
Meanwhile Mary Magdalene was outside the tomb weeping. After the two disciples leave, she looked into the tomb and saw two angels. The angels asked, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary replied, “They have taken my Lord and I don’t know where they laid him.” After she said this, she turned around and saw Jesus, though she did not recognize him. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” Thinking Jesus was the gardener she said, “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him and I will take him.” Then Jesus said, “Mary!” Upon hearing her name, Mary immediately recognized him, embraced him and said, “Rabbonni (i.e., ‘my teacher’).” Jesus told her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Jesus told Mary to go and proclaim his resurrection to his disciples and immediately she does precisely that.
JESUS, THE RADICAL FEMINIST
By the standard of his time Jesus was a radical feminist. His relationships and encounters with women were nothing short of scandalous. The equality by which Jesus allowed women to operate in his community of disciples was truly revolutionary. It all stems from Jesus’ basic Kingdom of God principle of egalitarianism, a beloved community of equals with no hierarchy of power, privilege or status. From the very small and personal to the very large and institutional, the human groupings of family and clan, tribe and nation, no one is better than anyone else. If there be a hierarchy in the Kingdom of God it was with those seeking the lowest standing, being servants to all. In this upside down, ‘last shall be first’ social arrangement, the poor and oppressed, women, slaves and servants and children are the big winners. Because in Jesus’ day males ruled and the richer and more powerful they were, the more they ruled.
WOMEN FIRST PROCLAIMERS OF THE GOSPEL
The most surprising thing about the gospel accounts of the Resurrection is the central role women play in the narratives. This is especially striking given that the testimony of women in the societies of the first century was of little or no account. Yet, in all four gospels, it is the women who are first entrusted to proclaim the good news of the resurrection of the Lord.
It is a sad irony that in the Catholic Church today women are not allowed to read the Gospels at Catholic masses. Were it not for the first women who witnessed and proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection, men would have no gospel to proclaim.
MARY MAGDALENE, FRIEND OF JESUS, FIRST AMONG THE DISCIPLES
The book The DaVinci Code has stirred a lot of controversy regarding Mary Magdalene and her relationship to Jesus. The novel reports that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had children. Truth is it does not matter whether or not Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene or anyone else. Nor would it matter if he had any children. Such issues are incidental, not essential to the faith or to the gospel we are called to proclaim and follow. If they were, the New Testament writers would have said so.
However, Mary Magdalene was a close friend of Jesus, as close as any other of his disciples. John’s account of their intimate encounter on Easter Sunday morning demonstrates their close friendship. Plus, Mary Magdalene was a disciple’s disciple of Jesus, with no equal, if loyalty and faithfulness has any bearing. For not only did she accompany him during his ministry in Galilee to Jerusalem, she was at the foot of the cross witnessing Jesus’ crucifixion, something only the disciple John could claim to have done. Finally, she is the only person recorded in all four gospels to be present at the Resurrection of the Lord and with the other women, the first to proclaim the Easter message.