“Alleluia! Christ is risen!”
We can make that joyous declaration because women were the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Women were the very first apostles of an Easter faith, and we must not take this for granted.
The first-century Mediterranean world was a thoroughly patriarchal society: poor women had no legal rights whatsoever; they were never taught to read or write; and they were considered the property of their husbands.
Even wealthy women—who had only just a tad more freedom—even they could not vote, could not stand for political office, had no formal role in public life, and their testimony could not be admitted into a court of law.
Let us, therefore, note this very carefully: in that thoroughly patriarchal society, all four Gospel writers—most assuredly all of them men—make perfectly clear that women were the very first witnesses of Easter!
Luke takes this storyline still further (24:1-12) by noting rather painfully that the men to whom those women delivered the glorious news did not believe the women, and these men were some of the closest friends of Jesus.
This centering of women in what I would certainly consider the core story of Christian faith is not merely remarkable; it’s a miracle.
I think these Gospel writers are making a theological point by putting women on center-stage in the Easter story. And the point is this: the death-dealing world of patriarchal domination is over. There are lingering effects of that long history of domination, to be sure, some of them quite painful and long-lived, even traumatic. But that world of patriarchal violence will never have the final word; and indeed, concerning new life, women have the very first word.
Still, I have to wonder: why did those male disciples refuse to believe the women? This should have been the happiest news they had ever heard. Why, in Luke’s words, did it seem to them merely an “idle tale”?
Luke suggests a reason with the question posed to those apostolic women by angels at the empty tomb: Why are you looking for the living among the dead? That’s an important question all of us should be asking ourselves quite regularly: why do we keep returning to worn-out patterns and toxic relationships and lifeless institutions?
Here’s an answer I’ve been sitting with for a while: because death is easier than new life.
Winter’s reluctance to yield to spring here in western Michigan this year reminded me of those cold wintry mornings over the last few months when the alarm goes off and the wind is howling and the snow is blowing and it’s dark outside.
On mornings like that, my Australian shepherd dog Judah and I both agree that it is far easier to pull up the covers and stay cozy and warm in bed.
Death is easier like that because life requires something of us. Life requires that we actually throw back the covers, get up, get dressed, and go out to engage with the world.
We seek the living among the dead because that’s what we’ve been taught and it feels natural; we already know how to nurse grudges and cultivate resentments and sow hatred and start wars…it’s actually quite easy.
We seek the living among the dead because it’s just easier to live conveniently and for our own comfort and among our own kind…even when we’re fomenting violence and killing the planet in the process.
We seek the living among the dead because death, in all its many forms, is so close at hand and so easy to find—in our communities, in our politics, and in our institutions.
And still, and yet, God is with us even there.
We can choose the familiarity of death and God will still be with us. God will never abandon us; not ever.
That’s good news, and there is even better news: The God who made us wants still more life for us, in abundance, the kind of vibrant life that we can scarcely imagine.
God has a dream; and especially in these Great Fifty Days of Easter, God dreams of a richer life for us, for all of us, for the whole of God’s creation. And God has turned this dream into a promise by raising Jesus from the dead, and God seals this promise with the testimony of women in a patriarchal society.
Yesterday morning in my little parish here in (snowy) Saugatuck, Michigan, we baptized a baby as part of our Easter Day jubilations. His name is George Alexander River Burt, and how wonderful that one of his names is “River”! Into that glorious river of new life that flows from an empty tomb, we baptized that dear baby in endless Alleluias and with a gladness that shall never die.
We also made some promises to George. We promised to do all that we can to ensure he never, ever hears anything about God that isn’t loving, graceful, and full of life. We promised to help him know that he is a cherished child of God, that he himself gives God endless delight.
I led the gathered faithful in those promises with tears in my eyes because many of us didn’t grow up that way, with all those reassurances and with such fortifying confidence in God’s love for us. That’s exactly why we renew those promises for ourselves whenever we make them for someone else. And on Easter Day in particular, we also ask God to lead all of us out of our various tombs, whatever they may be, and into the shocking brightness of a new day.
Shocking, because God will be with us regardless of the choices we make.
And this is also true: God still longs for us to choose life, abundant life.
So let’s do it.