“With fear and great joy.”
That sounds like an odd combination of emotions to me, but, according to Matthew, that’s how the women leave Jesus’ empty tomb on the morning of that first Easter. He’s the only one of the four Gospel writers who records the women’s emotional state in this way, slipping it in there with all the drama and theater of the resurrection as if we wouldn’t notice. But we notice, and we think it sounds a little strange: “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.” It sounds like such a contradiction, an oxymoron. Who feels fear and great joy at the same time? It seems like one would trump the other.
The fear, at least in part, is easy to understand, especially given all that’s going on in the background. First, there’s the earthquake—not all that strange given the part of the world this happens in, and according to Matthew, there had been one on the previous Friday on the afternoon of Jesus’ death. Maybe this is an aftershock, but frightening nonetheless. Then there is this angel—shining as if he were made of lightning—seen in the very act of rolling the giant stone away. We also learn right off the bat that the very people paid to be threatening, the very people hired to strike fear in the heart of anyone who would tamper with this crucified man’s tomb, were already so terrified they had apparently fainted. It must have been quite a fearsome scene, and when you add to it the general panic that occurs any time there is a missing body and that it was still dark because the sun wasn’t up—yeah, it’s not hard to imagine that even after they hear the perplexing news that the crucified man was actually risen that the women would still be a little afraid.
But then how does the joy fit in? And we’re not talking about just a small little seed of joy that may grow into something great, but full-blown great joy. By point of reference, there is only one other time in all of Matthew’s gospel when someone experiences “great joy.” It’s what the wise men experience when the star they are following finally stops over the place where they find Jesus. They’ve been traveling from the east for who knows how long and they are so excited that that they are finally going to get to see him. That’s what Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are feeling. Do they know they’re going to be seeing Jesus after their search, too?
|The Two Marys watch the Tomb of Jesus|
(James J. Tissot, 1884)
How then can these two feelings go together? As I pondered this question this week, I invited the homebound members I was visiting to reflect on that with me. Well, as it turns out, fear and great joy go together far more often than I had originally considered. More than one person I asked said that surgery often brought the same mix of emotions: fear about the procedure itself and the anesthesia and whether the recovery would be difficult—but great joy that a cataract could be removed or a broken hip could be fixed.
Together we also reflected on the feelings surrounding the birth of a child. Come to think of it…for sure, I was filled with great joy at the birth of my first child. I was overjoyed that the delivery had gone well, that both baby and mother were healthy, but when it dawned on me that they were actually at some point going to send us home with something I hadn’t the foggiest idea I could keep alive, I looked at the discharge nurse and thought to myself, “We really have to leave here with this thing, don’t we?” That was fear, my friends. Great joy mixed with lots of fear.
What about you? When was the last time you felt fear and great joy simultaneously, as illogical as it sounds? What about this morning? Do we still respond that way today as we greet this news of Easter? Upon closer inspection, there’s something very honest about these women’s reactions that gives great insight to the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. Maybe a complete experience with this good news is a little akin to walking out of a hospital with a newborn baby, or undergoing a surgical procedure that gives you a new lease on life.
The great joy is probably the part we know we’re strong on. After all, we don’t have scary earthquakes or guards marching around this morning in intimidating fashion. Unless you’re afraid of people marching around with hand bells, you’re probably OK this morning. The hymns, the lilies, and the Scripture readings are all imbued with joy that the one who was crucified is now risen. God has conquered death. God’s new creation of life without sin has begun and, like that giant stone, will never be rolled back. Our joy is palpable—our long journey from the east is over—but what about the fear, especially if there are no earthquakes or strange, glowing angels to frighten us?
In short, it’s because we don’t have the foggiest idea how we’ll keep this alive, do we? At some point Easter moves away from the shock and excitement of the empty tomb to the reality of entering into the world, of carrying this new creation into a world that still thinks it can kill it. At some point—maybe even as quickly as Mary and Mary leave the scene of the resurrection—we realize the good news of God’s victory over sin and death compels us to live in the world quite differently than before. At some point our faith makes us move forward, seeing the possibilities of forgiveness, cherishing the power of love, and seizing the hope of a God who is alive in all circumstances, even the most desperate.
One pastor this week on his blog suggests that the fear surrounding our faith has less to do these days with our ability or inability to put love and hope into action than it does with how we feel we might be perceived by others. While we may feel joy and excitement about the hymns and music this morning, we are also afraid, he says, that believing in the things of Easter in today’s world will cost us too much and make us seem, “laughable, simple-minded, shallow, foolish, absurdly unmodern.” Dressing up and coming to worship to hear the hand bells, the forgiveness of sins and the triumph over death is one thing, declaring to the world that God has saved its life and that recovery is going to be OK is another thing altogether.
That is frightening. It is frightening even as it is exhilarating, because there is no guarantee that others will immediately recognize our new life since it is, as the writer to the Colossians says, hidden with Christ in God.
Thankfully, though, Jesus is risen, which means he is still alive and active on the road of re-entry and will greet us there, encouraging us on our way. Just as soon as the women leave the tomb, they bump into Jesus himself, even before they’ve returned to Galilee. That is, they are comforted by Jesus’ presence as they depart even before they are told they can expect it. Do you harbor some fear about what the news of this day means, fear about how you might tell others and how you’ll be received? Then remember that the risen Christ himself is apt to surprise you, maybe even before you’ve left the parking on the way out, and certainly before you have the chance to speak about it to anyone.
Just a few weeks ago we received a solicitation phone call in the church office. We receive a half-dozen or so each week. This one was offering us some kind of help—it wasn’t really clear—in getting our new business moving. “New business moving.” I know that’s what they said. Best I could figure they had received some kind of notification through internet data that there’d been a recent change here at our congregation and I guess they mistakenly recognized me as the leader of some new venture. While the move between offices definitely took a little longer than we had hoped—embarrassingly so—I never thought someone would actually call me about it. So I assured them, nope…no new business here, no new move anyone needs to worry about.
Think again, pastor. Think again. The scary and joyful news of Easter suggests otherwise. This gathering—this pronouncement—is always a new movement, a venture that the all of creation is waiting on, a surprising move that saves us all. Jesus will surprise us on the road. As Mary and the other Mary show us, discharge nurses of the resurrection…Yes, we really do have to leave here with this thing, don’t we!
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.