Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 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. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then 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.” 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then 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)
The Gospel of Matthew (28:1-10) is proclaimed at the Vigil. This Gospel may also be proclaimed on Sunday of the Resurrection. Alternatively, John 20:1-9 or Luke 24:13-35, may be proclaimed on the Sunday.
Scholars generally believe that both Matthew and Luke are dependent on Mark. Though they share another source – “Q” – and each has his own third source. In Matthew 28:1-10, we can see the dependence on Mark 16:1-8. We can also see that Matthew has his own material to add: “Matthew’s account of the empty tomb of Jesus (28:1–15) is a reworked and expanded version. The first part (28:1–8) is a reworking in which Matthew seems most concerned to tidy up the Markan narrative. Matthew is careful to name the same two women as the principles of continuity regarding Jesus’ death, burial, and empty tomb (Matt 27:55, 61; 28:1) in contrast to the inconsistent lists in Mark (15:40, 47; 16:1). He does not say that the women went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body as Mark 16:1 does, since it had already been anointed by the unnamed woman (Matt 26:12; Mark 14:8). The mysterious ‘young man’ of Mark 16:5 is identified as an angel in Matt 28:2, 5. The Markan mystery of how the stone had been rolled away (16:3–4) is cleared up by attributing this act to the angel (Matt 28:2). The apocalyptic character of Jesus’ resurrection is underlined by references to the seismos (28:2, 4) and by the figure of the angelic interpreter (28:5–7). The strange silence attributed to the women by Mark 16:8 is turned into a joyful proclamation to the disciples in Matt 28:8. On the whole, Matthew shows more freedom in dealing with the empty tomb than with the passion narrative. His reworking of Mark 16:1–8 is a rather radical revision” (Daniel J Harrington, SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegville, MINN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 410-411).
The experience of the empty tomb – Matthew 28:8 – leads to both fear and joy and the proclamation of the risen Lord. In Mark, the women’s fear leads to silence.
Matthew mentions the appearance of the risen Jesus – 28:9-10 – whilst Mark omits this. “There is no nt account of Jesus’ resurrection; there are only stories of the empty tomb and appearances of the risen Jesus. Yet from the Christian perspective the resurrection of Jesus is the presupposition not only of these stories but of the entire New Testament: ‘If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain’ (1 Cor 15:14).
“Resurrection refers to a rising from death to life. It is not the same as resuscitation or reanimation. It assumes that the person has died and has been dead for a period of time, and when resurrected, will not die again. Among Jews of Jesus’ time resurrection was expected to occur at the end of human history as part of the coming of God’s kingdom. Then the just would be restored to full life—body and soul; and the wicked would either be restored for eternal punishment or annihilated. Resurrection was understood as eschatological and corporate. The kind of immortality related to resurrection is not a consequence of human nature (as in the Greek doctrine of the immortality of the soul) but rather a gift from God.
“Except in a few late texts (Dan 12:1–3; 2 Maccabees 7) it is difficult to find an ot basis for the Jewish belief in resurrection. There are, of course, texts that speak about the restoration of Israel (see Ezek 37:1–14; Hos 6:1–2; 13:14) and of individuals (Gen 5:21–24; 1 Kgs 17:17–24; 2 Kgs 2:1–13; 4:20–37; Isa 53:10; Ps 16:10). There are phrases in Isaiah that move toward a doctrine of resurrection: ‘He will swallow up death forever’ (25:8); ‘Thy dead shall live, their bodies shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!’ (26:19). The clearest affirmation of Jewish faith in resurrection comes in Dan 12:2: ‘And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.’ Even in nt times, however, not all Jews accepted resurrection as an article of faith. Whereas the Pharisees championed it, the Sadducees rejected it (see Acts 23:6–8; Matt 22:23; Mark 12:18; Luke 20:27).
“The early Christians followed the Pharisees regarding belief in the resurrection of the dead, with one notable difference. According to Christian faith Jesus has anticipated the eschatological resurrection that will accompany God’s kingdom in its fullness. Or to put it another way, the resurrection of Jesus is a sign that God’s kingdom has already broken into human history.
“When early Christians proclaimed that Jesus ‘has been raised,’ they generally used the passive voice as a way of indicating that it was the Father’s action in Christ: God raised up Jesus. For evidence they appealed first of all to the appearances of the risen Jesus to his disciples and other believers: ‘he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me’ (1 Cor 15:5–8). The Gospels (Matthew 28; Luke 24; John 20–21; Mark 16:9–20) provide still other appearances of the risen Jesus. These appearances all are experienced by those who already knew or believed in Jesus. Care is taken to insist that these experiences were not dreams, visions, hallucinations, etc. Jesus is not a ghost; he eats and drinks, though his risen body has certain superhuman properties (see John 20:19).
