On the Gospel of Matthew 28:1-10
The Easter VigilThe Gospel read at the Easter Vigil is not long, nor is it complex. Two women visit Christ’s tomb. There, they meet an angel who tells them ‘He is not here, for he has risen, as he said he would’. On their way to tell the disciples they meet the risen Jesus and fall down before him. He says: ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers that they must leave for Galilee; they will see me there’.
Reading this text in such a reductive way can make it appear flat and undramatic. But when this Gospel is read during the Easter Vigil it is far from flat – it is the climax of salvation history, the climax of the story of God’s fulfilment of his promises, the final seal on God’s covenant of love.
The Easter Vigil begins with the people gathered around a fire. From the fire, the Paschal Candle is lit, and from this candle, which symbolizes the light of the resurrection, each one present lights their own small candle. The light of the resurrection, after a long dark Lent, is finally made present to each believer. What happens next is a long ceremony of scripture reading in the Church, during which we recall the whole sweep of God’s work.
We begin with the creation story from Genesis (Gen 1:1-2:2). There we are reminded that the whole world is dependent on God for its existence, that each creature is loved into existence by God, and that, for this reason, the world is good.
Then we are introduced to the main character of Genesis, Abraham, and the story of his willingness to sacrifice his own son at God’s command (Gen 22:1-18). This story has two important things to tell us. Firstly, the sacrifice of the ram in Isaac’s place is a foreshadowing of Christ, who suffered and died in our place: ‘ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried… he never opened his mouth, like a lamb that is led to the slaughter house, like a sheep that is dumb before its shearers never opening its mouth’ (Isaiah 52). Secondly, it reminds us of God’s covenant with Abraham: ‘I swear by my own self – it is the Lord who speaks – because you have done this… I will shower blessings on you, I will make your descendants as many as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore’. We Christians are Abraham’s descendants, not by flesh but by faith. We are ‘children of the promise’(Rom 9:8). The millions of Christians in every nation on earth who sit and listen to this reading at the Easter Vigil are themselves the very fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham!
We turn then to the Book of Exodus, and the story of God’s leading Israel out of slavery in Egypt (Ex 14:15-15:1). This story is central to our understanding of the Paschal mystery. Just as the Israelites were saved from slavery, so we are ‘freed from slavery to sin’ by Christ’s death and resurrection. ‘It is he that clothed death with shame and put the devil into mourning as Moses did Pharaoh. It is he that struck down crime and made injustice childless as Moses did Egypt. It is he that delivered us from slavery to liberty, from darkness to light, from death to life’ (Melito of Sardis). After hearing the story of Israel’s miraculous escape, we sing with them their victory song: ‘I will sing to the Lord, glorious his triumph!’ (Ex 15:1).
The next four readings are from prophetic books: two from the prophet Isaiah, one from Baruch and one from Ezekiel. In the first of these readings (Isaiah 54:5-14), God is understood as a husband, and the people of God as his wife. He assures of his steadfast love: ‘for the mountains may depart, the hills be shaken, but my love for you will never leave you and my covenant of peace with you will never be shaken’. The next reading (Isaiah 55:1-11) speaks of the ‘word that goes from [God’s] mouth… carrying out [his] will and succeeding in what it was sent to do’. Baruch (Bar 3:9-15, 32-4:4) exhorts Israel to return to God and to his ways: ‘Listen, Israel, to commands that bring life… Israel, blessed are we: what pleases God has been revealed to us’. Finally, Ezekiel (Ezek 36:16-17a, 18-28) speaks the word of the Lord to Israel: ‘I am going to take you from among the nations… and bring you home to your own land… I shall give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you; I shall put my spirit in you, and make you keep my laws and sincerely respect my observances… You shall be my people and I will be your God’.
Just before the Gospel, we leap ahead to a New Testament letter: Romans (Rom 6:3-11). St Paul teaches the Christians in Rome what Christ’s resurrection means for them: ‘we believe that having died with Christ we shall return to life with him’.
It is only after contemplating this rich and fascinating patchwork of faith, infidelity, worship, betrayal and hope that we can really understand the Gospel. It is only after hearing of God’s works that we can appreciate the significance of the empty tomb: it is a new creation; it is our salvation and the fulfilment of the promise; it is our path through the Red Sea; it is God’s neverending love; it is the achievement of his Word; it brings us life; it brings us home; it is our resurrection.
‘Blessed are we: for what pleases God has been revealed to us’. With the rich knowledge of faith, our only response when faced with the Risen Christ is to do what the women at the tomb did: ‘falling down before him, [they] clasped his feet’. And then we hear Christ’s words: ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers that they must leave for Galilee; they will see me there…’
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped 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 28:1-10