After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.
5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Translation: And late on the sabbath, toward the dawning into the first day of sabbath, Maria, the one of Magdala, and the other Mary, went to see the tomb. And behold! A great earthquake happened, for an angel of the Lord descended out of heaven and came (and) rolled back the stone and was sitting upon it, and his appearance was like lightning and his raiment white as snow. And from the fear of him, the ones keeping him were shaken and became as dead ones.
And the angel answered (and) said to the women, "Fear not, for I have known that you are seeking Jesus, the crucified one. He is not here, for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he was lying, and go quickly. Tell his disciples that he was raised from the dead ones, and behold! he is going before you into Galilee. There you will see him. Behold! I told you." And they left quickly from the grave with fear and great joy. They ran to tell his disciples. And behold! Jesus met them, saying, "Grace to you." And they came (and) held his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Fear not. Go tell my brothers so that they might go into Galilee, and there they will see me."
Background and situation: All four of the gospel accounts have unique elements in their resurrection stories. Mark, the primary source, has a rather sparse eight verses on the first Easter. Both Matthew and Luke expand the story in their individual directions.
That all four gospels tell the story in different ways also indicates that there was no normative and clearly established Easter narrative in the first few decades after the earthly life of Jesus.
Behold!: In Matthew, Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" went to "see" the tomb. Matthew says nothing about anointing the body with spices (as in Mark) because, for Matthew, there was no way the women were actually going to be able to get into that tomb. A "great" stone stood in front of it.
"Behold! A great earthquake happened"--idou seismos egeneto megas. As at the death of Jesus (27:51), the resurrection of Jesus is accompanied by spectacular signs in nature. The foundation of the "old world" is shaken. As the birth of Jesus had been accompanied by heavenly signs (2:2), now the resurrection of Jesus is accompanied by the shaking of the foundations of the earth.
Each of the four gospels has different witnesses at the tomb. Mark has a "young man," Luke "two men in dazzling clothes," John "two angels." For Matthew, a single "angel of the Lord" will suffice. (The precise phrase, "angel of the Lord," is also used three times in Matthew's birth narrative in chapters 1-2.) The angel rolls away the stone, and, very proud of himself, promptly sits down on it, thus symbolizing God's triumph over death.
The description of the angel's appearance--"like lightning and his garments white as snow"--recalls the appearance of Jesus in the Transfiguration (17: 2). It is an eschatological image, and one that echoes a saying of Jesus in 13:43: "...the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father." That kingdom has arrived in the resurrection. (Theologically speaking, the resurrection of Jesus is prolepsis--a sign "beforehand" of the resurrection that is to come for all.)
Fear gets the best of the guards. They are "shaken"--seisthesan, the same word used in 27: 51 to describe the shaking of the earth at the death of Jesus. They "became like dead ones." Roman guards symbolize the Powers. Jesus, leader of the powerless, killed by the powerful, comes to life, and the powerful collapse.
The angel speaks to the women (but not the "like dead" guards): "Fear not!" (The question is left open as to whether or not the guards should fear.) The angel "knows"--oida--that the women are looking for Jesus the Crucified. The mention of crucifixion reminds the reader that Jesus was put to death by the Imperial Power because he was leading a Galilean peasant movement which had achieved a wide popular following.
"He is not here, he has been raised." The NRSV corrects RSV--"he has risen"--on this point. Egerthe is in the passive voice. In other words, God raised him. Nowhere in the New Testament does it ever say that Jesus raised himself.
The resurrection of Jesus is God's vindication of Jesus' life, God's "stamp of approval" on Jesus' ministry of compassion, gender equality, open table fellowship, and resistance to political oppression. ("Dead men" of the Powers are right to be afraid.)
The women had come to "see" the tomb. Now, the angel invites the women closer to "see the place where he lay." As soon as the angel makes this invitation, however, the angel tells the women to "go quickly" and "tell his disciples" that Jesus has been raised. The New Community, shaken and scattered by Jesus' death, is being reconstituted ASAP.
Jesus is "going ahead of you to Galilee," to the place where the Jesus movement first began. Mark and Matthew both tell the women to go to Galilee. Luke, on the other hand, tells the disciples to "stay here" in Jerusalem.
Some have speculated that "Jerusalem" represents the early leadership of the church. For Mark, that leadership was discredited during the Roman-Jewish War (AD 66-70). Luke, however, takes a kinder view of the "head office." Matthew is somewhat in the middle--the disciples are only generally clueless in Matthew, not continually clueless as they are in Mark. Here, Matthew follows Mark in encouraging the disciples to go to Galilee.
"Behold! I have told you," says the angel, signing off. The NRSV, in its studious and misguided avoidance of the word "behold," has merely, "This is my message to you." In fact, there are four uses of the word "behold!" in this brief Easter text: "Behold! a great earthquake happened...", "Behold! he is going before you into Galilee...", "Behold! I have told you...," and "Behold! Jesus met them...". (You could preach a sermon on the word "behold" alone.)
The women do as they are told--unlike in Mark--and leave "quickly." In Mark, the women seemed paralyzed by fear, and don't tell anyone anything. In Matthew, the fear is still there, but it is countered with "great joy" as well, and the women "ran to tell his disciples."
Then, behold! Jesus himself appears. The first word Jesus utters after his resurrection is "xairete." Xairete was a common everyday greeting. In that respect, it is somewhat similar to our "hello" or "good day." Literally, xairete means "hail" or "rejoice" or even "grace to you."
The women, no longer afraid, "drew near" to Jesus and "took hold" of his feet. This affirms the bodily reality of the resurrected Jesus. He was not a spirit, in other words. Belief in spirits, angels, and other supernatural beings was not at all uncommon in the first century world. Matthew wants us to know that the resurrection of Jesus is different from that. Jesus was not a spirit or angel, but the first sign of a new and transformed cosmos, the New Creation.
In the words of poet, Lucille Clifton:
the green of jesus
is breaking the ground
and the sweet smell of delicious jesus
is opening the house and
the dance of jesus music
has hold of the air and
the world is turning
in the body of jesus and
the future is possible
The physical encounter also expresses the continuity of the risen Jesus with the historical person Jesus. In the resurrection, we will not become a drop in the great Cosmic Ocean. We will retain our individuality.
And have you noticed? Mary Magdalene is often at the feet of Jesus. The two women "worshiped" him. Worship was properly due to God alone. That the women worship Jesus is a way of affirming that we encounter God in Jesus.
Jesus cuts the reunion short, and sends the women on a mission. They are to "go and tell my brothers"--adelphoi. These would be the same "brothers" who left him in a lurch as he was going to the cross. In calling them "my brothers," Jesus' first appearance is marked by forgiveness and reconciliation. The disciples will indeed see Jesus in Galilee, where, like the women, they too will be sent on a mission.
Image: Retablo of the Resurrection, Church of San Francisco de Asis, Santa Fe, New Mexico