An angel of the Lord descended from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. – Matthew 28:20
Of all the gospel’s scenes depicting Easter’s empty tomb, this one is my favorite. Dawn. The two Marys, their eyes mistier than the early morning, are on their way to where Jesus was buried. A great earthquake shakes the ground beneath their feet. An angel of the Lord descends from above, rolls back the stone that seals Jesus’ tomb and then promptly SITS on it.
What is the message in the angel perched atop the tomb stone?
The saying “once the toothpaste is squeezed out of the tube, you can’t put it back” comes to mind. The phrase is a slang for something that has come out that won’t go back in.
I’m seeing the angel like that. God’s messenger is seated at the entryway into where they laid a dead Jesus. Some wanted to seal-off his message about people living-into a world of God’s imagining. But now a vigilant divine messenger is stationed upon the very stone meant to shut Jesus up once and for all. The stone is now rolled away in an angelic exclamation point. The toothpaste is out of the tube. There’s no going back.
A holy herald with attitude is positioned to say: “He is NOT here! He has been raised. Fear not. Tell others” (Matthew 28: 1-10). The angel’s words are meant for the two Marys, the Temple and Roman guards, and all the others paralyzed by disbelief.
An oft-repeated word in the COVID-19 diseased world of the 2020 paschal season is “unprecedented.” We are living in “unprecedented times.” The challenge to our economy and way of life is “unprecedented.” The trials and testing that families, communities, congregations and governments face are “unprecedented” as many of us find ourselves paralyzed by disbelief at all of the suffering, sorrow and loss in COVID-19’s wake.
It is important to remember that the word “unprecedented” also applies to Easter. Many of us have normalized Easter to the point where we don’t think of it in unprecedented ways. But an angel seated atop a certain rolled-away tombstone begs to differ. Not just because we will not gather in our churches in keeping faith with government-mandated social distancing, either. This Easter will be unprecedented precisely because the angel has yet again assumed the position pointing to the abiding paschal proclamation: that fear will give way to joy, life is stronger than death, healing will overpower disease, love is stronger than hate, hope is stronger than despair and new beginnings will break through dead ends, that God’s death-defying and boundary breaking love will overcome the world.
“He is not here, for he has been raised….he is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him,” (Matthew 28:7) is what the angel atop the the rolled away stone told the first Christian witnesses who built their lives, faith and communities on Jesus’ resurrection. (And it is important to remember that these first Christians gathered in homes to celebrate their faith like many of us this year.)
So how about an unprecedented Easter this year? It will be unprecedented one way or another. So why not in some remarkable resurrections? How will you let the angel atop the rolled-away stone speak to your life?
What life-giving compassion might you offer someone in these days of waiting, days when it is all too easy to play the victim? What extraordinary godly things might you imagine and bring to fruition in these days of sheltering in place? What new life and miraculous things may come from them when the times of quarantine end? How might you have a fresh start to becoming the change you long to see in the world? What outrageous spark of new life will there be that a typical, usual, normal Easter could never have conceived?
We are Methodists, so the message the tomb-topping angel and risen Lord that angel declares is not merely an invitation to introspective piety. At the same time it is meant to stir-up active engagement in and with the world around us, especially places where the world’s people are broken, hurting, imprisoned in jails or by oppressive systems, or otherwise left for dead. How can Jesus’ resurrection be applied to the least, the last and the lost? How can who-I-am and how-I-live actively bring the whole of creation to “soar where Christ has led?”
This Easter might be as unprecedented as the first. Look, there’s an angel on top of a rolled away stone. The open tomb is empty. The road is before not behind us. Jesus is out ahead still calling “Follow me.” The toothpaste is out of the tube.
Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.
Rev. Alfred T. Day, III
The General Commission on Archives and History