Plaque with the Holy Women at the Sepulchre. Northern Italian, early 10th century. This image of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary at the tomb of Jesus on Easter Morning was probably part of a decorative cover for a liturgical manuscript. Public Domain.
Matthew 28:1-10 Contemporary English Version
1The Sabbath was over, and it was almost daybreak on Sunday when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 Suddenly a strong earthquake struck, and the Lord’s angel came down from heaven. He rolled away the stone and sat on it. 3 The angel looked as bright as lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards shook from fear and fell down, as though they were dead.
5 The angel said to the women, “Don’t be afraid! I know you are looking for Jesus, who was nailed to a cross. 6 He isn’t here! God has raised him to life, just as Jesus said he would. Come, see the place where his body was lying. 7 Now hurry! Tell his disciples that he has been raised to life and is on his way to Galilee. Go there, and you will see him. That is what I came to tell you.”
8 The women were frightened and yet very happy, as they hurried from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and greeted them. They went near him, held on to his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid! Tell my followers to go to Galilee. They will see me there.”
We’ve used our microwave a lot more than usual since the COVID-19 pandemic began. While working from home with three children, my wife, Leah, and I are continually rewarming coffee and leftovers, making popcorn, warming water for tea and hot cocoa, and softening butter for cookies. Last Wednesday, we were working in the garden when our kids started their first fire in the microwave. The culprit was an aluminum-wrapped quesadilla. We heard screaming from the house but tried to block it out. To be honest, some of our days during the pandemic have been filled with screaming and crying, sour moods, and grumpiness. Last Wednesday had been one of those days. So, we didn’t respond to these screams until our daughter came out to tell us there was a fire. Everything was fine by the time we made it in. The fire put itself out, and a few scorch marks are all the remain.
Several household items, like the microwave, were invited by accident or through a series of unexpected events. Percy Spencer invented the microwave oven after having a chocolate bar melt in his pocket while servicing a magnetron during World War II. Ruth Wakefield invented chocolate chip cookies when she ran out of baker’s chocolate and expected that broken pieces of a chocolate bar would do the same trick. George Crum invented potato chips when a customer at his diner complained that his potatoes fries were too thick. Crum lost his temper and sliced the potatoes super thin, dropped them in the fryer, and sent them out. The customer loved them. John Hopps expected to revolutionize the field of emergency rescue by using radio frequency to restore body temperature to victims of hypothermia. Instead, he ended up inventing the pacemaker. Corn Flakes were created when the Kellogg brothers neglected to clean up a pot of boiled grain for several days. Inkjet printers were invented when an engineer at Canon accidentally rested a hot iron on his writing pen. Thomas Adams was trying to make a new form of rubber when he created chewing gum. 11-year-old Frank Epperson mixed soda powder with water one wintry day but left the cup outside overnight with the stirrer still in by accident. He later called his invention popsicles.
Unexpected events can lead to important outcomes.
Our gospel lesson begins in the realm of normal human experience, at least for religious folks in first-century Jerusalem. Jesus died on Friday in the late afternoon, and because the Sabbath began at sundown, his body was hastily taken down from the cross, wrapped and put in a nearby tomb. After the Sabbath day was over, and at first light on Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (Mary of Bethany) went to the tomb to wash Jesus’ body, rewrap it with new linens, and anoint it with perfumes and oils. This was a common practice when someone died on a Friday just before the Sabbath observance began.
The story then takes an unexpected turn. This turn involves an earthquake, an angel, and two fainting guards. The angel then speaks to Mary and Mary, saying:
Don’t be afraid - I know you are here for Jesus. He’s not here because he’s been raised from the dead. You can go in and see for yourselves. Go quickly and tell this friends that he will meet up with them in Galilee.
As if these events were not shocking enough, Mary and Mary encounter Jesus on their way to tell the disciples the good news.
Often, when I read the Bible, I fail to see the characters as real, living human beings that have ordinary human experiences. The gospels often highlight otherworldly events and miracles that fall well outside any of our expectations of an orderly world. Sometimes the world of these stories feels more like Hogwarts, Narnia, or Westeros.
But our Scriptures are different than these tales of fiction. They contain stories of real human beings, probably more like us than different. These folks never encountered angels or walked on water. The waving of hands or a few simple words did not cure sick people in their communities. More than anything, dead people stayed dead. The events in our gospel stories are as strange and unexpected to its characters as they are to us today. That’s why they are always scared when something incredible happens.
On Easter Sunday, Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the most important and unexpected outcome to any story ever told. For some Christians, the message of the angel, that “Christ is risen” evokes a deep and obvious joy without qualification. Others will find a working metaphor in this story. The resurrection is a sign of new life, the message of every spring, or the possibility of renewal. Still, others will find this story to be too alien to be considered but will enjoy the usual festivities of Easter Sunday.
The wrinkle for all of us, though, is that we cannot gather for those usual festivities. Because of the pandemic, it feels like we are still stuck on Holy Saturday, entombed in our homes, apartments, condos, and living centers. Social distancing has saved many lives, but we can also lament with honesty that it has diminished the quality of our lives. We are worried, stressed out, too busy, or bored, all the while disconnected from our usual human interactions. We don’t know when life will return to normal, or what normal will even look like once all of this is over.
“Don’t be afraid” is a continuing theme of our Easter lesson. The angel and Jesus say it when they encounter the two Marys. Their worlds had changed in unexpected ways when Jesus was killed just a few days earlier. And it was changed again in the most unexpected way when they encountered the risen Christ. The resurrection did not, however, return everything to normal. It changed everything. It provided an unexpected hope by reorganizing the way we thought the world worked. It provided a divine call to love one another genuinely and deeply. It started something new, a sacred way of gathering together in community despite human differences.
The lives we live after this pandemic will look different than the ones we lived before it. This unexpected time away from our usual rhythms and relationships will change everything. But “don’t be afraid.” When the stone of COVID-19 is rolled away, imagine what comes next. Imagine how meaningful those first handshakes and hugs will be. Imagine being more intentional about the family schedule or setting priorities. Imagine what new opportunities await us, knowing what we know, and living what we’ve lived.
This is Easter to me: Imagining what good awaits us after the unexpected.
May God bless you and keep you safe and healthy during this difficult and trying time. And may we take courage and hope from this great story of our faith. Amen.