When Mary Magdalene and the other Mary arrive on that first Easter morning, the tomb is sealed shut. A massive stone blocks the opening. The corpse of Jesus lies inside, in the darkness, alone. Roman soldiers patrol the gravesite, their presence as deterrence to anyone who would want to steal the dead body. Pilate commanded the guards to keep Jesus dead and buried. The crucifixion is supposed to be definitive. Conclusive. A final ending.
When Mary Magdalene and the other Mary arrive at the tomb, the stone is still there. It’s the end of the story. They are there to mourn the death of their friend. Then, suddenly, everything changes. The earth begins to quake beneath their feet, the ground starts to tremble, the tectonic plates shift, the world totters on its axis. Whatever is going on in the darkness of that tomb is a cosmological event, a seismic upheaval in the order of things. The prophets foretold of such a time as this, when, as Joel prophesies, “The earth [will] quake before them, the heavens [will] tremble” (Joel 2:10). And from the book of Haggai, where God promises to “shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and… all the nations” (Haggai 2:6).
In the mysterious of the tomb, something new is being born—a new world, creation groaning labor pains, as the Apostle Paul would put it (Romans 8:22). In their Easter sermons, preachers in the first centuries of the church talked about God turning the tomb into a womb: “the abode of death becomes the dwelling place of life… a new kind of womb,” Severianus said in a fifth century Easter sermon.
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are there for the earthquake, for the groaning, for creation in labor, but when the angel rolls away the stone, and when the two women peer into the tomb, all that they can see is darkness, emptiness as the only evidence of the mysteries of resurrection. An invisible miracle. The hidden power of God.
He was raised from the dead before the stone was rolled away. Resurrection happened, in the sealed tomb. This is a detail unique to Matthew’s version of the story. In the other versions, the other Gospels—in Mark, Luke, and John—the stone is already gone by the time the women arrive. For example, here’s how it goes in Luke’s account of the morning: When the women arrived, “they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body” (Luke 24:3). The assumption seems to be that Jesus is raised from the dead and walks out of the tomb, with the stone pushed out of the way—all before anyone shows up to visit on that Easter morning.
But, here in Matthew’s Gospel, things are a bit more mysterious. The women watch the angel roll away the stone, and then they see nothing. No one walks out, and no one is still inside. “Jesus is not here,” the angel tells them, “for he has been raised” (Matthew 28:6)—Jesus raised from the dead, born from the tomb, the crucified one now alive and on the loose.
The women are bewildered, and a little afraid. “Do not be afraid,” the angel tries to reassure them. But in that state of bewilderment, they are commissioned to bear witness to what they have seen, they are given a task: to tell the other disciples about the empty tomb. “Go quickly,” the angel says, “Go quickly and tell the disciples [that] he has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him” (28:7). And, while the two Marys are on their way, Jesus shows up. He meets them while they are on the way to tell the others.
I’m not much of an evangelist, I’m not very much like these two women in the story. When I was in middle school, my youth pastor took all of us from our youth group in the church van to downtown Tucson on Friday nights, each of us with gospel tracts in our hands—not the kind with threats of hell. We at least made our own, kinda like do it yourself zines, with our own indie artistic flair. We were evangelizing Goths after all, with our alternative Christian message of God’s countercultural, revolutionary love. Some of us youth-group-kids wore Cure t-shirts, doc martens, black eye-liner, and piercings of all varieties—in noses and lips and tongues. On those Friday nights, I’d quickly find a trashcan and ditch the handful of tracts my youth pastor had given me, then I’d get lost in the crowd for an hour, waiting for the meetup time to reassemble at the van for our ride back to church.
This past year I’ve had two friends ask me why I’m a Christian. These are two people with whom I share a similar vision for life, a vision for a good world. We have similar commitments, in terms of how to picture ourselves in the world—everything is more or less the same, except for this one thing, which we return to in our conversations: Why do I need the added Christian thing?
After fumbling around with my words for a while, talking out loud about the life of Jesus, his call for the wealthy to give up their possessions, for all of us to share with our neighbors, to give to anyone in need, for equal wealth distribution, his example of forgiveness instead of vengeance and peace instead of violence, his undying love for the world—I soon realize that my friends have other ways at getting to similar social visions, similar personal ethics, similar convictions about honoring the dignity of others, of revering the goodness of creation.
And what I return to, in terms of the oddness of my faith, is this story we remind ourselves of every year, this Easter story—that something happened: someone got killed, crucified because of his love, a love that threatened to unravel the fabric of a world stitched together with violence, and the powerful men of this world couldn’t keep him dead, that the earth held his corpse for three days, then God resurrected him from the tomb, and nothing can be the same after that, because a new world has been born, a seismic shift in how we think about our lives, how we live our lives together—because we’re heard the testimony of these two women that the powers of death did not have the last word, that somehow resurrection happened, and resurrection happens, not just there in the darkness of the sealed tomb but here and now, there and everywhere.
We are, this Easter morning, and every morning, like the women in the story: bewildered yet sent on our way, making our way in this world with fear and joy.
Yes, there is much to be afraid of, a world out of control, violence after violence, yet there is joy, because Jesus has come to meet us. “He has gone ahead of you,” the angel tells them.
Christ has gone ahead of you—that’s the Easter gospel: that Christ is with us on the way, in our bewildering journey, surprising us with joy, the mercy of fellowship, the comfort of friendship, the undying glove of God.
Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid, and God, tell my friends, for there they will see me”—there we will see him, here we will see him. Even if you are afraid, know that there is joy, too—joy and love. That’s why we gather—to remind each other of resurrection, of resurrected life.
Resurrection is an invitation: to love this world as Christ does, to love one another with the love of God, to love without end.