After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And 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. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then 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.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
There is a kind of pristine stillness at the coming dawn of a new day, a kind of serenity that falls like the early morning mist, a natural reticence to interrupt the greater silence of the night. In the very early morning there is little, if anything, to say. Conversations that do end up happening are often spoken in a kind of gentle, natural sobriety, a verbal shorthand with great rests between sentences. To be with someone very early in the morning I often find a kind of cleansing purgation from the tyranny of words that fill most days.
I know this is not the way it is in households with small children, nor in hospitals, nor in hotels, nor in war zones. But it’s my sense that this is most often the way it is among many adults in the dawning of a new day. Very early morning, the syllables are few and volume, rather hushed. The rising of the sun is like a conductor’s baton slowly inviting a crescendo in our conversations. But in the very early morning – like this morning – the darkness is laced with the quiet expectation of the coming dawn, the day slowly anticipated with eagerness or dread, as words begin to fill in our awakening feelings. It is no less the way when there has been a death among family or friends. Was it a nightmare or did it really happen? We quietly, tortuously have to sift through that question, alone, yet again, especially at the dawn of a new day. And at those grievous times of death – when, oh yes, it really did happen – the scarcity of words in conversation can easily retreat to very practical and necessary things: about meals and travel and clothing and other arrangements. It’s easier that way, and it’s familiar and it’s also sometimes quite necessary, because when someone dies you have to work out things that you don’t normally have to face.
That is how I imagine this early morning walk by these holy women going to the tomb of Jesus. It was very early in the morning following perhaps two sleepless nights after the terrible Friday. (There was nothing “good” about Friday.) It was too early this particular Sunday morning to begin making sense out of Jesus’ ignominious death and the betrayals and the abandonments; and there was this practical matter about the stone’s blocking the front of the grave. It would have been the practice, in Jesus’ day, to seal a tomb with a great circular stone as big as a cart-wheel, a stone that was rolled into place along a rocky groove running parallel to the face of the tomb. Ironically, it would have been easier – all kinds of things would have been easier – if Jesus’ own brothers had shown up to help with their dead brother, but they are long gone. And then there were Jesus’ hand-picked disciples who had said they would never forsake him, and yet they are no where in sight. In Matthew’s gospel, it seems that most everyone has abandoned Jesus, even God, who is strangely silent. [i] And so I imagine this halting, non-sensical, tortured, necessary, quiet conversation that these women are having as they deal alone with too much to take in as they make their way to the tomb early in the morning. How startled, how mute with surprise, they must have been to see this stone moved before their very own eyes in a brief earthquake. These faithful women had come to the tomb more than a full day after Jesus’ death to wash his bludgeoned corpse to anoint the body with aromatic oils and salves used for the burial of the dead. They had not come the previous day to do this because Saturday was to be the Sabbath rest and even this funereal devotion counted as work not to be done, not on the Sabbath. And so more than a whole day and two nights had gone by since the carnage of the crucifixion they had witnessed to the bitter end on Friday. We can only imagine how desperate their grief would be by this time – these faithful, courageous women – because of all this death and betrayal and abandonment. How desperate they must have been to close this last and tragic chapter of Jesus’ life.
There’s no record that any people were at this time calling themselves “Christians.” But these women certainly had become followers of Jesus, and I imagine that they fully intended to remain followers of Jesus, their dead Savior. What Jesus had stood for, what he had said and done, had obviously changed these women, and forever: the healing and help and hope he had given to the hungry and lame; the place of reverence and inclusion he had proffered to them, women, who were otherwise often treated like chattel; Jesus’ making sense out of the deadly conundrums of the Law, the almost countless laws, big and small, that came down to, he said, the command to love God with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself, your being like your neighbor’s servant, and your neighbor being most anyone and everyone else, unless your neighbor is an enemy, in which case you love them all the same. [ii] It all comes down to love, according to Jesus. It seems that these women had no intention not to keep following Jesus: everything that his life represented. They simply wanted and needed to touch his body tenderly and to wrap up this last and tragic chapter of his life with a shroud – to make “closure” as we would say today – so that they could get back to living the life that Jesus had shown them and given them. Isn’t it the case that after a death, after even tragic or violent deaths, grieving survivors are often desperate to see the body, to touch the body – even if the body is badly torn – to seal up the gaping hole of death in their own hearts, so that they can get back to remembering the life of the beloved deceased.
