Easter Day

17 March 2016

BRIDGEMAN IMAGES

Charming dialogue: Three Marys at the Tomb, in a 14th-century fresco from the Master Trecentesco of Sacro Speco School, in Sacro Speco Monastery, Subiaco. Italy

Charming dialogue: Three Marys at the Tomb, in a 14th-century fresco from the Master Trecentesco of Sacro Speco School, in Sacro Speco Monastery, Subi...

Acts 10.34-43; Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15.19-26; Luke 24.1-12

 

Lord of all life and power, who through the mighty resurrection of your Son overcame the old order of sin and death to make all things new in him: grant that we, being dead to sin and alive to you in Jesus Christ, may reign with him in glory; to whom with you and the Holy Spirit be praise and honour, glory and might, now and in all eternity. Amen.

 

THE medieval play Quem Quaeritis, as its name suggests, dramatises events that begin with a question: “Whom are you seeking?” It seems to have started life as a trope in the Easter liturgy, before developing its own more elaborate choreography.

Three women (traditionally Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Mary of Bethany) go to the tomb on Easter morning, and find not the body of Jesus, but two men in shining robes. A charming dialogue ensues.

“Whom do ye seek in the sepulchre, O followers of Christ?” the angels enquire.

“Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, O heavenly ones,” the women reply.

The wording is closer to the Apocryphal Gospel of Peter (XIII.56) than to the Synoptics, but the extraordinary atmospherics of this gracious exchange between heaven and earth, across the emptiness where there ought to have been a body, help us to imagine the same scene as described by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Luke populates the scene differently, and brings together two figures he has introduced earlier — Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, the wife of one of Herod’s stewards (Luke 8.2-3) — and one who may be borrowed from Matthew (Matthew 27.56).

Although this is the first time they assume an active place in the story, and their part is brief, it has a special significance. Unlike the angels of Matthew and Mark, who charge the women to take the news to the disciples, Luke’s angels talk to them in their own right (Matthew 28.6-7, Mark 16.6-7, Luke 24.5).

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They also take it for granted that the two Marys and Joanna had been part of Jesus’s public career from an early stage, reminding them of what Jesus had said earlier, in Galilee, about his betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection (Luke 24.6, 9.22 and 44).

The women do not receive the same respectful treatment from their fellow disciples, however, when they return with the news. “These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24.11).

A cynical reading might suggest that this is why Peter has to be dispatched rapidly to the tomb in order to make an independent and reliably male assessment of the evidence (Luke 24.12). But that would be to deny Luke’s purpose in a deliberate way. The first witnesses to the resurrection were those who most needed to know that Jesus had kept faith with them.

It was always going to be Peter, the friend whose loyalty failed when things became difficult (Luke 22.31-34, 23.54-61); and Mary Magdalene, healed of the illness that possessed her; and the wife of an employee of the enemy (Luke 8.2-3); and the mother of James and John, whose reputation for ambition might have spread (Matthew 20.20-23).

The joyful generosity of the resurrection and the Kingdom whose doors it flings wide open is that it has no time for pecking orders, immaculate credentials, or stereotypes. It ushers in the wedding banquet whose controversial seating plan Jesus had talked about at another meal (Luke 14.7-11).

Nor was his confidence in unlikely people misplaced. Peter, silent and amazed at the tomb (Luke 24.12), becomes eloquent in the light of his experience. He does not learn everything at once, and the idea that God’s promise might extend to Gentiles follows gradually from God’s acceptance of him, with all his flaws.

It takes a miraculous vision that challenges the roots of his Jewishness to make him see that God operates beyond human restrictions (Acts 10.9-17); and the direct and faithful questing of the centurion Cornelius to show him the miracle of God’s working outside the covenant as he understands it.

In the space of seven verses, he covers the essentials of the gospel; in the light of what immediately follows, this must be the fastest baptism-preparation course in recorded history (Acts 10.44-48). It is almost as if God’s eagerness to give the Spirit to these new believers, and incorporate them into Christ in baptism, is too impatient to let Peter finish.

“Whom do you seek?” The answer to the angels’ question at the tomb is the confession of the name that allows the power of the resurrection to work in human lives, displacing “the old order of sin and death to make all things new” in the risen Christ (collect of the day).

Just as astonishingly, human beings who timidly ask the same question of God find that, despite their many imperfections, the answer is: “You.”

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