The Faithful Women’s Response to the Empty Tomb

The readings for Easter Sunday, March 27, Cycle C, are
Acts 10: 34a, 37-43; 1 Corinthians18:1-2, 16-17, 22-23; Luke 24: 1-14

Why do we use the name “Easter” for the celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus? The origin of this usage is obscure. St. Bede the Venerable, (died 735), in a work written in 725, claims that the word is derived from the name Eastre, an Anglo-Saxon goddess associated with the season of Spring. If one wishes to pursue the “Tower of Babel” (or babble) which is the internet, other explanations can be found. Whatever the origin, we are stuck with it and will continue to say “Happy Easter” in contrast to more Christian expressions used in some non-English speaking countries. The liturgy of this feast gives us a choice between two gospel readings. They are not really resurrection stories but “empty tomb stories.” The gospel usually read is John 20:1-9. Since this is the year of Luke, the choice made here is that of Luke 24:1-12.

Luke begins his story with the faithful women of Galilee who had followed Jesus and Co. to Jerusalem for Passover. The ones mentioned in this story should be thought of not just as women from Galilee but as Jesus’ faithful disciples. Luke had written about these women observing the burial of Jesus’ body, “The women who had come with him from Galilee…saw the tomb, and how his body was placed.” The time was late Friday evening. They returned (to their lodgings), and prepared spices and ointments,” Luke 23:55-56. The spices and ointments were not for embalming the body, but were placed with the body and some perhaps applied to the body to cover the odor of decay. They return to the tomb at daybreak on the first day of the week, Sunday, a work day. As faithful Jews, they rested on the seventh day, the Sabbath, our Saturday.

The tomb was constructed by gouging a hollow out of the soft rock on the side of a hill. A groove was cut into the rock in front of the tomb to serve as a track for a large circular stone which was rolled across the entrance. When the women arrived at the tomb, the stone had been rolled back from the entrance. They went in but the body of Jesus was not there. Their puzzling over the absence of the body is soon solved by the appearance of two men in white (“dazzling garments”). We have seen these two men once before, at the transfiguration, and will see them again at the Ascension of Jesus in the Acts of Apostles. They were named only at the transfiguration, Moses and Elijah. They represent the two main sources of revelation in the Hebrew Scriptures — Torah and Prophets. Their job description – affirm and confirm that what has happened and is happening to Jesus is God’s plan for him as laid out in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Luke describes the faithful women from Galilee as “terrified and bowing their faces to the ground.” The men spoke (in unison?), “Why seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has been resurrected.” Luke describes the two men reminding the women of Jesus’ predictions of his passion, death, and resurrection. These predictions took place during Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. When Jesus later appears to the disciples, he affirms that his arrest, crucifixion, death, and resurrection on the third day had to happen because “It is written,” that is, the plan was revealed in Torah and Prophets. No way out of that! “And they remembered the words of Jesus,” writes Luke. Luke has before him a manuscript of the Gospel of Mark. In Mark’s gospel the women fled from the tomb and reported nothing to anyone. They had witnessed the empty tomb and heard the young man at the tomb announcing Jesus’ resurrection. But that is Mark’s theology. His major theme of total abandonment had to hold till the end.

Such an ending does not fit Luke’s theology. He is after all writing a catechism, not a biography of Jesus and his disciples. Therefore Luke wrote, “They returned from the tomb and announced all these things to the Eleven (No more Judas!) and to everyone.” Luke lists their names: Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James.” Mary, the mother of Jesus, appears at the foot of the cross only in John’s gospel, and in no gospel is she mentioned among the women at the empty tomb. But who is this James? Perhaps John 19:25 gives us a clue, “Standing by the cross were his mother, and his mother’s sister Mary…. If this James of Luke’s gospel is the son of Zebedee, brother of John of Zebedee, then Jesus would have been their first cousin. This is not unlikely, since the two boys were said to jump out of their father’s boat and away from the tedious work of mending nets to follow Jesus (their older cousin?). A nice theory, but there are other theories. Let it rest! Joanna is probably the same as the Joanna, wife of the “prime minster” of Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee. That’s a powerful connection for Jesus and the early Church.
Mary Magdalene was so called because she was from the town of Magdala close to Capernaum. It was the city of Capernaum that became the center of Jesus’ Galilean ministry headquartered at the substantial home of Simon (Peter) and his brother Andrew and their extended family. There is no evidence in the Scriptures that Mary of Magdala was a reformed prostitute. That opinion rests chiefly on the shoulders of Pope Gregory the Great, (died 604). Gregory noticed that Luke 8:3, describes Mary Magdalene as a woman out of whom Jesus cast seven demons, In Luke’s preceding chapter a “sinner woman” had approached Jesus, wept tears onto his feet, and dried his feet with her hair. Gregory connects the sinner woman, obviously intended by Luke to be a reformed prostitute, with Mary of Magdala out of whom Jesus had cast seven demons. Next he combines these two with Mary sister of Martha and Lazarus. At least some good comes out of this unhistorical troika — the religious Orders and institutions who work with reformed prostitutes, and are named after Mary Magdalen. And this is Good News! Happy Easter!