And you know the story. The stone is rolled away and an angelic-type messenger in the tomb tells them that Jesus is both risen and gone, “gone ahead to Galilee.” I can somewhat appreciate the women’s stunned, shocking silence. They are also afraid, they are full of fear, they are afraid. We hear that in Matthew’s gospel three times in very rapid succession: they are afraid. I can appreciate their silence. (It is, after all, still early morning and this is much more than they can handle at the time.) I can appreciate their silence, but why the fear? We are not told. So I might ask you: why would you be afraid, then or now?
Three things come to mind about the silence and the fear. For one, I would say that these faithful women could not close off Jesus’ death after all. With this incredulous news that he is alive, Jesus’ death remained “open ended” to them. I imagine these women had witnessed and experienced the new life that Jesus had promised. It was real. And it was life-changing. It’s just that it had ended so tragically. And what is dawning on them now, as they are fleeing from this empty tomb, mute with fear, is that Jesus is alive again. That is to say, Jesus’ life – which they know and which they want – his life includes his death. That they cannot exclude his death; they cannot seal it off after all. His death is now a part of his life, which they will also share. If they are to remain followers of Jesus, it apparently means that life will be followed by death will be followed by life. I think this is just dawning on them, and they are absolutely speechless and terrorized. Because now they could see that being a follower of Jesus would not spare them (or us) of anything. Quite to the contrary, we are promised that we will meet up with our own cross if we follow Jesus. I suspect that all of us know the fear of what that might mean for our own lives in the days to come. I would say that is one source of the women’s muted fear: the cross of Christ was not just a tragic interruption of an otherwise profound and beautiful life; but rather, that Jesus is alive after the cross, that Jesus’ life includes, doesn’t preclude, but includes the cross (for him and for us), the ramifications of which could leave you speechless, too. It’s not because you don’t know what that may mean, it’s because you do know what that may mean in your own life and work and family, and you shall need enormous courage. The women are speechless and fearful, not because they don’t “get it” but because they do “get it.” They follow Jesus. Jesus dies; Jesus rises. So will they. Shocking. Mysterious. What the church has come to call, down through the centuries, our sharing in “the Paschal Mystery.”
Secondly, Matthew’s gospel ends with the report of the appearance of Jesus in Galilee: “He is going ahead of you to Galilee .” [iii] So I have another question for you, please: Where is Jesus to be found now? What is this “ Galilee” to you, here and now? I would call it Cambridge, where the risen Jesus is to be found. More specifically, for us gathered here, it’s this monastery chapel. In a few moments we will break our own silence to re-affirm our baptismal promises. We acknowledge our sharing not only in Jesus’ life, but also in Jesus’ death and in Jesus’ resurrection. We share this from the inside out. That is, the crucified Jesus has become alive within you through your baptism. Where is Jesus to be found now? In you. Which may leave you a bit speechless and incredulous, too. You may be want to say, “How can this be?” “What good can come out of this?” You may be want to say, if that be so, it is a very poor Christ who lives within me. That could be quite true. It may be a broken and wounded and abandoned and starved Christ who lives within you, but that is Jesus Christ. Where is the resurrected Jesus to be found today? In your presence, through your words, with your touch, in your heart. It is no longer you, just plain you who lives under your skin; it is Christ who lives within you… which some days, maybe today, is even more than you can take in. [iv] But it’s true. And we dare to affirm that reality momentarily at the baptismal font.
And I think that this was just dawning on these faithful women. That they had been invited not just to follow Jesus but to embody Jesus, his death and resurrection. The prayer that Jesus had taught them was going to be answered through their own lives: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven . . . .” [v] How was that kingdom going to come about? Through them and through you, who bear Christ. Where Jesus is to be found alive, most clearly and concretely, is within you. How can this be and what will it mean about the course of your own life? Maybe it’s too early to say.
