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Once upon an empty tomb.

The gospel stories of Easter morning invite everyone to come and see for themselves.

WE CHRISTIANS ARE AN ODD BUNCH. ONCE A year, we ritually gather at the mouth of a cave, scrunch down, peer into the dark, and look at--nothing. There's nothing to see. And we knew that, and it s precisely nothing that we ye come to see. The empty tomb is remarkable to us for what's not there. To be perfectly accurate, he's not there, and just this once it's the absence of a friend that propels our sense of celebration.

How nothing came to be discovered in that tomb is a good question. Our four evangelists, though eager to pass on the news so future generations could "come and see," would not be much good in a modern court of law. They tell the story with a very casual attention to the details.

Across the four versions, we hear that a woman (or two, or three, or more) came to the tomb at dawn, whereupon there was an earthquake (or not), and an angel descended from heaven (or was waiting for them inside the tomb, or two angels appeared, or none), which scared the guards into paralysis (if there were guards at all). The angel proceeded to roll back the stone at the entrance to the tomb (unless it was already rolled back). Then the angel (if there was one) told the women not to be afraid, Jesus was risen, and bid them tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee. (Maybe. Or maybe not the Galilee part.) At this point, the women were fearful yet overjoyed (or just terrified). If it was only one woman, she was grief-stricken and thought the body had been stolen. But then again, she didn't meet an angel to begin with.

So they ran at once to announce this to the disciples (unless they were so terrified they went home and did not tell anyone what they had seen). On the way, they ran into Jesus himself! (Or not.) They embraced his feet, and he repeated what the angel (may have) said: Do not be afraid, and tell the brothers to go to Galilee.

Those women who did make the announcement were successful in getting the disciples to go to Galilee, where they met the Lord on the usual mountain and received his final instructions. But because some of the women didn't say a word, Jesus appeared to others to get the message across. And of course, even though some of the women did make the announcement, they were not believed. So Peter had to go out and verify their story. (And perhaps he took John with him.) According to reports, Peter was amazed by what he saw, while John believed. But it is hard to know what John believed exactly, because neither understood what rising from the dead meant. And later that morning, a still-grieving Mary Magdalene may or may not have encountered two angels in the tomb that may or may not have been empty, not to mention the gardener who was her Lord.

Dizzy yet? What kind of testimony is this? The facts of the matter seem to dance about free-form, as if they are incidental to the story. Mark's gospel itself has several variant endings among the ancient manuscripts, indicating that he or his editors were open to a better way to the punch line. As with all scripture, we have to keep in mind that the evangelists didn't think of themselves as history writers. History as we conceive of it hadn't been invented yet. This blind prejudice we hold in favor of the actual particulars wasn't as significant to ancient writers as the sort of truth that transcends time and place. Why describe in a literal way a single moment in first-century Israel when you can, in the same amount of words, capture the essence of what is eternally and universally true? Given the choice, ancient writers aimed higher than history every time.

Although it would be interesting to know if Mary Magdalene acted alone or with her whole women's study group on Easter morning, it doesn't change the message of Easter either way. Whether the disciples rendezvoused with Jesus on a mountain in Galilee after the Resurrection (echoing the image of Moses at Sinai and rounding off the story in a nicely Jewish way) or stayed put in Jerusalem (which was the launching point of the mission to the Gentiles) is a detail significant to its original audience of Jewish or Gentile Christians but less so to us. New Agers may be intrigued by the number and behavior of the angels; Judeo-Christian tradition sees their importance not as distinct personalities but as bearers of a divine message. Whether there was a heavenly host or a dazzling duo, the message communicated in light of these events is the same: Do not be afraid. The tomb may be empty, but hope is far from gone.

The particulars of that morning dance from version to version, independent of the core symbol of the empty tomb, but that's not to say the differences don't matter. More accurately, the differences would not have been written in to each successive version unless they mattered. Scholars believe that both Matthew and Luke had a copy of Mark's gospel in hand when they wrote theirs a decade or more later. Any departures they made from Mark's story were intended to underscore certain themes important to them.

In the same way, the writer of John had a full generation to consider the way the story was being told, and his telling is as deliberately different from the prior three gospels as West Side Story is from Romeo and Juliet. Why would anyone rewrite Shakespeare? Not because of any inherent flaw in the original play but because of the change in the audience. The gospel writers, addressing a church that was morphing from a Jewish cult to a Gentile mission in one mind-bending generation, kept recasting the story from the same impulse. Same Jesus, but dramatically different day.

At the Easter Vigil this year, we'll listen to Luke's story of what happened on the third day, so let's look at the dancing particulars of that version in order to appreciate the evangelist's task.

