Imagine yourself walking beside Mary Magdalene and the other Mary early on Easter Sunday. They were going to the tomb (a burial cave cut out of the limestone surrounding Jerusalem) where they supposed that Jesus corpse was laid out on a niche or platform. They wanted to complete the preparations of his body according to the Jewish burial ritual of the time. The reason for the spices was to keep down the smell. They assumed that Jesus body would decompose over a years time; then they would gather his bones and place them in a stone box called an ossuary.
The two Marys were surely confused and discouraged that morning. Their teacher and friend Jesus of Nazareth, renowned for his wisdom and compassionate healing, had been executed as a criminal by crucifixion, one of the cruelest punishments known, one reserved for rebels and slaves. The two women had hoped that Jesus would win over their people by his wisdom and goodness. They had hoped that he would bring about the kingdom of God on earth, but now he was dead. These women had stayed at the site of his crucifixion. They saw him suffer; they saw him die; they saw where he was buried. Now all that remained for them was to go to the burial cave provided by Joseph of Arimathea and help give Jesus a proper burial. Their lives, once full of hope, had been thrown into chaos and confusion.
But to their astonishment, they found the tomb both opened and empty. None of the rational explanationsthat the women went to the wrong tomb, that Jesus had not really died and somehow had revived and walked away or that someone had stolen his bodymade sense of all the facts. An angel at the site told them, Do not be afraid. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. The amazing, spectacular and miraculous explanation was that God had raised Jesus from the dead. With the greeting Do not be afraid, the angel echoed the words of another angel to Joseph in his confusion over the conception of Jesus at the beginning of Matthews Gospel, as well as Jesus own reassurances to his confused disciples and the crowds during his public ministry.
Yet Matthews account does not end with the empty tomb. Rather he recounts that on their way to tell the other disciples about what they saw at the tomb, the women encountered the risen Jesus and did him homagea verb especially prominent in the story of the Magi in Matthew 2 and one that recurs in the account of the risen Jesus appearance to his male disciples in Galilee. The risen Jesus greets the two Marys with the words that the angel used, Do not be afraid. Matthews Gospel begins and ends with this hopeful and comforting message.
These words did not dispel entirely the womens confusion. The risen Jesus did not lay out a clear and secure path for their immediate future. The women did not know then how the story of Easter was going to turn out, as we do some 2,000 years later. Still, the words Do not be afraid gave them hope and comfort. The words inspired them to remain faithful to their beliefs and hopes about Jesus and his movement, to move forward in their own lives and to help spread the good news about Jesus life, death and resurrection. By fulfilling the risen Jesus commission to tell the male disciples to go to Galilee, Mary Magdalene has come to be known as the Apostle to the Apostles.
On this Easter day, the risen Jesus offers us the same message of hope and comfort, Do not be afraid. The problems in our personal lives, our church, our country and our world will not be solved overnight and disappear. Because of them, we may well remain confused and discouraged amid what may seem like chaos to us. But the promise of Easter is that in the end life triumphs over death, good conquers evil and hope overcomes despair. The message of the risen Jesus this Easter, as on the first Easter, is one of hope and comfort. As the risen Jesus said to the women on their way from the tomb, so he says to us: Do not be afraid.