FROM FEAR TO FAITH
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And 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. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (Matthew 28:1-10, NRSV)
It was day 12 of our Italy adventure last summer, 3 teens, 4 adults, now in Rome. By this time, we’d made more than a few memories. One of us fainted on the plane ride to Venice. Another fell victim to a dog in a stroller rolling over her foot. One of us had taken to eating gelato for breakfast. Another discovered hidden drawers inside our apartment’s stairs. One of us surprised everyone with homemade bruschetta. Another hung laundry on a clothesline suspended over a courtyard 3 stories up. And most of our group agreed we had OD’d on museums, except for me. I’m a full-fledged museum junkie.
And so on day 12, we each did our own thing. Alina and Henry, the youngest, opted to stay home, spending quality time with their phones. Robbie and Collin headed straight for a Michelin rated restaurant. They live in the thriving metropolis of Lubbock, Texas, not exactly a hotbed of fine dining. Colleen and Julie strolled through Trastevere, stopping for the occasional drink, and I set off for the catacombs—the ancient underground burial chambers of the early Christians. I think we can all agree my idea of a good time affirms my career choice. I invited Colleen to go with me, but for some odd reason I couldn’t convince her that the catacombs were a romantic Italian outing.
Over 40 catacombs have been discovered near Rome, most in use between the 2nd and 5th centuries. I visited the Catacombs of Priscilla, named after the noblewoman who gave the land to the church. Our guide led us down a set of carved stone steps leading to a narrow and descending path into the catacombs proper. The guide held a flashlight, and there were dim lights along the way. The heat of July was left behind as cooler air rose from the depths of the hand carved caves. The public is only allowed to visit the first level, which is the oldest. Each subsequent level is slightly more recent as the catacomb carvers dug deeper and deeper into the soft volcanic rock to clear more levels for additional bodies.
The highlight of the Priscilla Catacombs is the ancient art painted on the walls and ceilings. One of the best preserved is the Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman. The catacomb website explains, “This room is named for the picture in the semi-circle on the back wall, in which a young woman, wearing a rich purple garment and a veil on her head, lifts up her arms in prayer. On either side of her are two scenes unlike any others among all of the paintings in the various catacombs, probably episodes of her life. In the middle, the Good Shepherd is painted in the Garden of Paradise, amid peacocks and doves. Before this scene, in the arch above the door, the prophet Jonah is shown emerging from the mouth of a sea serpent, a symbol of the Resurrection. [As an aside, the Jonah of popular culture gets swallowed by a whale, like Pinocchio. The Bible however never says a whale swallowed Jonah, instead it uses the words, a great fish. Continuing with the catacomb tour…] The semi-circle on the left wall depicts the Sacrifice of Isaac, while on the right are shown the Three [Israelites] in the fiery furnace in Babylon; both of these episodes are expressions of faith in God’s salvation, understood by the first Christians as prophecies of the salvation brought by the coming of Christ. These pictures, which are in a remarkably good state of preservation, date back to the second half of the third century.”
Walking quietly through the faint light and shadows of the underground burial chambers, I naturally thought of death and the hundreds of people once interred in these caves which stretch for 8 miles. But when I looked at the art I didn’t think of death in a morose way. Instead, I found the illustrations and symbols inspiring, especially Jonah and the great fish. As you’ll recall, that’s the story where Jonah spends 3 days in the belly of the fish before emerging alive. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus refers to Jonah as a sign of resurrection saying, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” As I stood surrounded by death, I found hope in the sign of Jonah, a symbol of Easter to the early Christians.
To truly experience the joy of Easter, we must be in touch with the shadows of death swirling around the cross. Simon Smart, Director of the Centre for Public Christianity, writes, “It’s not until we face the reality of [Good] ‘Friday’ that the full joy of Resurrection Sunday becomes apparent. That is real joy as opposed to the limited and superficial optimism to which our culture appears prone. Easter is the news that while evil is all too real, both around us and to some extent within us, there exists in the Christ story a defiant hope and a promise of ultimate justice, restoration and the renewal of all things. It’s the notion that God is not indifferent to human struggle and pain.”
The Gospel writers who composed and compiled Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wanted their readers to understand the pivotal and heartbreaking events of Holy Week that they might better appreciate the glorious miracle of Easter Sunday. After all, “Fully one-third of each of the four Gospels is dedicated to the final week of Jesus’ life.” Today we celebrate because God continued the Gospel story beyond Good Friday. Had there been no Resurrection, Jesus would have been just another martyred prophet. But as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all attest, the Jesus who was crucified, dead, and placed in a borrowed tomb, underwent a miraculous transformation through the power of God. Quite simply and yet quite beyond our comprehension, Jesus, who was dead on Good Friday, was on Sunday alive, in every sense of the word.
When we talk about the Easter miracle, the Resurrection of Jesus, the best we can do is repeat the stories from the Bible and soak-in all the miraculous hope they contain. Attempting to explain the mechanics is beyond us. We’re better off making peace with that which we cannot know in order to experience the joy of the One who created the mystery in the first place.
