Easter Sunday itself becomes more complex. The preferred Easter morning reading by long tradition—in both the Tridentine Mass and the Mass of Pope Paul VI—is John 20: 1-9, where Mary Magdalene discovers the empty tomb, followed by Peter and the unnamed disciple in this Gospel. However, the lectionary allows the proclamation of “the Cycle Resurrection narrative” as an alternative—in our case in 2017, St. Matthew’s reading from the night before.
But what happens if you go to Mass in the afternoon or evening of Easter Sunday? The Lectionary allows for another alternative, the reading from St. Luke 24: 13-35, which describes the afternoon/evening encounter of Jesus with two demoralized disciples on the road to Emmaus. (I would just add from a local perspective that the churches in my neighborhood have cancelled their Sunday evening Masses. As a pastor years ago, I can recall collapsing exhaustedly after the final morning Mass of Easter and maybe waking up for supper. I don’t recall ever using the Lukan alternative on Easter.)
Most likely you will hear either Matthew’s or John’s account depending on your circumstances. I will focus on Matthew’s text today. When doing presentations on the Resurrection narratives in general, my outline begins with six essential points: (1) The works and deeds of Jesus were passed down by believers in an oral format or formats. (2) The writing of this "Good News" (or Gospels) extended from about 65 A.D. through 100 A.D. (3) Each Gospel is an attempt to present the historical Jesus in what we might call a unique theological or catechetical perspective. (4) The Resurrection accounts of each evangelist can only be understood when joined to the preceding Passion Account. (5) No direct account of the Resurrection appears in revealed Scriptures. (6.) The Gospel Resurrection narratives take two forms: empty tomb accounts and appearance accounts.
It is clear then that a lot of years and considerable reflection passed from the first time a believer encountered the living Christ after his death and the composition of these four unique and exquisite narratives of the Resurrection. One of the most basic premises of Ecclesiology or the Theology of the Church is that our faith rests upon the eyewitness and faith of the Apostles, and not upon forensic or material evidence. An empty tomb, for example, does not prove Resurrection. In last Sunday’s Passion narrative, Jewish leaders went to Pilate to obtain a guard for the tomb on the grounds that the disciples might steal the body and “claim” resurrection. It is the content of faith experience of individuals we remember at Easter. As Easter Sunday’s first reading (Acts of the Apostles) explains, on the third day God raised up Jesus that he be seen “not by all, but only by such witnesses as had been chosen beforehand by God—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”
All four Resurrection narratives bring their respective Gospels to fulfillment, tying up all the hanging threads of their respective texts. It is not surprising then that Matthew’s Resurrection narrative begins on a most dramatically apocalyptic note, the appearance of a dazzling deliverance angel straight from the tales of the end times. (Recall that on Good Friday, according to Matthew, the earth quaked, the tombs opened, and the dead came to life at the moment of Jesus’ death.) For all of that, the angel has come to make an announcement to the startled women of something that had already happened. Having opened the tomb, the Angel invites the women to inspect it. He explains that Jesus has been raised and that the disciples will see him alive when they return to Galilee.
The women are commissioned to give this good news and instruction to the disciples, but when they have distanced themselves on the way to do their duty, the risen Jesus appears to them and greets them in a folksy way. R.T. France picks up the detail that perhaps many of you have already noted—all four Gospels agree that the first appearance of Jesus was to a woman (Mary Magdalene) or women. (p. 1097) Matthew’s description is warm and touching—literally so, as they approached his personal space and embraced his feet—and quite different from John’s narrative, where Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, “Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my father.” But John had other theological purposes to serve in his narrative.
This appearance to the women underscores the point that Jesus has forgiven the disciples for their abandonment, for in conversation he refers to them as “my brothers.” It is interesting, too, that Jesus’ request that the women notify the disciples suggests that the disciples were still in the environs of Jerusalem, and not home in Galilee just yet. In other words, the disciples had not geographically abandoned the cause just yet.
Matthew, for whom Jesus is the new and perfect Moses and fulfillment of the New Israel, still has business to settle with the old Jerusalem. He turns his attention away from the joyful exodus to Galilee to publicize the nefarious doings of Jesus’ enemies, the Jewish leaders. By now they have heard from the recovered guards that their worst fears are fulfilled (recall Good Friday’s “this last imposture would be worse than the first”) and they are forced into lies and bribery to suppress what they themselves admit is an empty tomb. Again, France steps forward: “So the last view we have of Jerusalem is of its leaders engaged in a sordid face-saving exercise…. Jerusalem, which has throughout the Gospel been a symbol of opposition to God’s purpose and judgment to come, can be left to wallow in its own discomfiture, while the reader turns with relief to Galilee, the place where once again light is dawning (4:14-16).” (p. 1104)
Put bluntly, out with the old, in with the new. We can only imagine how Matthew’s portrayal of the Christ must have comforted Jewish Christian converts exiled from the Temple brotherhood of prayer and tradition they had known all their lives, and probably facing pressures from all sides, religious and civil, as Matthew wrote around 80 A.D. The New Israel would be worldwide, originating at some distance from Jerusalem. Matthew’s entire Gospel concludes with a reunion of the risen Jesus with “his brothers,” the command to preach the Gospel to all the nations, and the assurance that “behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
As a personal observation, the Resurrection narratives—including Matthew’s—are best understood in the context of the entire Gospel they complete, which is why I advocate a full study of each Gospel from beginning to end. I am not a fan of cherry-picking or flitting about the New Testament on impulse or mood of the moment. I also recommend a good commentary; a work like Dr. France’s, for example, is worth the money and the time as a personal investment in one’s faith and ministry.