In the half-light of dawn, in a graveyard, it might have been tempting to believe that their eyes were playing tricks. But the body the women had come to anoint was indeed gone, and the proclamation rang out through the eeriness and emptiness of the place: “He has risen.”
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary fled from the tomb “with fear and great joy,” according to Matthew’s account. It was a case of mixed emotions entirely appropriate to the occasion. The women were bursting to tell the news, and yet they were afraid of what had been revealed first to them.
Before they ever reached the others, they encountered their risen Lord. He greeted them and then offered them the words of reassurance they most needed to hear: “Do not be afraid.”
The words are common in the biblical narrative. At the time of Jesus’ birth, another time of uncommon joy and fear, Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and the shepherds in the fields all received the words as reassurance. “Do not be afraid” was part of Jesus’ invitation to Peter to be a follower, and the same words rang out over a storm when the disciples became fearful and an overly brave Peter stepped out to walk on water.
Jesus regularly reminded his followers not to fear their enemies or the uncertainties that lay ahead. He invited three trembling disciples at his Transfiguration to discard their fear, and said to the ruler Jairus at his daughter’s healing, “Do not fear, only believe.”
After Jesus’ crucifixion, fear ran rampant among his followers. Joseph of Arimathea, owner of the tomb, asked Pilate for Jesus’ body “secretly, for fear of the Jews.” Nicodemus came with spices to help prepare the body for burial, but only under the safe cover of night. And the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples, who had abandoned, and in Peter’s case even denied, their Lord, remained hidden behind closed doors.
Even the authorities who had put him to death were fearful. Great care was taken to securely seal the tomb. And when the news reached the chief priests that Jesus had risen, they devised a cover-up, offering money to the tomb guards to spread the story that Jesus’ disciples had come and stolen the body.
Against this fear and fraud was the simple faithfulness of the women, who had stood at the cross, watched as the stone was rolled over the tomb, and come at dawn to anoint the body. Their reward was the gift of being witnesses to the Resurrection.
“Do not be afraid” were Jesus’ first words to them. The message attended his birth, his ministry, his death and Resurrection. And it comes to us today with the same gentle and compelling clarity with which it was offered on that first Easter morning.
There is much around us that is awesome and awful. We know too well the divisions and suffering that plague our world. We have seen that the authorities today use tactics similar to those employed 2,000 years ago, and many people scheme to play to our fear, destroy our hope, and seal off our joy.
But we have the confidence of our faith. We have seen the risen Lord!
Mary and Mary Magdalene loved with such a perfect love that they shed their fear. Empowered by their faith and their encounter with the risen Christ, they ran on to proclaim what they had seen and what they knew to be true. As Jesus had reminded Jairus, they knew that they could not both believe and fear. They were among the first to know the truth that John later put into words: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
They challenge us to love and believe. To love Jesus with a perfect love and to believe in the power of his Resurrection. Certainly they grieved and experienced their hope flagging during the dark moments surrounding Jesus’ death. But they never lost their faith. It remained a small, steady flame that was fanned to brilliant, bold new life in the light of that Easter dawn.
The women invite you and me to such faith. Their testimony stands through the ages. It is a reminder to “rekindle the gift of God that is within you…for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love” (2 Tim. 1:6–7). With courage and joy, let us claim that same spirit that dwelt within our sisters, the first witnesses of the Resurrection.
Reprinted with permission from Sojourners, (800) 714-7474, www.sojo.net.