In many countries, Easter Monday is a holiday as well as being a part of the weeklong liturgical celebration of Easter. Easter is such an important part of the life of the Church that we actually celebrate it with eight successive days of Easter Masses. While the Gospel of Easter Sunday tells us the story of the empty tomb, the seven days that follow tell us of the various appearances of Jesus after they had discovered it.
So today, Easter Monday, we hear the story from St. Matthew’s Gospel which tells us of how Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and the “other” Mary. A detail that St. Matthew includes may escape us upon first reading the account, but he includes the fact that the women actually touched Jesus’ body by embracing his feet. The detail accomplishes two things. First, it sets up the next few verses in which we hear the soldiers and the chief priests hatching a plot which will continue to deny the resurrection. By recounting the fact that the women touched Jesus, St. Matthew is making a strong statement that the lifeless body of Jesus was not simply stolen by the disciples. Secondly, in order to embrace his feet, the women would have had to assume a posture of worship, bowing low before the Risen Lord.
Both the women and disciples as well as the soldiers and the chief priests agree that the tomb is empty. However, they differ in “how” the tomb came to be empty. Whether we line ourselves up with the women or with the soldiers and the chief priests, the fact remains that the tomb is empty. The chief priests pay the soldiers to lie. If, however, the soldiers were to tell their superiors that the disciples came and stole the body while they were sleeping, they would be in a great amount of trouble. Roman soldiers dared not sleep while they were commanded to post a guard. Surely the chief priests would have known this. It would have taken a great deal of money to convince the soldiers that it was worth their while to endure the discipline that would have been visited upon them if they admitted that they had fallen asleep.
St. Matthew also has told us in the first verses of this chapter that a great earthquake had occurred at the time of the Resurrection, strong enough to roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb. Here again we have to ask how the soldiers could have slept through such an earthquake.
St. Matthew’s Gospel was the second account to appear in the community. He borrows heavily from the Gospel of St. Mark in his composition. However, in this account of the resurrection, he differs sharply from his predecessor who does not include details such as the earthquake, the descent of an angel from heaven, or the description of Jesus whose appearance is likened to lightning and that he was dressed in white robes. Again these details are significant in furthering St. Matthew’s argument that Jesus had truly risen. The naked body of Jesus would have been taken from the cross and bound in burial cloth with a separate cloth to cover his face. He would not have been robed. It is clear that St. Matthew is convinced that the “how” of the empty tomb was a matter of Jesus rising from the dead.
The texts for this week will continue to further the notion of Jesus’ resurrection. We have moved from a week of hearing about the Suffering Servant to one of hearing about the Risen Lord.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator