Texts: Isaiah 65:17-25 + Psalm 118:1-2,14-24 + Acts 10:34-43 + Luke 24:1-12
According to our watches, the new day begins at midnight. According to the Jewish way of keeping time, the new day begins at sunset. Still, most of us tend to imagine the new day has begun once the sun rises, once we wake up, put two feet on the floor, and get started with our work.
I heard an explanation of the Jewish way of keeping time, a midrash, somewhere over the years that I like. It says that the day begins at sunset as our bodies are preparing to rest to remind us that God’s work comes before our work. That God is active in the night, in the dark places. That God, who neither sleeps nor slumbers, who keeps watch while we rest, continues to water the ground with dew and rain, calls to the seeds to sprout and the trees to grow. That the work of creation is ongoing, and begins without us. That when we rise from sleep, we are joining God in the work of a day already well under progress.
The women arrived at early dawn on the first day of the week because they cared about Jesus’ body. They were there because he’d been killed on a Friday, and his body had been laid in a tomb late in the day as the Sabbath was about to begin. He had been a good Jewish man and they were observant Jewish women so, despite the fact that his body had been bruised and tortured before being hung on a cross, they left him in the tomb and returned home to prepare spices and ointments that they planned to use to prepare him for burial later. Then the sun set and the sabbath began, and in keeping with tradition and the law, they rested.
They rested because it was the tradition and the law, and because they had to after all they had witnessed the previous day. The women and men who’d followed Jesus rested on the sabbath, because they needed rest. Their hearts were broken, their bodies were spent, their hopes were dashed.
Sometime the following night, as they slept for the second time since their Lord had been killed, God began God’s work. Even as God watered the ground with dew and rain, and called out to the seeds to put down roots and the trees to unfurl their leaves, God rolled away the stone that blocked the entrance to the tomb. Things that were living, that had come back to life, were no longer to be found in places reserved for the dead.
Now the women had returned to finish what they’d started, only to discover that God had started something new! They came to anoint a dead body, and were greeted by a vacant tomb and two messengers who gave them an answer buried in a question: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
Why indeed? Why do we so often look for signs of life among the ruins of death? The question spirals out in a million directions. Why do we trust our lives to things that take life? Why do we create economies that come to life when we go to war? Why do we confuse incarceration with rehabilitation, restoration and reconciliation? Why do we keep looking to things that kill for signs of life?
These are all implications of the fundamental truth hinted at in the young men’s question. The women are looking for Jesus in a tomb but he is not there, because God raised Jesus from the dead!
Even today, two thousand years later, I can feel some remnant of the original power of saying those words out loud. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to the women — Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women who came to the tomb that first morning — when they returned to the rest of the disciples and delivered the Easter proclamation for the very first time:
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!
Except that’s not what the men said when they heard the news. They had not gone to the tomb. They had not seen the stone rolled away. They had not heard the question posed by the two men in the graveyard. They had not been challenged to ask themselves why they were still looking for the Living One among the dead. And so, because they had stayed hidden in the safety of the past they knew, they were not inclined to believe the news of the future they could never have expected. Here we get the first biblical account of the phenomenon we’ve come to know as “mansplaining,” as the men explain away the truth of what these women know, as though this profoundly good news cannot be trusted until it is witnessed by a man, which Peter promptly runs off to do.
Of course I’m making a bit of a joke here, I guess. Though I don’t think it’s irrelevant to the story that the first to share the good news of the resurrection, the first to offer testimony to God’s miracle in Jesus, were those society was least ready to believe. Even in modern times, up until the last century, women were not considered credible witnesses in American courts of law. So, ironically, Luke’s gospel offers a bit of supporting evidence that the one who had risen from the tomb was the same as the one they’d followed in life, because who else but Jesus would select witnesses the world was conditioned to overlook? Who else but Jesus, who’d taught that it is the poor, the hungry, the grieving and the despised who are blessed in the eyes of God? This detail, so in keeping with the life he’d led, suggests to us now that his life is not over, but continues on.
Each of the gospels gives the details of that first Easter morning just a little bit differently. Last night we heard the account from John, with the heart-wrenching reunion between Jesus and Mary in the graveyard, full of passion. But I also appreciate this version from Luke, in which Jesus does not even make an appearance. The only evidence we are offered is an empty tomb and a question — “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” — which leaves us with our own work to do, as we wrestle with that question, and our own choice to make as we decide whether we will have the courage to do as the women did and proclaim Jesus Christ risen from the dead, or instead if we will be like those who discount all this as an “idle tale.”
One last hint as the truth dawns on us. The women would not have been at the tomb to perceive the miracle that had taken place during the night, while their bodies were resting, if they had not come to care for Jesus’ own body. But it was the women who got up early with the sun, to take care of a real body, not a disembodied idea of a person or a life. They were ready to deal with the stench of death, to touch flesh that had become cold and hard, to witness the disfiguration of torture and crucifixion. They were not content to let somebody else attend to these things, but were prepared to anoint the body of the Lord they had loved.
If we are struggling to believe in the truth of the resurrection, perhaps it is because we are not willing to go and sit with those who are dying, those in prison or without a home, those disfigured by torture, those who are still being crucified even today by empires near and far. In my own faltering experience, it has most often been the case that the reality of the resurrection never seems more self-evident than when I am with those whom Jesus put first, when I trade people in the abstract for people in the flesh, the way God made them.
That’s where Jesus lives now, not in our ideas about him and his resurrection, but in our encounters with him as he lives in the bodies God has washed and anointed, the Body of Christ, which is not dead, but is risen, and is still rising today.
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!