Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Why do you seek the living among the dead?

Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.

On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.

- Luke 23:56b-24:11

This story has a particular sort of depth of charm to it for me. That's because once the women appear at this tomb, with its stone rolled away, we seem to have been placed into a world quite different from the one the women seemed to think they were in, as they walked to the tomb carrying their spices. This quiet scene of these women going to do what it is necessary to do for their friend, their master, the one whom they followed, walk into a place that is astonishing. Not only is the stone rolled away from the tomb, but they encounter two dazzling men who appear inside the tomb. These, of course, are angels. Their encounter inside the tomb is an encounter with a world, a kingdom, that has come into their midst in ways they could not have expected.

Although heretofore they have been with the master, with Jesus in his earthly life, this encounter is something never experienced in all of his ministry and their devoted following. Only Peter, James and John (Jesus' closest apostles) were privy to an encounter where there was a transfiguring, dazzling presence, and they were forbidden by Jesus to say anything about it. But here, now, these women on their way to do a necessary duty, alone in their service to the master, doing "women's work," encounter something unheard of. The two men in dazzling clothes appear and then even proceed to speak to them about the master, about Jesus. ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’

Apparently the men in dazzling clothes not only know all about Jesus, but they also know precisely the words Jesus has spoken to them back in Galilee. "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" is a kind of a paradox of a statement, or so it strikes me. The tomb is obviously the place of the dead, and He lives. On the other hand, the place of the dead could just be the world Jesus has left, while he is among the living in an eternal sense, in a place of eternal life, where there is no death.

But one thing is certain, we are now in a different realm ourselves. The whole tone of the gospel changes. The gospel of Luke has suddenly become a narrative into which has come a tremendous miracle, unveiled before these humble women, the first mentioned among them Mary Magdelene, out of whom - so Luke has told us earlier in the gospel in chapter 8 - was cast seven demons. In some sense this is poetically similar, or perhaps strangely a mirror of the story of the demoniac named Legion, who lived among the tombs but was turned into a missionary for the gospel by Jesus' healing and casting out of the demons. In this tomb, this place of death, another from whom many demons have been cast out is the one to whom the men in dazzling clothes have appeared and announced the good news. We are in a place where something wonderful has been signified, introduced to us and to the women, to Mary Magdalene and her companions, mothers, relatives and followers with the disciples. The kingdom is announced in a representation of that which has appeared to the humble, now, not just His inner circle.

The good news has been announced indeed! Something in the world has shifted and altered, the dazzling and wonderful has appeared. This is the beginning of something different, a charm to this story of the wonderful. So strange is this story to the apostles that they dismiss it an "idle tale." (One imagines the dismissive nature with which the women's story is greeted. It should be noted that Luke records their skepticism for us.) It is something unimaginable to the men and cannot be taken seriously. The good news has dawned to disbelief and incredulity, and has appeared in ways no one can expect, to those who are the most humble of His followers. Yet the kingdom is present and is announced, and we have suddenly been placed in a new world, a world of life not found in our world before, of something new introduced, something which is, indeed, dazzling!

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