This is not to say that acceptance of this miracle is a slam dunk. Some of us doubt all of the time, and all of us doubt (or at least question) some of the time. The Bible itself doesn’t shy away from this, though you’d think it would in order to persuade. The Bible gives unvarnished accounts of Jesus’ disciples doubting then betraying him. They didn’t believe the women who first saw the resurrected Christ. And Thomas tells the risen Christ himself that while the story sounds good, he needed to touch Christ’s hands just to make sure.
Frederick Buechner calls doubts, “the ants in the pants of faith,” meaning they keep us moving and thinking. Nothing wrong with that. Whether we are here with faith or cynicism, we are here, and we are all of us children of God. A God I think we can all agree is mysterious, not fully known to anyone.
How does the Easter mystery begin? More specifically, what happened to Jesus’ body following his death? All four Gospels tell us that Joseph of Arimathea asked the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate, for Christ’s body, in order to give it a proper burial. Joseph was the right person to talk to Pilate. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council, which gave him some clout. Pilate agrees, so Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (according to John) place Jesus in Joseph’s tomb. Women, who were disciples of Jesus, watched as Christ’s body was placed inside the tomb. There was no time to prepare Christ’s body for burial before the start of the Jewish Sabbath at sundown on Friday, which is why the women returned on Sunday morning. They were the first to arrive at Christ’s tomb on Easter morning with spices to anoint his body.
The 4 gospels differ a bit in their accounts. Carol Miller notes, “Matthew…[records] an earthquake and the descent of an angel who rolls the stone away in the presence of witnesses. The guards, which only Matthew…mentioned (23:62-66), apparently faint. In Mark and Luke the stone has already been removed. In each case the women are met by a messenger from God. Mark identifies him as ‘a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe.’ Luke says there were ‘two men in dazzling clothes.’ Only Matthew identifies the man as an ‘angel of the Lord.’ He too mentions the white clothing, and says the angel’s appearance was ‘like lightning and his clothing white as snow.’ In Luke the two men will later be identified as ‘a vision of angels’ (24:23). In John, the angels appear a bit later (20:12). John also says there were two ‘sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.’ They too are dressed in white.”
Carol Miller continues, “The message that the angels have come to deliver is recorded in each Gospel. The message in Matthew and Mark is virtually identical, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you’ (Mark 16:6b-7). In Luke the women are almost chastised for seeking ‘the living among the dead.’ They are then reminded that Jesus told them (the women) in Galilee that the crucifixion and resurrection must happen. The women must have been among the disciples that Jesus instructed beforehand about his coming passion. In John’s Gospel, the angel never gets to deliver the message! He merely asks Mary what she is looking for. Mary turns and sees Jesus and has no more use for angels.”
What do we do with four Gospels that can’t seem to agree on the details of the most important event in the Christian faith? Which Gospel is right? In my view, they all are. The Gospel writers did not intend to write history as we know it today. Rather, their goal was to pass on the stories that had been passed on to them. Keep in mind that none of the four Gospel writers were eyewitnesses. Instead they compile stories, writing them in a narrative form to best tell the story of Jesus from their individual perspectives.
Carol Miller concludes that the most important point is this: “What all the Gospels, Paul, and Acts do agree on is that Jesus was raised from the dead—the self-same Jesus who was crucified and buried. He showed himself to his followers to be alive in a new way. Only in Mark are there no Resurrection appearances…though…there is the angel’s message, ‘He has been raised; he is not here.”
This is the Easter message. This is the hope we hold. Through the Resurrection of Christ, God gives hope in the face of despair. What seems like the end of the world, or at least the end of Jesus, turns out to be the beginning of something new, something far better. God continues the story, a story which reminds us that ultimately good conquers evil, love conquers hate, courage conquers fear, and life conquers death. The God who gave Jesus new life, promises new life to us as well. Thanks be to God, for hope, for joy, and for life on this beautiful Easter Sunday.
Christ the Lord is risen!
He is risen indeed!
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
Edited by Colleen Brown Only
April 16, 2017
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Eternal God, who turns the shadows of Good Friday’s death to the bright radiance of Easter Sunday’s resurrection, we give you praise. Your Easter miracle offers us life in the face of death, hope in the face of despair, and joy in the face of sadness. May your Spirit open our eyes to the deep truth of your wondrous work in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Offer new life we pray, to those places on earth where death and violence predominate. Offer new life we pray, to those places in our lives that seem dead and hopeless. Offer new life we pray, to your church that we might fulfill your mission for us.
And now, O God, send us forth this day with the miracle of Easter, the hope of new life, deep down in our souls. Through Jesus Christ our risen Lord we pray. AMEN.
 Carol Miller, Hosanna: A Spiritual Journey Through Holy Week, Leader’s Guide CD
 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking
 Carol Miller, Hosanna: A Spiritual Journey Through Holy Week, p. 42
 Ibid. p. 43
 Ibid. p. 45