They took hold of his feet and worshiped him: A Homily for Easter Day, 2011

April 24, 2011

“Oh God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, and take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.”

“Alleliua. Christ is Risen!”

The Easter acclamation, the good news that the women shared with the disciples after their walk to the tomb, continues to resound across the centuries. We hear the words and repeat them with joy even as some of us might wonder whether they continue to ring true, in our lives or in the world. For all of the joy of Easter, we bring with us today lives that are burdened in all sorts of ways, living in a world that seems to be uncertain and defeated.

We want to believe and everything about this day encourages us to enter into it and celebrate with gusto—the crowd of people in the church in their festive dress, the sound of organ and brass, the familiar hymns, and perhaps above all, after the spring we’ve been having, bright sunshine and a relatively warm day.

We heard the familiar words from the gospel of Matthew of the empty tomb and the appearance of the Risen Christ to the women. The outline, if not the details of the story are so familiar that we may not even pay attention, and with everything else going on around us, it may have been difficult to focus on the words of the gospel reading. But focus we should, for this story raises as many questions as it answers, even as it proclaims the central message of our faith, that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.

The questions begin right at the start—not with the special effects, the earthquake and spectacular descent of an angel from heaven to roll away the stone and instruct the women. The questions begin at the very beginning of the reading. Why did the women come to the tomb? The other gospels answer that question, but not Matthew. We are given no explanation for their visit. In Mark, they came to anoint Jesus’ body for burial, not here. In fact, it’s likely that Matthew left that detail out precisely because it would have seemed nonsensical. He has placed an armed guard at the tomb to protect it from Jesus’ disciples—they certainly wouldn’t have permitted women to enter it. So why did they come? What did they hope to do or see? What did they expect? Was it part of their ritual of grief to visit the tomb of a loved one?

Whatever their motives, their world was upended by the message from the angel and they ran back to the disciples. But they were stopped dead in their tracks by something else, by an appearance of the risen lord and they bowed down at his feet and worshiped him. In a gesture that is full of meaning for the gospels, the women took hold of the feet of the risen Christ. On one level, that gesture is meant to tell us that yes, the body of the risen Christ is a real body, in some way like ours. The Jesus they saw was not a ghost, not a product of Hollywood special effects.

But the gesture has other meanings as well, especially when one takes the other gospels into account. In the gospel of John, when Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Christ, he tells her pointedly, Do not touch me, or perhaps more literally, do not hold on to me. Matthew may intend the gesture to represent the women’s love and care for Jesus, but the language also suggests that by holding on to his feet, they are trying to keep him there. Their grief may have been turned to joy, but their faith seems to expect Christ’s physical presence among them.

There is another way however, in which this gesture calls to mind other gospel stories. A few days earlier, a woman had taken an alabaster jar of ointment and anointed Jesus’ head. Jesus’ commended her actions, saying that she had anointed his body for burial. Whatever Matthew intended, that tender gesture of the women at the feet of Jesus calls to mind that earlier story. So, even in the midst of the joy of resurrection, we are reminded of Jesus’ death, his crucifixion.

That’s as it should be. The resurrection is good news only because of the cross, because of Jesus’ death at the hands of the Roman imperium. The risen Christ lives because his life and love were vindicated by the God whom he called Father, the God to whom he cried out from the cross, “Why have you forsaken me?” The resurrection body of Jesus Christ is glorious because it bears on it the marks of Jesus’ Christ’s suffering. The resurrection is powerful because it confirms that Jesus Christ is present with us, in our suffering.

Like the women who came to the tomb, we have come to this place today. Our reasons for doing so may not be clear to us—we may not even have the courage to whisper our reasons to ourselves. But here we are, hoping to catch a glimpse of resurrection, hoping to see the risen Christ and know the joy of faith. Like the women who clutched Jesus’ feet, we may want to grasp for some thread of certainty in our very uncertain world; like the women, we may want to touch divinity.

There’s nothing wrong with that—in fact, there may be no deeper human desire than to experience our relationship with the God who created us in God’s own image. The stories of the resurrection should give us pause as we approach, however. One of the themes in the gospels, not so present here in Matthew, but certainly in John and Luke, is that Jesus’ closest friends, when confronted with the appearance before them of the Risen Christ, did not recognize him. Their eyes were so clouded by the events that had occurred that they could not believe what was right before them.

An encounter with the risen Christ, in a garden outside of Jerusalem, in our hearts, or at the Eucharist feast, is an amazing, transformative event. But we cannot attempt to hold on to it. An important element of the story that is left untold. The women were commanded, twice, to go and tell the disciples that Jesus had risen from the tomb and would go before them to Galilee. The angel commanded them, but on their way they encountered the risen Christ, knelt and worshiped him. Jesus Christ gave them the same command. Matthew does not describe the scene of them telling the disciples but we know it happened, for Jesus did meet the disciples in Galilee, and the disciples, men and women, proclaimed the good news of his resurrection throughout the world.

Like the women, we have come here; we would see Jesus, we would experience again, or perhaps for the first time, the joy-filled Easter proclamation that Jesus Christ is risen. However great our joy, however great our need to hear the story, sing the hymns and celebrate the risen Christ, that’s not enough. Like the women, like the disciples with whom they shared the good news, we must go forth and proclaim the good news of resurrection. Alleluia. Christ is risen.

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