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.

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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

Of Palm Branches and Crosses

On Palm Sunday (2017), Christians in the Egyptian cities of Tanta and Alexandria joined their brothers and sisters across the globe to raise palm branches in honor of Jesus the King.  And just as it did two thousand years ago, the proclamation of Jesus’ reign produced a violent reaction. Bombers killed dozens and injured scores more. In a way, the story of holy week replayed itself in gruesome detail. The praise of the faithful precipitated a murderous rage among those who would not or could not accept Jesus as their king.

Never believe that worshiping Jesus is always a safe, harmless way to spend a morning. There was a direct connection between the palms of praise and the cross of crucifixion. This was true for Jesus, and it is true for us as well.

Proclaiming Jesus as king can lead to death for his loyal subjects, just as it did for king Jesus himself two thousand years ago. And if that seems like a remote possibility in your corner of the world, remember that many of your brothers and sisters in Christ are reliving the terrors of Christ’s passion in their daily lives.

The suffering church, the martyr church, is not “them”; it is “us”. The whole church is wounded when any part of the church is attacked. There is only one church of Jesus Christ, to which all Christians belong. Every Christian should feel the sting of the shrapnel that tore the flesh of our brothers and sisters in Egypt.

Jesus the Blasphemer

But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” “You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” “He is worthy of death,” they answered. (Mat 26:63-66)

[Jesus said,] “I and the Father are one.” Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” “We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” (John 10:30-33)

This week a mob in Pakistan attacked three college students accused of blasphemy, killing one and injuring two. According to Al Jazeera, vigilantes have killed 69 accused blasphemers since 1990, while the government has killed 52. Last year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (PDF) reported that there were 40 Pakistanis on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy. Some of them, like Asia Bibi are Christians. Most are not.

Until recently, modern Americans could close their eyes to the violent passions that religious speech and identity can trigger. Progressive Christians tend to see the violent opposition to Jesus in economic, social or political terms. The empire did it. Indeed, it did. That, however, is not the primary lens through which the Gospel authors viewed the crucifixion. In the eyes of many of his coreligionists, Jesus was a blasphemer. He claimed to be one with the Father, at whose right hand he would soon be sitting. Jesus’ opponents considered this to be blasphemy, and for that he deserved to die.

Seven Words from the Cross

The  church of my childhood always conducted a worship service built around Jesus’ seven last words from the cross. I still think that’s a good way to go.

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
Luke 23:34

Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.
Luke 23:43

Woman, behold your son …  Behold your mother.
John 19:26–27

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34

I thirst. 
John 19:28

It is finished.
John 19:30

Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.
Luke 23:46