Thoughts on Matthew’s Easter Story

The core message of the Easter story is the same every year . . . every Sunday . . . every day: while death is a human reality for us, we always live within the eternal and abundant life of God.

This word of life is at the heart of our faith, and it never gets old. Of course it doesn’t. Right?

Except that sometimes we can feel like we’ve said all there is to say—or at least all that is worth saying—about particular Bible stories that get repeated over and over and over again year after year after year. I’m not saying that the Resurrection gets old. But, I will say I am grateful there are four versions of the story to rotate through.

This year, we get to dive into Matthew’s version. Here are a few highlights of this particular Gospel’s account of the Resurrection:

The Women Come Empty-Handed

The opening line of the story may be my favorite distinctive in Matthew’s version; it says that the two Marys “went to see the tomb.”  In Mark and Luke’s version, the women bring spices. They go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body—to do the things that need doing.

But in Matthew, no spices are mentioned. The women come empty-handed; they come to see the tomb. The Greek implies a bit more than “see.” They go to look at the tomb. To watch it. To observe it. To hold vigil. None of this is productive or particularly helpful. And yet, their willingness to be present in the way they could manage to be present allowed them to be the first deliverers of the good news of the resurrection–the first human witnesses to Jesus’ new life.

That Angel!

The Gospel of John has two calm angels, sitting in the tomb. Luke and Mark talk about “men” who are suspiciously like angels in their white robe (Mark) and dazzling apparel (Luke), who, as in John, calmly speak to the women in the empty tomb.

Matthew’s angel causes an earthquake. (Fun fact, Matthew is the only Gospel with earthquakes!) He rolls away the huge stone and plops down on top of it. His presence is like lightening! He is so overwhelming in his angel-ness that the guards pass out. This seems to be a pretty over-the-top, sassy kind of angel. I imagine God up in heaven rolling the divine eyes thinking, “Why does the angel have to be such a diva about this?” I love the angel in Matthew.

Fear and Joy

Matthew 28:8 is possibly one of my favorite lines in scripture: “So [the women] left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to tell his disciples.”

While we can imagine there is fear involved in every version of this scene, Luke and John do not explicitly mention people being afraid. The author of Mark, of course, famously ends their account with: “[The women] said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” But only the Gospel of Matthew records both the angel and Jesus saying, “Do not be afraid.”

Things that we don’t fully understand are frightening—and resurrection ranks pretty high on the list of incomprehensible things. The assignment Jesus gives the women is frightening—to give testimony to a group of men about something unbelievable. And, of course, the political forces that killed Jesus are still very much in power and loom as a constant threat to all who speak of Jesus and seek to follow him. “Do not be afraid” are words the women surely needed to hear and words we desperately need to hear today.

Matthew’s Gospel is most honest about the fear. And it is the only Gospel that explicitly names the joy of the empty tomb. The women leave “with fear and great joy.” The joy is there even in the midst of the fear. The joy is there, and it is great.

May it be so for us this Easter as well.