First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Easter Sunday

William Loader

Easter Day: 21 April Luke 24:1-12 

Easter Sunday offers us the choice of running with John or with John. For grieving family and friends, it would have been painful not to be able to attend to the body of their beloved straight away. Accordingly, the women wait till the Sabbath is past (the faithful obey Torah! – 23:56) and the light of the new day is dawning – so that they can see what they would be doing - before coming to the tomb. Mark emphasises the size of the stone and the surprise that it had been rolled aside (16:3-4). Matthew attributes the act to an earthquake and angelic intervention (28:2). By contrast, Luke offers no explanation and makes no comment about the size. What remains would strike the hearer as at least mysterious – for a first time hearer – or dramatically promising for the knowing listener. The tomb has been opened. Luke’s main point is that there was no body in the tomb, which in itself could have meant many things – most commonly theft or interference of some kind. In Mark the women entered and saw a young man. In Luke they see nothing initially. The emptiness makes space in the story for their distress.

Recent proposals to identify a family tomb of Jesus have helped focus on the nature of burial. If not directly buried in a trench, as all but the rich were and as we do, a body would be laid in a niche cut in the side wall of a tomb cavern. After some time it would be removed, and the bones would be collected in an ossuary. All the gospels agree that Joseph of Arimathea solved the problem of dealing with Jesus (digging a trench and burying him) before the sabbath started at sunset by putting him in his family tomb. This already suggests that no family tomb of Jesus existed in Jerusalem. If anywhere it would have been in Galilee, had he come from a rich enough family. The ossuaries of the 1980 find confirm how common such names as Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, found on some of the boxes, were. Few scholars have found the proposals cogent. The gospel accounts, for their part, all assume the body has gone, but none really knows where, except to affirm that soon people will see an appearing and vanishing Jesus, and acclaim him alive. For more detail see the article by leading archaeologist of the period, Jodi Magness,

We return to Luke's story. Two dazzling figures appear. Luke reiterates the reference to the women’s distress (24:5). Into this distress come words of hope and comfort. Luke’s hearers would have recognised these as angels. As one day the righteous will shine like stars at the resurrection of the dead (Daniel 12), so anyone who belongs to the heavenly realms may be pictured as bright and dazzling. Angels were generally thought to be male; hence, ‘men’ here. Luke did not read of two figures in Mark’s story, but of a single shining young man. Matthew has something more dramatic: the angel (designated as such) sits atop the great stone which has been rolled aside. Both Matthew and Luke would have been aware of changing the details. That is significant. They would not have sensed contradiction, because such details belonged to the artistry of the story. What each account has in common is that God has acted here and that God is about to help people understand that action.

For the same reason we must not take the differences in Luke’s version of the divine message too seriously. The main message is: he is risen, he has been raised, God has raised him from the dead. Precise wording varies. The message in Mark includes that the women should tell Peter and the disciples that he is going before them to Galilee where they shall see him, as he had already indicated to them (16:7; 14:28). Matthew’s version is similar except that the cross-reference back to Jesus’ prediction is missed. Instead there is a cross reference back to Jesus’ prediction of his resurrection: ‘he is risen, as he said’ (28:6). Luke makes the cross reference explicit: ‘remember while he was still in Galilee he told you that the Son of Man was to be betrayed over into the hands of sinners and be crucified and rise on the third day.’ Again the wording is not precise, but corresponds in sense to what we find in 9:22. For Luke the main thing is that the crucifixion and the resurrection are not random events, but part of God’s plan.

Unlike both Mark and Matthew, Luke omits any further reference to Galilee. Their reference to Galilee was part of the instruction that the disciples go to Galilee where they would encounter the risen Jesus. Luke does not locate such encounters in Galilee but rather in the regions of Jerusalem and has the disciples, it appears, remain there. Possibly this is because, as many have suggested, he wants to set the whole story within the framework of a movement from Galilee to Jerusalem and then to Rome and the wider world. In this story Luke, unlike Mark and Matthew, has, in fact, no instruction given to the women to tell the disciples. They do that as a matter of course, as the first thing that comes into their heads (24:9-10). Perhaps Luke found Mark’s dramatically suggestive ending, that the women were too afraid to fulfil the instructions and so created an impossible void which only God could fill, too difficult. Matthew’s solution is to rework the story so that the women also encounter Jesus, himself, and receive the instructions for a second time.

The impression given by these variations is that stories are being woven around a central affirmation. Its truth legitimises the stories and the fact that they are just stories legitimises the variant details. This applies also to the response of doubt (in 24:11) and of Peter’s running to the tomb (24:12). It may not be possible to draw a line between what is story elaboration and what is central affirmation. The stories which we have suggest that story elaboration was common and to a much greater degree than in most other anecdotes about Jesus. It looks very much like John’s accounts know some of the elaborations we find in Luke (eg. the disciples’ doubt, Peter’s running to the tomb). Was the tomb story itself an elaboration? It may have been.

The central affirmation was that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Given the understanding among the disciples of what it meant to be human, such resurrection necessarily implied a new kind of embodied existence capable of appearing and disappearing, but into which the old corpse had been transformed without remainder. So there had to be an empty tomb. Did it then follow that the women would have to have been involved in attending to it or were there actual memories of an empty tomb? The women’s prominence at the cross stands in contrast to the men and having women as witnesses to the resurrection was part of a consistent subversiveness which belonged at the heart of Jesus’ approach. We are on more secure ground, it seems, with the report that Peter saw Jesus alive, because this comes to us in what look like independent reports: in a summary which Paul cites (1 Cor 15:3-5), in Luke 24:34 (The Lord has risen indeed and has appeared to Simon) and probably behind the wording of the instruction in Mark 16:7, which singles out Peter as one to be a recipient of this revelation. It would also help to make sense of Peter’s prominence.

Whatever triggered the belief and however diversely its message was elaborated, the first disciples were declaring that Jesus was not abandoned and disowned by God, but, on the contrary, raised to God’s presence and is alive with God. Much imagination went into how that might have been, and multiple confirmatory reports of experiences of varying worth will have enriched the palette for the artists of this new faith. It almost belongs to the fundamental importance of this affirmation that it becomes legendary in every sense. It is, in that sense, like faith in God: almost inexpressible without metaphor and symbol. Even the historical issues, which are not unproblematic, become secondary to the affirmation being made about Jesus and about God and the celebration of that central connection which is the message of Easter.

First Reading: Easter Day: 21 April Acts 10:34-43
Epistle: Easter Day: 21 April 1 Corinthians 15:19-26