for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred:
open the doors of our hearts,
that we may seek the good of others
and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace,
to the praise of God the Father. Amen
Holy Week is a good opportunity to read and re-read the four gospel accounts of the first Easter Day. There are, of course, many similarities and many large differences between them. The Gospels were written by four different writers, each with a unique perspective on this one event. These differences do not diminish any one account; rather they add a richness, a fullness to the whole story.
I like the mention of the women bringing perfume and spices in Mark and Luke. My younger sister, on hearing one of these accounts at Sunday School, asked our Mum if she would please put perfume and spices on my sister’s body when she died. This was quite profound for a five-year-old: when she died, not if she died.
All speak of the empty tomb, the announcement of the Resurrection to the women, and the meeting of the disciples with the Risen Jesus. What is abundantly clear in all of them is that the Resurrection was completely unexpected. Despite his teaching, Jesus’ followers had no expectation that he would rise from the dead. The resurrection came as a wonderful surprise!
My hope is that we have not lost the surprise of the resurrection. Yes we have the benefit of hindsight and we know how the story ends but let us not lose the expectation, the surprise. Matthew’s Gospel account does not disappoint with the element of surprise!
We might picture an Easter morning as a fairly mild affair; the sun rising in a blue sky, birds chirping and the world feels peaceful and quiet with hot cross buns fresh out of the oven. The church looks at its best, the flowers are spectacular, the choir sounds good, and an enlightening sermon while the timing of Sunday lunch ruminates in some minds.
A closer reading of the gospels dispels this notion of a calm and peaceful morning. As the sun went down after Jesus was in the tomb, the waiting began. Not a peaceful, all-will-be-well waiting, but a restless, no sleep kind of waiting. Jesus’ followers had to prepare for the Sabbath, when any work or travel was forbidden. They had to stay home, rest and wait; wait to see what had happened, if Jesus was still in the tomb or not.
Not to dampen the festive mood too much, but neither can we gloss over the events of that first Easter morning. Matthew is the only writer to note a great earthquake and the angel descending from heaven, who rolled back the stone and sat on it. The guards fell over and became like dead men. The Marys seem to have remained standing and were able to take in what the angel was saying to them.
For Matthew, the only reason the Marys were there was to see the tomb. They were there when it was sealed so they knew the location. They had also seen the condition of Jesus’ body as they were at the cross. I am not sure if they wanted to see the body again, that would have been a horrible sight. Yet they were still willing to go, just to be there. The rolling away of the stone was so that they might get into the tomb.
The angel had two messages for the Marys that first morning.
Do not be afraid. The angel has come to help, not frighten. He encourages the Marys by assuring them that he knows about their mission: ‘you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified’.
Many people live in fear. Fear of failure, fear of abuse or violence, fear of what other people think of them, fear of being found out, fear of letting ourselves or others down, fear of the unknown. Fear of death. In St John’s first letter he writes, ‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.’ Easter is all about love, there is no room for fear.
The angel knew exactly what the Marys were looking for. He knew their fears, their confusion and doubt; and he addressed them. By showing up at the tomb, despite their feelings and their fears, the Marys receive answers and leave changed. There is a lesson in this for those of us who live with fears.
We can bring our fears, anxieties and doubts to God so he can reveal his light. He knows. You aren’t hiding anything from him. The message of Easter is the overcoming of death and despair – fear brings death and despair. The resurrected Jesus came to banish all fears.
After reassuring the Marys, the angel turns to commissioning them to do something. ‘Go quickly’. The good news of the resurrection is not something to be held on to. The Marys are to be messengers to the other disciples. Jesus was going to meet them in Galilee, they would see him there. Obedient to the instructions with fear (the good kind) and great joy they go.
Suddenly Jesus meets them. This might have been the biggest surprise of the morning. I wonder if he jumped out from behind a big rock? Suddenly! No expectation from the Marys, Jesus is there in front of them. Do we expect Jesus to surprise us? How would we react? The Mary’s take hold of his feet, without shame or reservation, they want to hang onto him and never let go. Jesus wasn’t a ghost or an illusion; the resurrection body was real.
We are invited in the Eucharist to meet with the resurrected Jesus, to exchange our fears, our slavery to that fear with light and life. We are invited to come, see the place where he lay; eat and drink in remembrance of what Jesus has done for us, and then go and tell so we too might walk in the newness of life.
All four gospel accounts start in both literal and metaphorical darkness, in confusion, fear and no expectations of the resurrection. Each account ends with the proclamation that the Risen Jesus is indeed light and life.
May we approach this Easter with a new sense of surprise and reality at the Gospel. Surprise at the good news of Jesus and knowing the reality of Jesus in our lives today. He is Risen and ready to surprise.