It had probably been another night of tossing and turning, sleeping in fits and starts, haunted by the memories of Jesus hanging on a cross.
Now lying dead was the man they had loved, followed, and had so hoped would be the Messiah.
Maybe it was grief that caused the women to risk that trip under the cover of darkness to the tomb, but as they made their secret journey, they would have spoken in hushed tones about better days with Jesus, or maybe they shared plans for what they’d do back home to Galilee if they could just safely slip, unnoticed out of Jerusalem.
For three years, they’d watched him heal the sick, feed thousands with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, reunite ostracized people like lepers, adulterers, and the demon possessed with their families and villagers.
Recently they’d even seen him speak life into a cold tomb to raise their friend Lazarus from the dead.
People had wept at his teachings, sinners had repented when he embraced them, even as the powerful plotted to get rid of him.
Whatever their state of mind on the way, everything changed when those women arrived at the tomb.
Matthew 28:2 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.
The guards collapsed as the angel spoke to the women, Do not be afraid. … He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.
I’m struck that the women did not exclaim, “Praise the Lord”.
Nor did they wink at each other, “Oh that Jesus: I just knew he’d do something like this.”
No. They became disoriented.
The scripture says they were filled with both joy and terror – which is an appropriate response.
They’d just seen Jesus tortured, killed, and buried, so they were certain that he was dead.
There is nothing as certain as death, so if he were really alive again then while they may feel happiness, they would also have to grasp that they had not understood how life really works.
Have you noticed that when angels appear in the scriptures, they always begin the same way, Do not be afraid?
Because if you are paying attention to what they announce, then you have every reason to be afraid.
If you’re paying attention, then you know that when an angel says, Do not be afraid, that God is about to turn your world upside down.
Oh, rest assured that it will be Good News, that God is about to bring great blessings to you, but be prepared that it won’t look anything like you’d expected.
If you’re paying attention, then you see that Easter is terrifying, because Easter isn’t really about decorated eggs, cute dresses … or even Hallelujah choruses.
Easter is an angel announcing that God is turning all your assumptions about life upside down, stripping you of your small, manageable plans, and inviting you into a much bigger – but maybe a much riskier – purpose.
Rest assured, we all believe in death: the death of our bodies, the death of our loved ones, the death of careers.
For most of us, the inevitability of death always lurks in the back of our minds, and so death defines how we live, because the way we believe the story ends affects the way we live the rest of it.
This is why we make “bucket lists”, why we say we want to retire while we still have time to enjoy life, why we may avoid risking the life we feel would really matter.
But if death is not the great enemy we thought, then all the rules that had defined and constrained our lives have changed.
Now life is no longer about playing it safe or about grabbing all the gusto before the party music stops.
Now life is going to have to have a holy purpose.
The angel’s announcement did not take away the women’s fears.
Rather, Easter enables us to keep faith amid our fears, to do what life asks of us under any circumstance, despite our fear.
Some preach that coming to faith should smooth all the rough places of life.
But it is more scriptural, and more matching our life experience, that the gospel enables us to flourish even when life is difficult, as it surely will be at times.
Father Frans van der Lugt was a Dutch Jesuit priest who in 1966 answered a call to a small parish in Homs, Syria.
He was a slender, exceptionally tall man who always wore his prescription glasses.
He had an astonishing memory, remembering all the names of his parishioners and details of problems they were going through.
Father Frans would often stop them to discretely ask if they managed to overcome an issue they shared with him.
Father Frans led hikes and camping trips, normally in groups of 300 people of all faiths to explore out-of-way villages and the beautiful Syrian countryside.
In the 1980s he established “Al-Ard,” a center that provided healthcare and education for children with disabilities from the Homs countryside.
The center also promoted interfaith dialogue, and everyone was welcomed there.
A devoted supporter donated the 56 acres of land full of grape vines, and almond and olive trees so that Al Ard could provide jobs for people living in the rural area by producing one of the best wines in Syria.
At the beginning of the Syrian uprising, the center hosted many of the displaced population.
Before long, food and medical supplies became scarce, so eventually parents had to risk snipers to scour the streets for food for their family and children.
As shelling became more intense most of his parishioners fled Homs.