And thirdly, I think these faithful women might have fled the empty tomb in fear because the formulas they had heretofore used to make sense out of life and to make sense of the God whom Jesus called “father” didn’t fit any more. Who is God, anyway? And what in the world is God up to? These women were not given the answers at the empty tomb. I can relate to that, and perhaps you, too. Many days, in many ways, God seems rather silent to me just now, as was the case for these women. I’m not saying an empty silence; I’m saying a full silence. I’m not talking about an absence or death of God; I’m talking about a real silence of God, which may also be true for some of you. How to be faithful to a God whom we sense is really present and, at the same time, so very silent? For starters, it seems to me, it’s to wait and listen for the meaning to dawn on us.
During the season of Lent it is our practice to fast from saying one particular word. On this morning we break the silent fast. The word we begin saying again is “Hallelujah.” Are you ready for it? I have to admit that there is a kind of reticence in me to start saying that word again. It’s as if the Easter bells create a Pavlovian-type connection with my experience of Easter as a child. I was a child of the 50s, and when we started saying Hallelujah again on Easter morning, we also started eating chocolate and charging around looking for colored eggs, and the women wore fancy bonnets and the men, handsome new ties, and everyone laughed and smiled and said that everything was just terrific, and we church folks found satisfaction in telling ourselves that this nation was like the New Jerusalem. And so, the thought of our breaking the silence and saying “Hallelujah” makes this subconscious connection in me with a world view that I no longer believe to be true. After all, we don’t just have the gospel of Matthew to read; we live in a global community and have newspapers and the internet and we are keenly and undeniably aware that we still live in a world of almost-unspeakable injustices, imprisoning prejudice, rampant disease, unanticipatable violence, tragic death by suicide and war and addiction and capital punishment, and some say we are at the brink of ecological disaster. That is the backdrop for us hearing the Easter message this year.
Why I think it actually is so helpful for us here and now to boldly say the word “Hallelujah” is not because of some glittering images of the word’s connotations in years past (mine and maybe also yours). No, I had it wrong! The word “Hallelujah,” which appears so often in the Psalms, does not have any kind of saccharine quality of triumphalism or denial or escape. [vi] Hallelujah is not a flippant, fluffy word. In the Hebrew, “Hallelujah” is simply a willful, joyful expression of praise for God. It is a bold, grounded, informed, obeisant acknowledgment of who God is and what God does, in God’s way on God’s time. The word does not appear in Matthew’s gospel. For that matter, the word “Hallelujah” does not appear in any of the four gospels. The word “Hallelujah” does not appear anywhere in the New Testament except in one chapter of the Revelation to John. [vii] In the Revelation (this dream-like vision of what is and what is to come) “Hallelujah” is a chant of the choirs of heaven, and the word is sung there in a striking contrast to the situation on earth, where evil has become especially tangible. “Hallelujah” is sung at this great banquet in the heavens, where the travail of earth and the glory of heaven are finally wedded through God’s intervention in this thing which Jesus calls the “kingdom to come.” [viii] In saying “Hallelujah” we join with the choirs of heaven. God is up to something in raising Jesus, and God is up to something in us because of the risen Jesus, and God is up to something in this world in and through us, because of Jesus . It may be too early to say much more about the resurrection of Jesus Christ this Easter than to proclaim, “Hallelujah, “ which is actually a very good word. To say “Hallelujah”– this willful, joyful expression of acknowledgment and praise to God – while we catch our breath, and find our words, and discover our part, and claim our courage as we dare, once more, to acknowledge that we are followers of Jesus, in life, in death, in life.
[i] Matthew 27:46.
[ii] Matthew 5: 43-46; Matthew 22:36-40.
[iii] Matthew 28:7.
[iv] St. Paul writes: “. . . I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:19-20).
[v] Matthew 6:9-15.
[vi] “Hallelujah” occurs in a number of Psalms, especially Psalms 111-117, where its position indicated that it was chanted as a kind of “antiphon” (a focusing introduction to the psalms) by the choir of the Levites.
[vii] The word “Hallelujah” appears four times in The Revelation to John (19:1-10).
[viii] Matthew 26:26-29.