“The other type of account connected with the resurrection of Jesus is the empty tomb story. The angel’s announcement in Matt 28:6 expresses the nature of such accounts: ‘He is not here. For he has been raised.’ The emptiness of the tomb demands an explanation. Several explanations are possible: The women got the wrong tomb; the disciples stole the body; Jesus revived from only apparent death and wandered off on his own; or Jesus was raised from the dead.
“Matthew narrows down the explanation to two options: Either the disciples stole Jesus’ body (as his Jewish opponents maintained), or Jesus had been raised from the dead. In his narrative of Jesus on the cross Matthew gathered testimony that Jesus was really dead (see Matt 27:54, 57–66) and that Mary Magdalene and the ‘other Mary’ knew where he was buried (see Matt 27:55–56, 61; 28:1). Matthew notes that the rumor about the disciples having stolen Jesus’ body ‘has been spread among Jews until this day’ (28:15). The phrase suggests that this explanation remained current among the Jewish opponents of the Matthean community. The references to the guard set over Jesus’ tomb (Matt 27:62–66; 28:4, 11–15) are clearly designed to combat their explanation. According to those texts the chief priests had guards at Jesus’ tomb, the guards fainted at the earthquake and angelic appearance, and then the two groups concocted the story about the stealing of Jesus’ body. Thus Matthew tries to show how the story arose and why it should not be believed. The only remaining option is the angel’s explanation that Jesus had been raised.
“The polemical context indicated by Matt 28:15 helps to explain why Matthew felt the need to tidy up Mark’s account of the empty tomb. Using data already in Mark 16:1–8, Matthew revised the story to make it more consistent and more convincing. Whatever the origin of the curious doublet whereby the angel and the risen Jesus give the same message to the women (see Matt 28:7–10), the effect is to highlight Galilee as the place for the climactic appearance in 28:16–20. If Matthew and his opponents were located in Galilee, this emphasis on Galilee would add to the readers’ interest—just as mentions of one’s hometown usually increase interest in a book or motion picture today.
“The Matthean account of the empty tomb, with its strong note of controversy, provides an important lesson for readers today. The empty tomb is the necessary presupposition for Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection. By itself it does not prove Jesus’ resurrection, for the emptiness of the tomb can be explained in several ways. Christians must also appeal to the appearance stories and to the growth and development of the Church as additional supports for their belief.
“The controversy surrounding the empty tomb ought not to obscure the startling content of the early Christian proclamation about Jesus: ‘He has been raised’ (Matt 28:6). An event reserved for the end of human history has happened in the midst of human history. In the special case of Jesus God has shown his eschatological power by raising Jesus. To this extent at least the kingdom of God is among us” (Daniel J Harrington SJ, op cit, 411-413).
“He has been raised!”
In today’s Gospel – Matthew 28:1-10 – we have an account of the experience of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary when they went to see the tomb. Matthew makes it very clear that Jesus died, that he was buried and that the place where he was buried is now empty. He records the words of “the angel”: “he has been raised”. There is no account of the actual “rising”. There are accounts such as this by the two women and a number of “sightings”. St Paul – writing about fifteen years after the crucifixion – reports that “he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Corinthians 15:5–8).
None of the accounts of the resurrection says that the corpse of Jesus came back to life. Nor do they say that Jesus simply lives on in their memories. Rather, they are saying essentially two things. First, that something has happened to him and second, that he is now among them in a bodily way. For example: “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me’” (28:9-10).
It may be reasonable to reject these claims. It is not reasonable to reject the fact that the claims are being made. Given that making such claims would have put the disciples of Jesus in danger of arrest, perhaps imprisonment, torture and even execution, it does not seem likely that they would have made it all up. Further, the very coherence and consistency of the message suggests the very opposite.
If we take this message to heart and let it have its way with us, it will transform us. It will also place us in a challenging position vis-à-vis our secular society.
On ABC’s Q&A on Monday 4 November 2013, at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in the Sydney Opera House, journalist Peter Hitchens said: “The most dangerous idea in human history and philosophy remains the belief that Jesus Christ was the son of God and rose from the dead and that is the most dangerous idea you will ever encounter”. This brought audible derision from the large audience. Compere, Tony Jones asked, “Why dangerous?” Peter Hitchens replied: “Because it alters the whole of human behaviour and all our responsibilities. It turns the universe from a meaningless chaos into a designed place in which there is justice and there is hope and, therefore, we all have a duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope. It alters us all. If we reject it, it alters us all was well. It is incredibly dangerous. It’s why so many people turn against it”.