Gospel: Matthew 28, 1-10
The liturgy of the word in the Easter Vigil is extremely rich and tries to make the community relive the history of salvation through listening to the biblical texts and the prayer. In the impossibility of commenting on all the texts of the celebration, we offer a reflection on the gospel of this holy Easter night.
The resurrection of Jesus is an event that goes beyond all history combined. It really happened in history but it cannot be controlled nor verified by human means precisely because it is the definitive event that summarises and in itself gives fullness to the whole history beyond history. Nobody was witness to the moment. Nobody saw what happened; nobody was able to see it. The accounts of the resurrection are an attempt of the community of believers to describe what is “indescribable”.
Certainly, these narrations are fruits of faith and, at the same time, demanded by this same faith that has experienced Jesus as the Lord who lives and gives life. But the evangelists never attempted to describe the moment and the manner of the resurrection, an event that goes beyond and transcends whatever type of sensible experimentation. They limit themselves to affirm the event with triumphal certainty and try to explain and confirm it through different accounts.
Maybe it is Matthew who offers more narrative details and who has presented the scene with greater descriptiveness. However, it is necessary to take into account that he does not mean to communicate a chronicle of the fact, but to do a theological rereading of the evangelical tradition about the Easter experience. And for it, he uses some motifs typical of the theophanic and apocalyptic literary genre: the earthquake, the angel of the Lord with the appearance like lightning and with robe as white as snow, and the invitation for the encounter with the Risen Lord. Both genres merge in this text to explain the great mystery, to proclaim the great theophany and the great victory of God in the resurrection of the Lord.
The women go to the sepulchre “after the Sabbath, to ‘visit the sepulchre’” (vv. 1-2), in accordance with the Jewish custom of visiting the tomb three days after the burial. In the horizon of the women, nothing exists but death. They will be surprised by an event and an absolutely new experience. Precisely to emphasize the extraordinary newness of the fact, the evangelist uses the cosmic symbol of the earthquake and the figure of the angel of the Lord (mal’ak Yywh) who descends from heaven. In the Bible, a “violent earthquake” (v. 2) accompanies the great manifestations of God (cf. Ex 19, 18; 1 Kings 19, 12; Ps 114, 7; Mt 27, 51-54; Rev 6, 12; 11, 13; 16, 18). The angel of the Lord, for his part, is a biblical figure that indicates the presence of God who intervenes in history and in human realities in order to reveal and to save.
The double description of the angel (v. 3: “His face was like lightning and his robe white as snow”) makes him similar to the “son of man” in charge of God’s judgment in the book of Daniel (cf. Dn 7, 9; 10, 6). His garments white as snow reminds of the moment of the Transfiguration, when “his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light” (Mt 17, 2), with which the theophany is placed in relation with the glory that one day Jesus showed in anticipation to his disciples in a high mountain.
“The angel of the Lord descended from heaven. He came to the stone, rolled it back, and sat on it.” (v. 2) In the Bible, the tomb (cf. Is 38, 18; Ez 26, 20; 31, 24) is the visible symbol of the mortal abyss of sheol, that dark place in which one dwells far from God and men (cf. Ps 6, 6; 88, 11; 94, 17; 115, 17). The divine personage makes a symbolical and powerful gesture to indicate the victory of God over the reign of death. The enormous stone that closed the tomb of Jesus was moved by the angel who later sat on it like a victorious hero. The text aims to represent in a visible way what the resurrection of Jesus means: the triumph over death in all its manifestations. The first ones who react before the resurrection are the guards themselves who are entrusted to look after the tomb of Jesus. They “tremble” (v. 4) before what happened and fall down like dead men. It is significant that Matthew describes what happened to the soldiers with the Greek verb “tremble” (seio), the same with which he described the alarm of Jerusalem when Jesus entered the city (21, 10) or the earthquake that occurred during his death (27, 51). The earth trembles and those who think that death enclosed in that tomb could be held back. In a kind of interior earthquake, they became dead with fear. God is more powerful and triumphs over the cosmos and the power of darkness that are in opposition to life.
The angel then addresses himself to the women who had come to visit the tomb. They receive a great announcement from God, the authentic good news that changes the history of humankind: “Do not be frightened. I know you are looking for Jesus the crucified, but he is not here. He has been raised, exactly as he promised. Come and see the place where he was laid.” (vv. 5-6) In contrast to the guards, symbol of the power of death and of incredulity, who have fallen trembling with fear like dead men, the women were invited not to be frightened.
Until now, death has exercised its universal dominion and has demanded as tribute the life of each man. Before coming to gather the final tribute, death makes itself present in advance in the life of each one in the form of pain or sin, injustice or violence, as failure, insecurity or depression. That is why its first consequence in man is fear that takes root in the heart. Death, engendering fear, makes that man become a slave and anticipates in the life of each one its final dominion. All fears are in a certain way important ramifications of the fundamental fear: the fear of death.
With Christ Jesus, death was destroyed forever (1 Cor 15, 26) and with it all the fears of humanity. This is the victory of Christ that the angel announces to the women. Certainly, fear, as part of the instinct of self-preservation, is not eliminated but it no longer dominates man as a chaotic and invincible power. It is overcome and conquered by faith and hope that spring from the resurrection of the Lord.
The women, the first witnesses of the resurrection, likewise receive the mission of announcing the event to the disciples of Jesus. The resurrection is an event that extends without limit and whoever has been witness of the victory of Jesus is called to communicate it to others. They shall say to the disciples: “He has been raised from the dead and now goes ahead of you to Galilee, where you will see him.” (v. 7) They hurried away “filled with awe and great joy” (v. 8) to bring the news to the disciples and while they are on their way, Jesus appears to them and greets them cordially (v. 9). In an attitude of adoration and supplication, they fall down before him who is the Lord of life. Jesus confirms the words of the angel: “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers that they must leave for Galilee; they will see me there.” (v. 10) From the victory over death and over fear that springs from death, the messianic community is born, in which the disciples of Jesus are called “his brothers”. The expression can be an echo of the words of the just man persecuted and saved by God who promises: “I will proclaim your name to my brethren.” (Ps 22, 23)
In the New Testament, the title given by Jesus to his own is significant. On the one hand, it indicates a new beginning that marks the paschal event through the forgiveness of those who were estranged by fear (cf. Mt 26, 56); on the other, Jesus places them in relation with his glorious condition as Son. They will see him in Galilee later, in the mountain where Jesus summons them (28, 16). And from that encounter, the universal mission of the Church will be born, beginning from “Galilee”, where Jesus had started to preach the kingdom to the peoples “who live in darkness… and in the shadow of death” (Mt 4, 16).