FIRST OF ALL, WHY DID THE WOMEN COME TO THE TOMB that Sunday morning? Luke accepts the motivation given by Mark: They wanted to embalm the body, which had not been done, because Jesus died shortly before the Sabbath and had to be buried before it began. John has to change the motivation simply to loyalty, because he has already told us that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus anointed the body before they buried Jesus.

With spices in hand, then, the women of Luke approach the tomb. Luke does not count the women for us, but later tells us three of their names: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary, mother of James. All four accounts agree that Mary Magdalene was there. Mark names three women, the two Marys, and a woman named Salome. Matthew retains only the two Marys, and John limits it to the Magdalene alone.

It is easiest to understand John's choice to move from Mark's standard of three women to one. Mary Magdalene is a star disciple of John's gospel. Eliminating the less significant players gives the Magdalene more stature as the first apostle of Easter. Matthew, in contrast, is never all that interested in what women do: He dismisses the Easter women as "Mary Magdalene and the other Mary." Mark clearly names the second woman as Mary, the mother of James. Tradition identifies her more specifically as the mother of "James the Lesser," son of Alpheus, an apostle. But don't be fooled by the humble-sounding title "the Lesser." This James was also called the "brother of the Lord" and became a leader among the Jerusalem Christians, every bit as powerful as Peter. His mother's presence among the Easter witnesses probably didn't hurt his career. The third woman whom Mark names is Salome, identified as the mother of James and John, Zebedee's "sons of thunder," who wanted to be sure they got to sit at Jesus' right and left in the coming kingdom. Salome's earlier chutzpah in approaching Jesus with her sons' request is demonstrated again as she risks visiting the grave of a criminal of the state.

Luke is careful not to contradict Mark outright, mentioning that there were "others" who accompanied these three that morning. But he names Joanna because she exemplified the kind of leadership more favorable to Luke's Gentile audience. Salome, a fisherman's wife, was a stereotypical Jewish mother, pushing her sons ahead with more zeal than tact. Joanna, living in King Herod's house, revealed no less chutzpah by throwing in her lot with Jesus. Luke describes her earlier as one of the women who used her own financial resources to support Jesus' ministry. Imagine what it meant for the wife of Herod's servant to be known as one of Jesus' supporters! Her independence, both financial and political, would have been seen as very attractive to Luke's Greek readers, especially the women. Joanna was a culturally more viable expression of the same bold female archetype as Salome, so Luke does the switch.

When the women meet the angels in Luke, they are informed that Jesus has been raised and reminded that Jesus predicted his Resurrection as far back as their days in Galilee. The women remember that this is so, another sign that they are full-fledged disciples who listened to Jesus' teachings along with the men. They promptly return to the apostles with this message, and their words are dismissed as "nonsense." Two things are clear from this exchange: one, that the angels treat the women as disciples, and two, that the usual gender underestimation is unhappily at work even so. What is most significant is what the angels did not say: that this message was for the men, that the women should run off and "tell the disciples." In Mark and Matthew, the women are mere messengers, relaying the good news to the men and telling them where Jesus is waiting for them. In Luke, the women are obviously among the disciples, and so they share the news with the rest as equals. How much more disgraceful that they are not taken seriously!

Luke's story omits the reunion in Galilee, because Galilee is passe for his purposes. His non-Jewish readers would be unimpressed that Jesus is a greater leader than Moses, pointing back into the Hebrew past. Luke prefers to point forward: from Jerusalem, center of the Jewish world, to Rome, center of the known world, which will be the destination of the apostles in his next book, the Acts of the Apostles.

After the women's story is dismissed, only Peter is enchanted by the possibilities. He runs to the tomb, sees the burial cloths, and is amazed at what has happened. Before the day is over, Jesus will appear several times and assure many that he is risen. Even the doubters will get another chance to believe the good news.

So here's the point, amid all the floating variables of Easter morning: Everybody gets to peer into the empty tomb and put their faith in Jesus. No one is barred from seeing that hollow and making up his or her mind about what it means. Male or female, distinguished or imperceptible, polished or loud, a big wheel or a bit player, a dawn witness or a latecomer--all are welcome to come and see. The fact that the names change only underscores the idea that the Easter story continues to be retold, with new witnesses emerging all the time. Include your name on the list of the seekers at dawn. What is your motivation, and where do you rendezvous to meet Jesus?

ALICE CAMILLE, author of God's Word Is Alive! and the scripture series "Exploring the Sunday Readings," both available from Twenty-Third Publications.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Claretian Publications
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:biblical interpretation
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Apr 1, 2001
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