The Uniform Series or “Standard Lesson” text for Sunday, April 1 – April Fool’s Day, and Easter Sunday – is Luke 24:1-12, 30-35. This spans much of “the Easter Story” as told by Luke, but leaves out Jesus’ final appearance to the disciples and Jesus’ ascension in vv 36-53. (This makes liturgical sense at least, as Ascension is not for another forty days after Easter.) There is A LOT in this text. Here are my notes on just the first 11 verses:
“Once upon a time” I got to take a trip to Israel. Our group visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on a Sunday morning, when the various groups who divide the custody and administration of the site were conducting worship. So, a minute or so after we walked into the main entrance of the church, we heard music that seemed to float and echo in the air above our heads until it drifted its way down to us …
It turned out to be the choir of Armenian Orthodox monks beginning their liturgy. But for a split second there, before I came back to empirical reality, I didn’t so much think as react, with a gasp, … angels?! ??! where … ???!!
[This gives some idea of the music, though it doesn’t re-create the impact of that experience.]
It was all about acoustics, we decided. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is not a traditional cathedral, but it has stone vaults that trap and amplify the sound and set everything echoing.
That was how I felt reading Luke’s 24th chapter this morning, on one of the “slow days” of Holy Week. It is as if all the voices Luke has been patiently assembling since the first story of the gospel start singing at once, and the music floats and echoes and drifts its way down …
In Greek, the word for “tomb” shares the root that makes us think of “memory” – literally, a “token of memory.” So the sound and idea of “memory” happens in the first part of the story several times, first as “token of memory” in vv 1 & 2, and then in the angels’ instruction to the women to “remember” in v 6, and then in the women’s act of remembrance in v8, and then back to that “token of memory” in v9. The two men who suddenly stand beside the women are dressed in garments that gleam, literally like lightning, in a word that sounds like the word for “star.” Just describing them makes them sound like they could be heavenly bodies.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” v5. By implication: you have to look for the living among the living.
The women named in v10 include women named earlier, in 8:2-3, who have been with the group since the beginning and have been supporting them. You would think this would make these women reliable informants.
Furthermore, from the beginning of the book till now, Luke has made a narrative habit of pairing narrative elements that feature men with narrative elements that feature women. If we didn’t already know that Luke is a “less Hebraic” and “more Greek” author, we might almost think this author is purposely using the pattern we find in Hebrew poetry, where there’s a pair of lines, one that establishes the theme, and a second that restates the theme, usually with an intensification. So, for instance, there is the pairing of the annunciation to Zechariah and the annunciation to Mary (ch.1); the song of Simeon and the song of Anna (ch 2); the demoniac and Peter’s mother-in-law (ch.4); the centurion’s servant and the widow of Nain’s son (ch.7); the address to the lawyer about when and who to help and the address to Martha about when and from whom to get help (ch.10); the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast (ch.13) and the lost sheep and the coin (ch.15) … you get the idea. So by now, you would think we would recognize that pattern, and what it means, when these women show up with their message (the word translated as “told” in v10 is a Greek word that literally means gave a message to, and it’s the word that gives us our word “angel,” since angels are messengers) after having just seen the messengers they have seen …
But to the apostles – the ones sent out – the women’s words seemed – literally “appeared” – to them as nonsense. (“Appeared” is the same Greek word used for all kinds of other “appearances,” the word that gives us our words for phenomenal and epiphany and theophany and so on. And when was the last time a word appeared to you, as anything or anyone, btw?)
The word translated as “nonsense” or “idle tale” in v11 is the Greek word lēros, which is literally the babbling or meaningless chatter of a person delirious with fever. It’s something like the ravings of a madman, only less dangerous. (Remember the demoniac maniac and Peter’s mother-in-law in ch.4?)
That insight comes from Nonsense and Meaning in Ancient Greek Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014), in which Stephen E. Kidd points out that lēros is the kind of nonsense associated with comedy, and makes the point that “nonsense” is made so by the pragmatic act of refusing to take it seriously as speech that has to be interpreted, speech that has to be understood, or that we have to try to understand. When something is declared to be lēros, it’s at one stroke declared to be not worth taking seriously and as having no power, as harmless speech.
Kidd, in his introduction, makes this statement: “If interpretation is the discernment of consequence in an utterance or action, that mode which deprives utterances and action of their consequence – namely, the mode in which nonsense is found – is its opposite” (10). I think what he’s saying, in part, is that “interpretation” is serious, like tragic mode, and takes things seriously; and that its opposite is whatever is the verb for the kind of understanding we need for comedy, for the whatever-it-is that recognizes that something is a joke – that “gets it.” Play, maybe.
I don’t know whether Luke, being a cultured citizen of the world Kidd is writing about, just knew from living in that world what Kidd tells us in his book, how “the Greeks thought about nonsense,” how it is related to tragedy and comedy and narrative. But it does seem to me that Luke means for us to see that it is not the women who are talking nonsense. The nonsense is the very idea that the imperial statement of the cross and act of torture and killing was a consequential last word.
Maybe Luke means for us to “get” that the joke in this story is on sin and death.