St Luke’s account of the Resurrection begins where the Passion left off, with the women at the Tomb of Jesus. (Luke 23:55-56) They come back bringing spices to anoint the body of Jesus, a task held over because of the intervening Sabbath. They find the stone rolled away. They go in but do not find his body. They are perplexed. (Luke 24:2-4) A short time later, they go back and tell the disciples. ‘Peter,’ we are told, ‘went running to the tomb’ (Luke 24:12) where ‘he found everything exactly as the women had reported.’ (Luke 24:24) As one translation puts it: ‘He stooped to look in and saw a few grave clothes, that's all. He walked away puzzled, shaking his head.’ (Luke 24:12. The Message) Empty Tombs do not prove Resurrection; they only pose questions, to which other more plausible answers can be proffered — like that at the end of Matthew’s Gospel when the chief priests and the Pharisees go to the Governor with a request to secure Jesus’ Tomb: “Lord,” they said, “we have remembered that that imposter, when he was still living, said, ‘After three days I am raised’.” Therefore, command that the tomb be secured until the third day, so that his disciples might not come steal him and say to the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead.” (Matthew 27:63-64) Something more than an Empty Tomb is required for faith.
The something more is given us in this morning’s Gospel: ‘They stood there, stunned and perplexed. Suddenly two men in dazzling white robes shining like lightning appeared above them. Terrified, the women fell to the ground on their faces. The men in white said to them, “Why would you look for the living One in a tomb? He is not here, for he has risen! Remember what he said to you while he was still in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man is destined to be handed over to sinful men to be nailed to a cross, and on the third day he will rise again’.” (Luke 24:5-7) On our journey to faith and in faith, most of us do not have encounters with ‘men in dazzling white robes.’ And yet we believe. The crucial element here is not the angels, but the ‘remembering’ — the story of their experience at the Tomb ends with: ‘They remembered his words.’ (Luke 24:8)
These women came to believe him Risen. They then go to share their experience with his disciples. This make these women the first witnesses to the Resurrection — and since 2016 we have honoured Mary Magdalene, one of those at the Tomb, with the title: Apostle of the Apostles. Their faith, however, is not enough to convince: ‘This story of theirs seemed pure nonsense, and they did not believe them,’ we are told. (Luke 24:11) When we testify to our belief in a Risen Lord, we must expect to be received no differently.
The problem for his disciples is the shameful death that was Jesus’ end: “He was a mighty prophet of God who performed miracles and wonders. His words were powerful and he had great favour with God and the people. But three days ago the high priest and the rulers of the people sentenced him to death and had him crucified. We all hoped that he was the one who would redeem and rescue Israel,” they said as they stood there with downcast faces. (Luke 24:19-21) The events that overtook Jesus completely destroyed their hopes in him. They expected him to be the great leader who would liberate their people from their subjection; their expectation had no room for a Messiah who would suffer and die, let alone his being condemned to a shameful death on a cross by their religious leaders. Many today are disillusioned in their faith through the scandals and divisions that plague our Church … and at the hands of our religious leaders. We need to look again at these early stories of coming to faith in Jesus, to see what they did and how they handled their challenges.
Rather than just simply walking away, in our attempts to make sense of what has happened, we need to be unafraid to come together to share our disillusionment — as the disciples on the Road to Emmaus were doing in the next story in Luke’s Gospel: “What are these words that you throw back and forth at one another as you walk along?” asks the ‘stranger’ who joins them. The unrecognised stranger who walks with them, is the Christ in their midst. (Luke 24:15. C.f.: Matthew 18:20) He gets them to look more realistically at their expectation of the Christ by walking them through the Scriptures, by getting them to ‘remember’ what it says about the Messiah, that they might come to see that Jesus’ suffering and death does not destroy his Messianic credentials, but is in fact in line with God’s wider plan. We, too, have our expectations about who God is, and the events that overtake us do challenge these expectations: the pandemic, wars, global warming, bushfires and floods, abuse and violence in all its forms, a child born with deformities, a sudden death of one we love … today’s world has no shortage of challenges to faith: How can a God who is all-loving / all-powerful / all whatever let these things happen … and to me? (C.f.: Genesis 6:6-7) In the midst of all the chaos and catastrophe that befalls us, we are tempted to say: “Where is God?”
Instead, in the mess we find ourselves in, we need to bring our problems and difficulties with us in our prayer and let God’s Word gently wash over these wounds that life in this world leaves with us. The women who went to the Tomb, hearts filled with great sadness at the terrible end of the one whom they so greatly loved, they ‘remembered’ how he had said that he would ‘be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ (Luke 24:7) This helped them to understand not only what had happened to him, but more importantly, they came to ‘know’ where he is now. (C.f.: 2 Kings 2:16-18) These women then go to share the joy of their newfound knowing with those others of his followers whom they know who are likewise struggling. We need to look squarely at our difficulties and challenges, without shying away and unpleasant as they may be, in the light of God’s Word to us, a Word that is meant to be a light in darkness and a Word of life. And we need to be willing to let others help us to see the light they have found there; alone it can be all too much. (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict 27:2-3) Eventually, and it may take some time, we will come to see … and we will look back on our struggles as did the two with the stranger on the road to Emmaus as they re-engaged with their hope in him: “Did not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32) In their communion they came to understand and they knew him with them, despite ‘all that had happened’ — and they, too, went back to share with the others. (Luke 24:31, 14, 33)
We are given light to see amid all the gloom that befalls us, but it is never for us alone. Rather, we are to share the light we find there that others in their time of need may come to see as well. (Luke 8:16) The message of this Holy Night is the same as that spoken by the prophet Isaiah long before Christ: “Whoever walks in darkness and has no light shining for him, let him trust in the name of YHWH, let him lean on his God.” (Isaiah 50:10) We are called to cling to our hope and not readily let it go, though the chaos of this world would extinguish it. (C.f.: Romans 5:1-5) The alternative is a fearful life in the dark; no joy there. The message of the Risen Lord is as he put it to his disciples before the events of Good Friday engulfed him: “I have told you all this so that you may find peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but be brave: I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33) We need to find that peace, a peace that does prevail, that we may go forth in hope amid all that this world throws up against us.