With a notable interruption, my blogging journey through the book of Matthew--begun in January 2014--will as of today be complete.
In Matthew 28, we encounter the Resurrection. Miracle of miracles this is, but like so many things it can come to be almost commonplace. Well, of course Jesus rises from the dead, right? That is just His thing. And of course the tomb is empty. And of course there's an angel there. We Christians--and others as well--have heard the story so many times that the ending becomes rote and expected. Familiarity may not have bred contempt, but in this case it certainly can bring a lack of wonder. Or at least a lack of reflection apprehending the scene before us.
In a sense, though, it is not the Resurrection itself nor the angel that I am necessarily interested in focusing on here. Rather, I want to think about the word "afraid." Four times it appears in this text and four times it beckons to remind us of something. It asks us to remember that no matter how perfunctory the retelling of this story is to us who have heard it a thousand times, it is anything but that for those living it on that first day.
The first appearance of the word comes in the context of verse 4. There, the guards encountered an angel of the Lord whose "appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow." In response, the guards are described as being so afraid that they quake and become as though dead. I'm not sure exactly what this scene looked like, but it seems to be one of serious terror. They are shaken to the core. They encounter this angel, this messenger, and it all overwhelms them.
Seeing the women at the tomb, this angel is quick to tell them not to be afraid. Why? Well, probably because he was still quite terrifying. Shocking. Disconcerting to the core. Or at least he was trying to forestall the reaction he just got from these unsuspecting guards. A few verses later the risen Jesus himself appears to the women and repeats the same request. "Do not be afraid," he says in verse 10.
Being afraid. Not normally the first thing that Christians think about when it comes to that first Easter morning. Instead, our normal procedure is to revere it as a day of victory. A day of celebration and joy. A time when the world of death begins to be reversed and the promise of new life begins. And of course it is all these things. At the same time, it is apparently also a day of potential terror.
For despite our fervent imaginations of that dewy spring morning in Jerusalem--with tulips blooming, birds chirping, and animals frolicking together--there is something deeply discomforting for those living through it. The guards are rocked by what they see. The women come face to face with at least two potentially fear-filled moments. There is something really scary here.
And what is it? What is it that makes those who encounter it so afraid? Well, that's a good question. The answer? It may simply be that what those at the tomb saw was overwhelming and bizarre. Strange and unusual is not bad, of course, but at times it can be perceived or understood that way. The visuals they encountered might have just been too much.
Perhaps, too, it is the reality that witnessing the things of the divine might in themselves be existentially troubling. We humans are mortal and finite. We live in a natural world that exists according to certain principles. Angels may not have to obey these. And Jesus? He seems here to be breaking one of the most rock solid rules of all--the dead are supposed to stay dead. In one fell swoop, then, the normal course of life is upended. In response, the tendency to yearn for familiarity and/or cower in wondrous fear is real.
Here by the tomb, everything as changed, and that is haunting. God is real. Really real. So are angels. Jesus is back. And resurrection, it seems, is no longer off the table. Everything is now new, and the world I had previously lived in has gone away in the snap of the fingers.
For those of us who are grown to adulthood and begun to figure out a little about how the world works and started to determine our place and role in it, the news that it has been turned upside-down is not necessarily a comfort. Indeed, it might be deeply haunting. Terrifying even.
Yet for those who realize the world is not all it promises and that in the midst of the reversal depicted in Matthew 28 there is something greater still, we may with the women come to be "afraid yet filled with joy" (28:8). As we start to explore more of what this shocking new reality looks like, we can be honest about the trepidation we might feel as our old lives and understanding of reality fades even as a new and better one beckons us ever onward.