Easter is usually called some variation of “Pascha” by most Christians around the world, and it is the day when we celebrate the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Matthew prefaces this event by writing about the placing of the temple guards at the tomb.
“The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.” Matthew 27:62-66.
Matthew records a most remarkable event here. Christ has been crucified on Friday, the day of Preparation. That day and the next, the Sabbath, were holy days for Jewish people everywhere. Under no circumstances would the Jewish authorities have wanted to meet with any Gentile, let alone Pilate (Josephus, Ant., XVI.6.2.). Writing for a Jewish audience, Matthew understands that his readers know this, and it emphasizes how extreme the chief priests and Pharisees must have felt that the situation was. At this point, they felt pressed to do something that they would not have done – ever – in any other circumstance.
Another surprising element in this passage is that we discover that the Pharisees had actually been listening to Jesus. In Matthew 12:38-40, Jesus tells them about his resurrection – including the three day time frame. He was very explicit in how he phrased his prophecy, even couched in thinly veiled terms. During the trial of Jesus, some accused him of claiming to raise the “temple of God” in three days (Matt. 27:61). They understood, to some extent, and they planned to keep Jesus safely dead in his tomb past that third day, when his body was expected to begin to really decay, and when any hope of resuscitating Jesus would presumably be long gone. Not only that, but the plan of the Pharisees was to attempt to keep the apostles from stealing Christ’s body and foisting a resurrection hoax on the public, so a seal was placed on the stone which was in front of the tomb. This verse is a call back to Daniel 6:17, in which the prophet is thrown into the lion’s den, and a stone marked with a seal was placed over the den. Like Daniel, Christ would also emerge from the place that should have been his tomb.
“After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” Matthew 28:1-7.
On Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph (Matt: 27:55) come to the tomb to tend to the body of Jesus. We shouldn’t be surprised at the multitude of Marys that we find in the New Testament. Based on the name of Moses’ sister, Miriam was a very common name in Jewish culture. They experience an earthquake with the guards falling like dead men, and we’re told that an angel rolled the stone away from the tomb. The angel is not one of the cherubim or seraphim (Ezekiel 1, Isaiah 6), winged creatures with animal and human features who attend to the throne of God. He is one of the malakim, a messenger of God like Michael or Gabriel. These angels may shine brightly from being in the presence of God (ref. Exodus 34:29-35), but unlike other angelic creatures they look more like human beings and are never described as having wings. Notice that the angel has not come to let Jesus out – this has already occurred. Rather, he is there to let the women in.
So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Matthew doesn’t mince words – he’s quite clear that the two Marys saw the risen Christ first and then ran to tell the disciples what they had seen. They had remained with him throughout the crucifixion, watching from a distance (Matt. 27:55-56), while the disciples scattered like pearls on a broken necklace. We aren’t told anything at all about Mary Magdalene’s past as someone who had been possessed by seven demons – something both Mark and Luke mention (Mark 16:9, Luke 8:2). All that Matthew’s first readers might have known about her is that she may have come from the fishing village of Magdala and that she loved Christ. That was enough. When they meet the risen Lord, they prostrate themselves and grab his feet, worshiping him. Matthew’s account is brief enough and direct enough to permit a number of things to occur that the other Gospels record – including Christ telling Magdalene not to cling to him (John 20:17). His interest is in getting to the point. When they meet Jesus, he says, “Greetings!”, which may likely have been the most welcome “Shalom!” every heard. After telling them not to be afraid, he sends the women to the apostles – deserters who he charitably calls “brothers” – to give them the good news, and that they will find him in Galilee. There, he would give them the mission that would occupy them for the rest of their lives (Matt. 28:16-20).
Resources used in this post:
Antiquities of the Jews, by Flavius Josephus
New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Catholic Edition
17 April 2022