April 24, 2011
Things become new, victories celebrated, living set in a heavenly light—God’s work of resurrection.
The mood of Easter is astonishment, ecstasy, and joy in excess!
The prophetic message for this Easter Sunday is reconciliation and peace for God’s long-suffering people. The “families of Israel” are about to be united in worship of the Lord at Zion.
The heart of the passage is found in a speech by Woman Zion, who reports to us what the Lord said to her in their intimate time (verses 3-6). The two preceding verses set the stage for this speech.
First God declares the coming of a new covenant. “At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people” (verse 1, NRSV). Read the emphasis here as on all the families of Israel—southern clans around Judah, where Zion is, and northern clans around Samaria and the hill country of Ephraim, as the later speech will illustrate.
In the second verse we have a translation problem. Without worrying over the details, let me just say that the New Jerusalem Bible has it right:
Yahweh says this:
They have found pardon in the desert,
those who have survived the sword.
Israel is marching to his rest.
The Hebrew text of the next verse can then be read without any change, and the speech that follows is spoken by Woman Zion:
Yahweh has appeared to me [not to him, NRSV] from afar [saying];
I have loved you [fem. sing.] with an everlasting love
and so I still maintain my faithful love for you.
I shall build you once more, yes, you will be rebuilt,
Virgin of Israel!
Once more in your best attire,
and with your tambourines,
you will go out dancing gaily.
Once more you will plant vineyards
on the mountains of Samaria
(those who plant will themselves enjoy the fruit).
Yes, a day will come when the watchmen shout
on the mountains of Ephraim,
“Up! Let us go up to Zion,
to Yahweh our God!” (verses 3-6, NJBV)
In the later history of Israel, this is like a proclamation of peace, an end to enmity and jealously between the northern and southern tribes. They can and will be united in their devotion to the Lord, who is the spouse of the renewed Zion. Then the produce from the whole land can sustain everyone, even those previously warring and alienated families now under God’s grace.
This is the prophecy of an Easter hope and joy.
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
The Psalm reading is an earlier portion of the psalm used at Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Let us try reading this selection as it might have spoken to early Christians about the revelatory experience of their Lord’s resurrection.
After the call to worship in the opening verses, the reading continues at the point at which the (royal) speaker has gotten through the worst of his desperate battle against the enemies (the battle against the nations is enacted in verses 10-13). It moves on to declare that victory is at hand: “[the Lord] has become my salvation” (verse 14, NRSV).
The impending victory is dwelt on in a ritualistic and dramatic manner.
There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;
the right hand of the Lord is exalted;
the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”
I shall not die, but I shall live,
and recount the deeds of the Lord.
The Lord has punished me severely,
But [the Lord] did not give me over to death.
The ancient Israelite liturgy about the divine king who fought the terrors and threats of the destructive powers explodes with new power and validity for the early Jesus followers. The word of victory for the ancient Davidic kings has become flesh for the Jesus followers who have been swept up by the resurrection of their Lord. That resurrection was the enactment in their world of the ancient triumph of God’s Anointed One on behalf of those who belong to God’s reign.
The victory of the resurrection makes possible a new entry into the realm of God’s righteousness. The Anointed One calls out, “Open to me the gates of righteousness, / that I may enter through them / and give thanks to the Lord” (verse 19).
Those who have been saved by the victory declare its awesome consequences.
The stone that the builders rejected
[the improbable Jesus whom people rejected and despised]
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made
[Easter making every Sunday “the Lord’s day”];
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Easter should not, perhaps, be only exaltation and celebrating. Perhaps some exhortation to live a higher life is also fitting. The Epistle reading suggests that.
The persons caught up in Jesus’ resurrection as the beginning of their own new lives are told: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (verses 2-3, NRSV). To be joined with the resurrected one is to have died to the self-centered ties to earth.
The great paradox of the Lord who died in order to bring new life is that one can now live fully in the world because one has died to the world! Being in the Lord will lead one to the kind of acts of love by which he fulfilled God’s will.
The Gospel reading on Easter is always the women coming to the empty tomb. In Matthew’s version, the women involved are those faithful persons who stood at a distance to watch the death on the cross (27:55-56). Some of them also followed the body to the tomb where it was sealed inside (27:61). The two women who have been most faithful, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary,” wait out the Sabbath before returning to the tomb. Therefore, they go back to the tomb two days after the crucifixion, which in Biblical idioms of time-reckoning is “on the third day.” (In counting Biblical days, today is always the “first” day.)
Matthew does not mention that they were worried about how they were going to roll back the stone. Mark’s version of the story reported that kind of concern (Mark 16:2). Matthew, on the other hand, visualizes for us a great miracle that Mark leaves discretely out of sight. “And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men” (verses 2-4, NRSV).
Only Matthew tells us about this. His listening community was prepared for holy earthquakes—they heard of one at the moment of Jesus’ death, when various tombs were opened and some of the ancestors made unexpected visits in the city (27:51-53). Matthew visualizes the angel in standard terms of heavenly beings, as seen at Jesus’ transfiguration (“his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white,” 17:2). In case one missed it while reading Mark, Matthew makes it emphatically clear: We have the work of God here. The heavenly forces are active.
The less spectacular but more socially acceptable function of this angel in all the empty-tomb versions is to tell the women what happened. “You are looking for Jesus who was crucified…he has been raised…Come, see the place where he lay” (verses 5-6). It is certainly one of the functions of the women that they must see the place where the dead Jesus was put. Remember, these are the same women who saw him put into the tomb and the stone rolled in front of it (27:59-61).
But the climax of the angel’s mission is to direct the women to the future. “Go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘… and indeed he is going ahead of you [disciples] to Galilee; there you will see him’” (verse 7). The women get the message, though with a mixture of “fear and great joy,” and they start out quickly to carry the word.
“Suddenly” the women’s excited flight is interrupted (verses 9-10). Jesus himself looms up before them and says, “Greetings!” (How did the Gospel reciter express this? What kind of intonation and volume might he have used for this one-word confrontation? There are several options.) The women aren’t reported to say anything. They only fall down before Jesus, take hold of his feet, and they “worshiped him,” which means they prostrated themselves before him (the meaning that “worship” always has in the Hebrew scriptures).
What Jesus now says adds nothing to what the angel had already told them. Do not fear; go tell the disciples to go to Galilee. The unqualified purpose of this little interruption scene is to show the women worshiping the risen Jesus. Unlike John’s version of this scene, the risen Jesus is not too fragile to be touched (see John 20:17). His feet can be grasped in the adoration of his closest followers, perhaps especially by these perceptive and very faithful women.
Both scenes of the women’s encounter with the heavenly glory are only beginnings. They receive instructions to help get some new things started. For a moment they have had the ecstasy of direct worship of their Lord, now in his glory, but then they are sent on their way. The Easter message is intended to do that.