From Death's Door to the Path of Life

Dic nobis Maria, quid vidisti in via; sepulchrum Christi viventis et gloriam vidi resurgentis. Yes, tell us again, Mary: what did you see on your journey? I saw the tomb of one who still lives and the glory of the risen one.

The core of Easter faith resounds through these words from the poetic Easter sequence. Mary Magdalene, whose love brought her to the cross and who watched as Jesus was wrapped for burial, was last seen in the Gospel sitting at the tomb. After the Sabbath, she and the other Mary came again to the tomb, the abode of the dead, and were the first to see it emptied of its power and to experience the presence of the risen one.


Each Easter morning Gospel has its own distinctive beauty. The women arrive at dawn, symbolically the dawning of a new day in human history, and Matthew alone recounts an earthquake, which is often used as a symbol of the punishment of God’s enemies that occurs as a prelude to the resurrection of the dead (see Mt. 27:4; Rev. 11:13-19). Only Matthew records that the angelwho in Jewish tradition guides the just to heavenrolls the stone away and sits on it, another visual symbol of the victory over death.

The most distinctive elements of Matthew’s version then emerge. Out of fear the guards become lifeless, the first of four indications of fear in the narrative. The angel then tells the women, Do not fear and announces that Jesus has been raised from the dead. They are then commissioned as the first heralds of the resurrection, and unlike Mark’s story, in which they say nothing, they leave quickly with fear and joy, only to be met by Jesus. Falling down in worship and grasping his feeta clear indication that the risen Jesus is not simply a spiritthey hear from Jesus the same words uttered by the angel, Do not fear. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.

We live today in a culture of fear, nurtured by media that conduct an up-to-the-minute feeding frenzy on every horror in our world. As I write these lines, death seems far more victorious than life: another day of slaughter in Israel, with more children sacrificed on the altar of violence and hatred; gruesome details about the brutal murder of a child in San Diego; headlines about a mother in Illinois who stabbed her sons; multiple killings of Hindus on an Indian train, with reprisalsall in a single day. Will our night of sitting at death’s door be followed by the dawn of life’s new day?

Today’s Gospel speaks of two kinds of fear. The fear of the guards makes them resemble the corpse they were supposed to watch over, and they too deliver a messageto the chief priests. But they do not end up in faith and joy; instead they perpetuate a false report. There is a fear that can paralyze people and blind them to the light of truth. The fear of the women at the words of the angel takes us back to the very beginning of the Gospel, where an angel says to Joseph, Do not fear and commands him to take Mary as his wife. From her womb will come forth Jesus, who will save his people, just as the crucified one has come forth from the tomb. The fear of the women is then transformed to fear with joy, that sense that God has touched their lives in a unique and mysterious way. As they grasp the risen Jesus, they hear again the words, Do not fear. Only joy remains.

The Easter proclamation is not simply a happy ending to a tragic story. It captures the unending rhythm of confrontation with suffering and death transformed by life. The women were seeking not Jesus the teacher, but the crucified one, and find that death could not contain him. These women, faithful followers and heralds of the resurrection, have many brothers and sisters today who nurture a culture of love and joy in the face of death. Fundamentally such people believe that death is not the meaningless end of life, but the door to the fullness of life with the risen Christ, who in his transformed humanity remains one of us, wounded and transformed. They are those Christians whose fear does not lead to a distortion of the truth but to joyful proclamation, and who enact a Gospel of joy and life in their daily lives. The women ran from the door of death to proclaim the word of life. Shall we follow?

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