Nearly all of the Resurrection accounts in the Gospels present the Apostles and disciples on a journey to deeper faith. In stages, they come out of the darkness of despair and of this world into the light of faith. Matthew’s account (28:1-10), which is read at the Easter Vigil this year and can also be read at Masses during the day, is no exception. I have also commented on the Johannine Gospel that is often read on Easter morning (From Fear to Faith).
Let’s look at the Easter journey that Mary Magdalene and Mary (likely, Mary the mother of James and Joseph) make out of darkness into light. Mark (16:1) adds that Salome, the wife of Zebedee and the mother of James and John, went with them. From Luke (24:10) it also appears that Joanna, wife of Herod’s steward Chusa, was with them. Hence, though Matthew only mentions two women by name, it would seem that our analysis should include these four women. As these women journey through the events of Easter morning we see their faith deepen and brighten. In a condensed sort of way, we see in this a microcosm of the whole life of the Christian. In a similar way we, journeying in stages, come to a deeper faith and a brighter vision of the Paschal mystery that is our life.
Let’s observe their journey in four stages.
Stage One – Disturbance at Dawn
After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, approached, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing was white as snow. The guards were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men.
Note that in this first stage it is still quite dark. The text here says, with hope, that the new day was dawning. The Greek word actually used, however, properly means as the first day “approached” or drew on without specifying the precise time. Mark (16:1-2) says that it was very early in the morning (at the rising of the sun), that is, not that the sun “was risen” but that it was about to rise or that it was the early break of day. Luke (24:1) notes that it was “very early in the morning” (in the Greek text it was “deep twilight” or when there was scarcely any light). John (20:1) says that it was “very early, while it was yet dark,” that is, it was not yet fully daylight nor had the sun risen.
So the point is that it is still quite dark but dawn is near! And all this creates an air of great expectation for us who read the account. An old song in the Taizé Community says, “Within our darkest night, you kindle a fire that never dies away!”
Next, there is a great earthquake! Sometimes God has to shake things up to open new doors and new vision. And in our lives, too, there are often violent shakings. But remember, we are at the dawn of a new day. In just a few short years, if we are faithful, we’ll be with God. And so it is that this earthquake is not unto destruction but is unto the opening of the tomb that has claimed our Lord and unto the opening of tombs that have claimed us emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. This earthquake, frightening though it may seem, serves only to draw these women deeper into the Paschal mystery and toward the risen Christ.
Now notice that they haven’t seen him yet or even heard that he is risen; there is only this earthquake, but it has a purpose. Yet for now, it is barely dawn and things are still very unclear to them.
Stage Two – Declaration: Do Not Be Afraid
Then the angel said to the women in reply, “Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.
Note that the angel summons them to deeper faith. He exclaims, “Do not be afraid.” Now to most of us this may seem to be almost a “throwaway” line, one we often hear when we are perceived by others to be anxious. And frankly, when others say this to us, it is both annoying and unhelpful. But in this case the angel presents a basis for their faith to grow and their anxiety to dissipate.
That they should not be anxious or afraid is firmly rooted in the Lord’s promise and in His Word. The angel is reminding them that the Lord had promised to rise on the third day, and that He has done just as He said. The Lord, who had raised others from death and healed multitudes, has now done exactly what He promised.
Hence, the angel summons them to grow in their faith by pondering the Word of Jesus Christ and by coming to trust in His promise.
The angel also presents evidence to them: the empty tomb. He invites them to connect the dots between the promise of Jesus and the present evidence of an empty tomb.
So it’s getting brighter, by the power of God’s Word and the application of that Word to the present situation.
We, too, must journey through this stage as we become more deeply immersed in God’s Word and apply it to our present situation. As we grow in knowledge and remembrance of God’s promises and His Word, our anxiety begins to diminish. This happens especially when, like these women, we begin to connect God’s Word with what is actually happening in our life. We start to notice the empty tombs, the many signs of God’s favor and blessing. Things start to add up and we begin to connect the dots between faith and experience. And as we do this, it gets brighter and our faith grows stronger.
Stage Three – Deepening Dispatch
Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ Behold, I have told you.”
Learn by teaching – Having been instructed in the Paschal mystery and grown deeper in their faith, they are sent by the Lord to inform others. An interesting aspect of teaching is that we often learn more by teaching than we ever learned as a mere student. Hence we grow in our faith as we begin to teach and testify to it. The acts of teaching and witnessing cause us to grow.
But note the text, “Behold, I have told you.” The true faith is received from God. St. Paul says, “Faith comes by hearing.” Do NOT go off and invent your own faith; that is a very bad idea! We receive the faith from God through the Church and through the Scriptures approved by the Church. These women had first been instructed by God’s angel and only after that were they told to go and tell the disciples. We, too, are instructed by the Church. Our faith comes from what we hear; then we pass on what we have heard.
So these women are sent. And as they go, we shall see that they have a great breakthrough. But prior to that breakthrough they are sent to witness, to proclaim. And this very act, for them and for us, deepens faith even more.
There is one final stage that they must attain, for they are still only able to pass on what others have said. They have not yet personally seen the Risen Lord; that comes next.
Stage Four – The Discovery that is Definitive
Then they went away quickly from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed, and ran to announce this to his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them on their way and greeted them. They approached, embraced his feet, and did him homage. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”
Here we see an important and powerful stage—one that too many Christians ignore. Note that in this moment they go from inference to experience. Inference is a form of knowledge based only on what others have said; experience includes personal witness. Experience means that I myself can personally vouch for the truth of what I proclaim. As we have seen, inference is a necessary stage of our faith (do not go inventing your own religion). But the Lord invites us deeper to more personally experience the truth of what the Church has always proclaimed and what her Scriptures have always announced.
From inference to experience – These women have heard from the angel that Jesus is risen and they receive the teaching with joy. But on the way, on the road of their lives, they come to personally meet the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Suddenly the truth of what they have been taught is made quite personal to them and they experience it as real; they have gone from inference to experience. And now they will tell not only what they have heard from others but also how they have personally experienced its truth.
We, too, are invited to do the same. I need to be able to say that in the laboratory of my own life I have come to personally experience as true all that the Church and her Scriptures proclaim. I am now a firsthand witness to Jesus for I have experienced Him personally in my life. I have met Him in my prayer and in my experience. He is alive and real to me and He is changing my life. I have done more than just hear about the Lord; I have met Him. I do not merely know about Him, I know Him.
Do you know the Lord, or do you just know about Him? Have you met Him or have you just heard about Him? On Easter Sunday morning we have observed a group of women go from the darkness of this world to the light of the normal Christian life. And what is the normal Christian life? It is to be in living, conscious contact with God and to know, personally, the Lord of all glory. It is to be in a living and transformative relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Painting above: The Resurrection by Annibale Carracci