The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most important aspect of Christianity. This fundamental of the Christian faith is what distinguishes Christians and Christianity from every other religion on the planet. The resurrection of Christ is so important and comforting because it confirms four important things: 1) Christ is the Son of God, 2) What He taught is true, 3) God the Father accepted Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for the reconciliation of the world, and 4) all those who believe in Christ will rise to eternal life. This is how John begins his resurrection account:
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes (John 20: 1-10).
What a dark Sunday morning it must have been indeed, when Mary Magdalene and the other women went to Jesus’ tomb. After having declared the work of redemption finished, Jesus gave up his spirit and died on the cross. Being the great Sabbath day, however, the Jews did not want to leave Jesus’ body, and those of the other condemned men, on the cross. Jesus lifeless corpse was removed from the cross expediently, after the Roman soldiers were assured of his death by a spear thrust into his side. Joseph of Aramathea, a secret disciple of Jesus, asked Pilate for the body and his request was granted. Joseph of Aramathea placed Jesus’ body in his own tomb, one that was brand new and had never held any other remains. Nicodemeus, the member of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish governing council which had delivered Jesus to Pilate) who had come to Jesus to talk theology by night, and who had called him a teacher sent from God, provided the customary myrrhs and aloes used according to Jewish burial customs. They were, however, in a bit of a hurry.
It was not only the Sabbath, but the great Sabbath. The setting of the sun signaled the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath connected to the Passover, called the day of Preparation. They had to hurry and get Jesus’ body into the tomb, and at least prepare his body enough so that they, or someone else, could come and finish the job after the Sabbath was over. Handling a dead body on the Sabbath would make them ceremonially unclean, and thus unable to participate. And so, Jesus’ body reposed for that Sabbath in a newly hewn tomb, donated by a rich man, waiting to be embalmed by some of Jesus’ loved ones using the spices provided by – at the very least – a man among the Pharisees who was sympathetic to this poor, misguided rabbi, who had gotten into temple politics over his head.
Enter Mary Magdalene and the other women. The task of properly preparing Jesus for burial fell to them. Now, don’t misunderstand what I am about to say. We live in an enlightened and progressive society, and our views of women and their role in family life and society have changed considerably since the time of Christ. That being said, however, we have to understand the significance of Mary Magdalene making the discovery that Jesus’ body was not in the tomb where he was left on Friday afternoon.
By all social conventions of the time, Mary Magdalene’s testimony – or the testimony of any woman for that matter – was, if not meaningless, most certainly less valid than testimony given by a man. Women had weaker legal status in ancient Israel than men (Packer & Tenney, 1980). Women were recognized as little more than servants and certainly could not testify in legal proceedings and the like. According to Jewish tradition as recorded in the Talmud, a valid witness must be an adult free man, not a woman or a slave, and not be related to any of the other witnesses or judges. The witness must be an honest person who can be trusted not to lie (Testimony in Jewish Law, 2012).
Women were lowly; women were despised. They were considered weak and inferior by Jew and Roman alike. Ancient Israel was a patriarchal society; the father or oldest male in the family made the decisions concerning the family, and the women had little to say. A woman, it could be said, was worth only half as much monitarily as a man. A young woman did not think of a career outside her home. Girls were raised to get married and have children. If a woman was childless, she was thought to be cursed (Packer & Tenney, 1980). It is my guess that Mary Magdalene would have been considered all the more despised and lowly, as she had formerly been demon-possessed and had been healed by Jesus. Many writers conjecture that Mary Magdalene was the adulteress mentioned in Luke 7:36-50, though there is no evidence for that (and I do not subscribe to that idea).
Why would God allow a “foolish” woman, whose testimony would not be considered valid by the conventions of the day, to discover the greatest miracle in human history, the foundation of the Christian faith, the thing that was the culmination of thousands of years of prophecy in Holy Scripture? Would God not want someone “reliable” to be the first person to find Jesus’ empty tomb and make a report to the disciples? St. Paul provides us with some insight into this:
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
I am not saying that women are inferior to men, or that they are foolish, or that they are weak, or that they are inherently low and to be despised. That is not what Scripture teaches about women anyway, but that is a discussion for another day. By setting things up so that Mary Magdalene made this incredible discovery, God was mocking the unbelieving world and its governing authorities, which did subscribe to such nonsense.
God was taking what the world held to be of no account – this lowly woman – and using her, elevating her, to “bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” God used Mary Magdalene to bring Peter and John to the empty tomb, and thus, in a manner of speaking, to their true and living faith. They did not yet understand the significance of the empty tomb – that it was the sign of the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises, not to mention Jesus’ own declarations that he must rise from the dead – but they would, by God’s working. They would all come to understand, by the living faith created in them by God’s Holy Spirit, that because Jesus lives and is no longer in the grave, they too – along with all who believe in Christ – were forgiven, absolved of the guilt of their sin, and would live.
There would be more evidence of Jesus’ resurrection later. Jesus would appear to Mary Magdalene physically, as well as to his disciples. But initially, God used the foolishness of this world to shame the world’s wise. There is evidence of Christ’s resurrection, and St. Paul supplies us with a good summary:
He was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that He appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all He appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born (1 Cor 15:4-8).
The world has generally looked at the followers of Jesus with some kind of mixture of pity and amusement because it counts the message of the cross as foolishness. There is no logic to support this fundamental pillar of the Christian faith, though there is evidence. Then again, that’s why the term faith is used. Martin Luther wrote, “I know that I cannot, by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him” (Luther, 1986) Luther understood that the gift of faith in Christ comes from God by the power of His Holy Spirit, through his means of Word and Sacrament.
There is no logical explanation for the mass conversion of 3,000 people in Jerusalem on Pentecost if what they heard preached was false. There is no logical reason for the apostles who, save John, suffered martyrdom in some of the most horrible ways imaginable, to keep on professing a lie at the cost of their lives, simply to save face. There is, however, an illogical reason, at least by the standards of mankind, for what they did. The Holy Spirit had created faith in them; though it could not be proven by logic or reason, what they – and we – profess is true. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Surely these men would not willingly subject themselves to torture and death for something they knew to be false. The author of Hebrews writes:
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1).
As Christians we have faith in Jesus, who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” We have faith – we can be sure and certain – that because Jesus lives, we also will live. What wonderful news! How could we not help but live the new life that we have been given to God’s glory?