Father Frans had the opportunity to leave the country and retire to Holland, but he said that he would remain to share pain and death with those with whom he shared so much joy through the years.
So, with bullets and artillery in the background, Father Frans would start up his old Volkswagen and cruise the neighborhoods of Homs looking for injured people.
Then one morning a masked man burst into the little church, grabbed Father Frans, and sat him in a chair where he shot him twice.
Why would this elderly man turn-down the opportunity to return to the safety of Holland to live-out the comfortable retirement he’d earned?
Because Father Frans was grounded in the Easter faith that promises that these sixty, eighty or ninety years we have on earth are not the end of the story … and really are not what we were created for in the first place.
I was touched as I read testimonies from people now scattered around the world whom Father Frans had ministered through the years.
Each one talked about lessons of compassion, resilience and tolerance they’d learned while in his presence.
So if you are really paying attention to the angel this Easter morning, and you consider the implications of the resurrection to your life, then like the two Marys, you also will be both joy-filled and a bit shaken.
After the angel’s announcement “He has been raised,” life has an urgency that isn’t about amassing all we can before the lights go out, but an urgency because life in fact goes beyond the human experience … and is defined, guided and judged by our Lord who gave us life and who conquered death.
Most of us will not be called to serve in war-torn Syrian like Father Frans.
But we are called to care for our hearts and relationships in everyday, small ways.
Here we show God’s compassion in real and tangible ways, and through this we mature into the people who can do whatever life may ask.
This being Easter, a lot of people harbor the question, “Did Jesus really rise from the tomb?”
Is this for real, or is it just religious myth?
I have no problem believing that the Son of God who healed the sick, defeated demons and built the worldwide church from a handful of doubting and confused disciples could overcome death.
But if you are fixated on asking if a CSI team could prove the Resurrection, then you’re asking the wrong question.
The real question of Easter is: What difference does the resurrection make in my life?
It makes no difference if Jesus was resurrected 2000 years ago if you haven’t received his new life into your old life.
The real question is: What difference does it make when you walk in your office or classroom in the morning?
The real question is: What difference does it make to your work as a mother, father or grandparent?
The real question is: What difference does the Resurrection make when you are afraid, lonely or discouraged, or when you are trying to figure out if your life matters?
That is why Matthew’s Easter narrative does not end with the angel’s announcement that Jesus has risen.
Jesus’ Resurrection is Good News, to be sure, but turn the page because there’s more:
Matthew 28:7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
Maybe you’ve wondered why Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to meet him in front of the Temple.
Think of it.
From there Jesus could have really put the priests and Pontius Pilate who condemned him in their place.
Instead, he makes his disciples walk for two or three days back to their familiar home countryside of Galilee.
It is from there he speaks,
Matthew 28:18-20 “God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.”
If you are wondering if the Savior has a purpose for you, or if you’re wondering if He wants to be involved in your life, then follow the words of the angel: “Go to back Galilee” – your home.
Go back to work, to parenting, to school, to the ordinary places where your life is lived.
That is where Jesus is waiting to be involved in your life.
Begin at home where you can put your old ways of anger, addiction, resentment and victimhood into the tomb where they belong.
Winston Churchill faced ridicule and rejection most of his life, but he turned-out to be the one man who could rally the courage and fortitude of the English people when their little island was close to toppling under the pounding of Nazi air power.
My mother was a teenager during the bombing of London,
where she spent her nights sleeping in a tiny bomb shelter.
One night her neighbor’s house was struck by a German bomb, killing everyone inside.
As much as anything, it was the strong, resilient radio messages from Churchill that gave her the strength to walk through smoldering rubble each morning to her job.
At the conclusion of his 1965 funeral, which Churchill planned himself, a single trumpeter stood at the west end of St. Paul’s Abby and sounded “Taps,” the song that signals dusk and the close of another day and is frequently played at the end of a military funeral.
But after a moment of stillness that followed the last plaintive note of that song, another trumpeter stood at the east end of St. Paul’s, the end that faced the rising sun, and played “Reveille,” the song of the morning and the call to a new day.
Churchill perceived, you see, that Christ’s resurrection signals above and beyond all else.