Why the Stone Was Rolled Away

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. (Matthew 28:2-6)

Matthew’s gospel gives us perhaps the most dramatic version of the empty tomb story. There’s an earthquake. There’s an angel whose appearance was like lightning. The angel rolls the stone away. The guards become so terrified that they fall to the ground. There is, however, one obvious element missing from Matthew’s account.

In the mid-second century, the author of the apocryphal, so-called “Gospel of Peter” wanted to fill in the missing piece of the story.

But in the night in which the Lord’s day dawned, when the soldiers were safeguarding it two by two in every watch, there was a loud voice in heaven; and they saw that the heavens were opened and that two males who had much radiance had come down from there and come near the sepulcher. But that stone which had been thrust against the door, having rolled by itself, went a distance off the side; and the sepulcher opened, and both the young men entered. And so those soldiers, having seen, awakened the centurion and the elders (for they too were present, safeguarding). And while they were relating what they had seen, again they see three males who have come out from they sepulcher, with the two supporting the other one, and a cross following them.

In the so-called Gospel of Peter, the stone rolled itself away so that Jesus (and his cross!) could get out. In the Gospel of Matthew, the angel (or messenger) rolled the stone away so that the women could look in.

Matthew draws us a dramatic picture of the tomb on Easter morning, but he never tells us about Jesus emerging from the tomb. The stone is rolled away from an empty sepulcher. The grave could not hold the savior. Rather, the angel rolls the stone away from the entrance of the tomb so that the women could see evidence of the angel’s proclamation:

He is not here. For he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.

Chrysostom’s Invitation to Embrace Jesus

And they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring his disciples word. And behold, Jesus met them, saying, “All hail.” And they came and took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Matthew 28:8-9

Some among you may desire to be like these faithful women. You too may wish to take hold of the feet of Jesus. You can, even now. You can embrace not only his feet but also his hands and even his sacred head. You too can today receive these awesome mysteries with a pure conscience. You can embrace him not only in this life but also even more fully on that day when you shall see him coming with unspeakable glory, with a multitude of the angels. If you are so disposed, along with him, to be compassionate, you shall hear not only these words, “All hail!” but also those others: “Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you before the foundation of the world.”

Saint John Chrysostom, Homily on Matthew

The Eucharist and Greco-Roman Banquets

In Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective, Andrew B. McGowan describes the early church’s Eucharist as a Greco-Roman banquet.

A deipnon (or in Latin, a cena or convivium) was an evening meal with certain expected formalities and a tradition of proper conduct; as an institution, the ancient Greco-Roman banquet includes and defies modern categories of secular and sacred, familial and public, celebratory and solemn. Ancient banquets were relatively formal and purposeful events, held often but nonetheless distinguished from merely incidental eating. They could be large or small, ostentatious or austere, civic or familial. They were also an integral part of Greco-Roman (including Jewish) sacrifices, since the flesh of animal victims was often consumed straight after ritual slaughter in a festive atmosphere. Groups bound by kinship and by professional, social, religious, or ethnic ties celebrated such meals together to create and express their identity and their beliefs when need or opportunity for celebration arose. . . .

There were expected features of ancient formal dining, although much variety in detail. We hear of participants gathering in a dining room, or triclinium, often reclining on couches arranged around the room as three sides of a rectangle like an angular U. In some places, and especially in later antiquity, diners might form their party around a C- or crescent-shaped table, or stibadium; the earliest surviving depictions of Christian meal scenes, such as those in the Roman catacombs, present such curved assemblies, as do the oldest images depicting Jesus’ Last Supper. . . .

Preliminaries for the banquet could include washing of hands, offering of an opening prayer or hymn, and libations. The meal proper followed, with the variety and quality of foods depending on the means of the host or group and on the nature of the occasion. After eating, tables were removed and wine was brought and mixed with water, typically in a large bowl, or kratēr, and then shared by the diners in individual cups after further prayers or libations to the relevant deity. A number of such large bowls of mixed wine might be prepared over the evening—three was regarded as ideal. Entertainment and/or conversation was expected during this time, its form depending on the group. Such diversions ranged from the subdued conversations of philosophers to more raucous events involving flute girls and courtesans. . . .

McGowan envisions early Christian assemblies as taking the form of an evening banquet held in the homes of wealthy patrons or in other facilities suitable for such an occasion. Participants reclined at the table. After the introductory rites and blessings, a simple but filling meal of bread and wine (mixed with water) – and perhaps some vegetable side dishes –  would follow. McGowan believes that both the bread and the wine would have helped supply the caloric requirements of the poorest among the assembly. Meat was probably not commonly served for two reasons. First, meat was expensive; only the wealthy members of the assembly could afford it. Serving meat would have been socially divisive. Second, most of the meat in the market came from animals slaughtered in pagan temples. Meat was too closely associated with idol worship to be welcome in a Christian assembly.

Continue reading “The Eucharist and Greco-Roman Banquets”

The Ancient Sacramental Mystery for Post-Modern Humanity

Catholicity and Covenant provides a number of great quotations from Cyril of Jerusalem on the sacramental mystery. The article concludes with this summary:

Cyril gives a dramatic account of the sacramental life, an account which grasps the imagination, which unveils the mysteries as participation in the Mystery.  It’s a rich, vivid understanding of the sacramental life, in which Paschal Mystery, communion of the Holy Spirit, and participation in the divine nature are present realities, experienced now, in lives “on whom the end of the ages has come” (I Corinthians 10:11).  It is difficult not to conclude that this powerful sacramental drama lay close to the heart of what attracted Cyril’s catechumens to the Church’s faith – and that its meaningful, imaginative recovery, could have significance in renewing the Church’s mission amidst the flattened, disenchanted landscape of postmodernity in the West.

The Sanctifying Effect of Jesus’ Baptism

As we approach Baptism of the Lord Sunday, quite a few people have been accessing a prayer I composed a few years ago. In it, I address the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ …

who sanctified and blessed the water of baptism for all Christians through his own baptism by John,

This is not a new idea. In “Not to Be Cleansed, but to Cleanse,”Catholicity and Covenant quotes Thomas Aquinas, who in turn quotes Ambrose and Chrysostom.

It was fitting for Christ to be baptized. First, because, as Ambrose says on Luke 3:21: “Our Lord was baptized because He wished, not to be cleansed, but to cleanse the waters, that, being purified by the flesh of Christ that knew no sin, they might have the virtue of baptism”; and, as Chrysostom says (Hom. iv in Matth.), “that He might bequeath the sanctified waters to those who were to be baptized afterwards.”

Continuing to quote the Church Fathers, Thomas goes on to speak about Christ’s baptism as his taking on humanity’s sin and setting the example for others to follow.  I think modern Christians are perhaps more familiar with these last two ways of understanding the baptism of Jesus by John. I have come to see the power, however, in this third perspective that our Christian forebears brought to the story of our Lord’s own baptism, one which enriches our appreciation of Christ’s work in the church’s baptismal waters today.