Angel of St Matthew - stained glass

Studying Matthew 28 1-10

Our text of the week and the liturgical year are converging this coming Sunday, as we are studying Matthew 28:1-10. This is Matthew’s account of the women’s visit to the empty tomb and their encounter with the risen Christ. [Some questions on the text are here. And here are the notes from last time.] Here are a few notes on this text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is the last in our series of four lessons from the gospel of Matthew. The things “everyone knows” about this gospel – its special focus on teaching, its use of wisdom themes and of Jewish “insider” material and symbolism, and its stress on the kingdom of Heaven – are probably fresh in our minds by now.

Narratively, last week we looked closely at the story of Jesus’s last supper with his disciples. We’ve skipped over big events in the narrative to get to our text this week: Jesus’s apprehension, and trial [or “trial”]; his appearance before Pilate and Pilate’s administrative decision to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus; Jesus’s mocking by soldiers, and then death by crucifixion; his burial in a tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea; and the setting of a Roman guard at the tomb.

The way Matthew tells the story, the “chief priests and Pharisees” seem to gather before Pilate on Saturday, the Sabbath, to request that guard. [See Matthew 27:62-66.] Surely that is not meant to reflect well on that faction. Jesus’s disciples are more careful about keeping the Sabbath than his opponents. I’m guessing Matthew didn’t include this detail by accident.

The use of tombs cut into rock, like a cavern, was apparently a common-ish practice, at least among the well-to-do, as late as the first century CE. [Here’s Wikepedia, yes, on that; but also a little bit of confirmatory archeology on this side of a paywall.]

To me this offers a stark contrast with Jesus’s birth, life, and death. Born, lived, and died as a poor person, and in significant ways a social outcast. But buried with privilege. I don’t quite know what to make of that, but it seems worth thinking about.

People, off and on, make a big deal out of the WOMEN’S being the ones to have the first encounter with the risen Christ. I do not want to be a wet blanket here; but at the same time, I would like to argue for something like realism. In part, because I think the really big story lies in what was, in a way, ordinary and widely accepted, rather than in the unprecedented and special acceptance of women by the Jesus way. I say this because I am

1) not convinced that women were as thoroughly oppressed by the 1st century Judeans as we sometimes act like they were – based on our cartoon images of the 1st century Judeans; and

2) it seems entirely predictable to me that it would have been the women who went to the tomb first; and

3) the women’s role here seems to fit neatly into some of our – western – culture’s woman-oriented symbolism. So this part of the narrative doesn’t seem that paradigm-busting to me.

These points in order:

1) People make a lot out of the women being “witnesses” and how unprecedented this would have been. That requires us to

a) equate the women’s message with testimony in court, which it is not, rather than treat it like messages carried within a group, which it is;

b) to ascribe Talmudic rulings to the 1st century CE, which seems anachronistic, or to pretend the Judeans were the Greeks, which we know they were not, and thank God for that. [Here’s a nice, readable article on just that, by bright undergraduate Deena Kopyto.]

So I do not go along with the argument that the fact that women were the “first witnesses” to the empty tomb is a mark in favor of the report’s authenticity for the reason that “in those days” (as opposed to now, …) men always automatically excluded women’s testimony, so reporting it this way would be “embarrassing.” I don’t think we have good enough evidence for that.

2) It seems predictable that women would be the first ones at the tomb, based on the gender division of labor. What we know about that from most cultures through most of history would lead us to expect women to do the major work of caring for the bodies of the dead. Unless and until that work is professionalized – as it is in our own [contemporary American] culture – much of it tends to be women’s work, cross-culturally and historically: laying out the dead, washing the body, clothing the body in an appropriate way, sometimes with specially made grave-clothes, to say nothing of organizing and participating in rituals of mourning, and gathering and preserving material artifacts as mementos. Women were supposed to be there.

3) From a symbolic perspective, women’s presence at Christ’s [empty] tomb links the women with the boundary area between life and death, which is precisely where we expect to find women, symbolically. The symbolism of birth – emergence from the womb into life – and of death – disappearance of the body from the land of the living into the secret space of the tomb – is recurrently, distinctively, profoundly, feminine-coded symbolism. The big exceptions to this are death in war, where [male] comrades have to care for the bodies of their [also male] dead, and other kinds of public, politicized death, like executions, from which women might be excluded as part of denying the comfort of normal care to the dead and to their people.

My main point is that it seems to me obvious, rather than unexpected, that women would be going to that tomb in this story. Furthermore, it seems to me entirely consistent with the customary symbolic role of women in the larger cultural “imaginary,” rather than in any way gender-bending, for women to be the featured actors at a scene of burial that turns out to be a scene of rebirth / new life. Of course women were there. Who else but women would we expect to be there?

No surprise, Matthew 28:1-10 is the lectionary text for Easter Sunday – and also Easter Vigil – in Year A. Even people who hardly ever go to church will probably have heard this one.

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CLOSER READING: The text opens in v1 “after the Sabbath” with a feminine participle for “dawning,” “becoming light,” on the first of the week. [Feminine, presumably, because the implied day that’s dawning is a feminine noun in Greek. It’s just … noticeable.] Also noticeable, the verb “came” is singular. Maybe it is referring just to Mary Magdalene, with the other Mary an add-on, or maybe it is implying that the two women are acting as one.

The action of v2 seems to happen at that moment: the earthquake, and the descent of the angel whose appearance is like lightning and clothing white as snow. The lightning is the second reference to light already – the first being that dawning in v1. It feels meaningful. Light is coming into the story.

In v4, the trembling or shaking of the guards on duty echoes the earthquake itself, and their becoming like dead men is an ironic contrast to the energy of the angel, and what we’ll learn about the supposedly but in reality not at all dead Jesus. The citizens of the Empire of death are themselves dead[-like], while the citizens of the kingdom of Heaven are thoroughly alive.

In v5 the angel answers the women, who haven’t actually spoken. Maybe he can read their minds, or at least their faces. Besides which, he knows a lot: who they are looking for, where he is, what message they are supposed to relay.

The way the scene unfolds, it seems clear that Jesus is already risen from the dead at the time the angel rolls the stone away. The rolling away of the stone does not seem to be instrumental, or necessary, for the resurrection; it is necessary to reveal it to the women.

Or rather, to begin to reveal it, since they also encounter the risen Christ, which is a further revelation of the resurrection.

We might note that they encounter the risen Christ after they go out with fear and joy to report (or even, proclaim the message) they have already had from the angel messenger.

As usual, the connections between angels and messengers and messages and reporting in Greek holds up here, so that the women come off as being a little angelic themselves.

Jesus says Greetings! – a greeting which is literally “Rejoice!” That instruction from Jesus seems particularly appropriate at this moment. As does the women’s worshipping him in response.

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icon of the women visiting the empty tomb, angel

Image: “Angel of St. Matthew,” Nheyob, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “The Women at the Tomb,” Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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