Several years ago, my nephew, who was about 3 at the time, came to visit us in New Orleans. One day I had the great idea to take Oscar to Audubon Park to feed the ducks. So we got a loaf of bread and walked through Audubon Park until we came to a group of ducks on the shore of the pond there. At this point, Oscar’s mother lets me know that he sometimes is afraid of birds, so I try to reassure him before we begin feeding the ducks. “Oscar, I know the ducks look funny, but they won’t hurt you, Ok? I promise the ducks aren’t going to hurt you.” Oscar nodded as though he understood, but you could tell he was still a little hesitant. So we go over to the ducks and begin tossing scraps of bread their way. Everything is great at first, Oscar’s throwing the bread, the ducks are all chasing after it and fighting over it, he seems full of joy. But then things start to change. The ducks begin searching for the source of the bread and when they see Oscar throw another piece several of them start waddling over towards him. As the ducks get closer, Oscar becomes visibly nervous. He starts saying, quietly and to himself at first, “They won’t hurt you. They won’t hurt you.” But as the ducks get closer and closer, he begins to shout, “They won’t hurt you! They won’t hurt you!” Now he is running to hide behind my leg as he is screaming through tears, “They won’t hurt you!” Feeling as though I’ve misled my poor nephew about the dangers of ducks, I shooed them away and eventually got little Oscar to calm down.
Fear is a natural human emotion. It is often a healthy and productive emotion to feel, from an evolutionary perspective, developing a fear of predators or danger, helps us to survive. But fear can also keep us from fully living. We can allow our fears to curtail the productive, positive, possibilities in our lives. We can allow fear to limit us, to control us, to paralyze us. One assumes that such paralyzing fear has gripped Jesus’ male disciple’s after hearing of their beloved leaders’ crucifixion, that they have hidden themselves away, for on the morning of the resurrection it is only the women who are brave enough to venture out to the tomb where Jesus lay. Of course, the fear of the men and the contrasting bravery of the women should not come as a surprise to us. Matthew also reports that it was only the women who stayed by Jesus’ side throughout his entire ordeal, his arrest, his trial, his crucifixion and his burial. While the men betrayed Jesus, denied Jesus, and deserted Jesus, the women remained faithful, they bravely followed Jesus to his death.
So these women, the two Mary’s, arise early the day after the Sabbath, to go and see their beloved Jesus once more. But as they are approaching the tomb incredible, extraordinary events take place. An earthquake occurs, the very earth shakes, as an Angel of the Lord, descends to the earth, rolls the stone away, and sits atop it. We are told that the guards at the tomb, shook with fear and were “like dead,” presumably paralyzed by their terror. And why wouldn’t they be? Who isn’t scared during an earthquake? And an angel appearing like a bolt of lightning out of nowhere would probably be a bit of a shock too. These are not normal occurrences, they are supernatural, they are extra- ordinary. What Matthew is communicating by these supernatural occurrences, the earthquake and the angel, is that what has happened is outside of the normal realm possibility, outside of human potential, that in the resurrection it is God who is acting in a very new way.
Knowing how the unusual can be frightening, the angel begins to relay the good news with the admonition, “Do not be afraid.“ He then relays the incredible news of Christ’s resurrection: “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.”
The Mary’s follow the angel’s instruction to go quickly to tell the disciples, but they are not quite able to shed their fear. Matthew tells us that they are running “with fear and great joy.” What an odd, contradictory set of emotions to have. Fear and great joy, together. Can you think of a time when you felt both fear and great joy?
I was thinking about that myself, when it was I felt both fear and joy simultaneously, and I knew when it was right away. Last November, my wife gave birth to our first child, a healthy baby girl named Ruth. And as every new parent will tell you, that day, the day of my daughter’s birth was one of great joy. I was overjoyed that she was born, that she was alive, that she was healthy, that she was my daughter, that my wife was ok, that both of them had made it through this ordeal safely. It was a rush of joy. But what I will also tell you, is that I was terrified. I can remember sitting in the hospital room alone with my wife, holding little Ruth, and thinking how irresponsible of it was of the hospital staff to just leave us alone with this infant. Surely, they didn’t think we knew how to take care of this thing? Why on earth we they leave the two of us, unsupervised with an infant? Where were the adults? Good Lord, I thought, we’re going to have to do this on our own. We are responsible for this life! I was terrified. Filled with great joy at this miracle of new life, but also terrified that now everything had changed, that this awesome responsibility had been bestowed upon me.
I imagine this was how the Mary’s felt running from the tomb. There was the overwhelming joy of the miracle that had just seen and heard. Christ was risen! Jesus was alive! And yet, how could such an earthshattering revelation not leave you terrified? Death had been overcome, Jesus’ seeming defeat had become his victory, and now they were being entrusted with sharing the news. These women were entrusted to be the very first witnesses to the resurrection, they alone were entrusted with sharing the good news. They were being made the first apostles, apostles to the apostles. In just a moment everything had changed, the world was brand new, and this incredible responsibility now lay on their shoulders. Could any of this even be possible? Would they be up to the task? They ran to tell the disciples filled with fear and great joy.
It is possible that the weight of responsibility, the fear of failure, the fear that somehow they would not be able to communicate what had happened, or that they would not be believed, or that any other number of things could go wrong, might have stopped the Mary’s from ever telling anyone what they had seen and heard at Jesus’ tomb. But as they were running in fear, the risen Christ, Jesus himself appeared to them. He gives them greetings, and every last shred of self-conciousness and doubt leaves them, they fall at his feet and worship him, holding tightly to this Jesus who has returned to them. And then Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” He repeats the command of the angel, and he reminds them of their task. But I imagine that things are a little different for the women after they hear the words, “Do not be afraid,” from Jesus himself.
When I told Oscar that the ducks wouldn’t hurt him, it was little like the angel telling the women not to be afraid. I’m an adult, and Oscar is a child. Children often give greater authority to the words of adults, just as in matters of faith angels would be granted greater authority. But Oscar didn’t know me well. He tried to believe in what I had told him. It was enough to get him to start feeding the ducks. But when the evidence began to contradict my statement, when the ducks began coming after him faster and faster, it became harder and harder to believe. Oscar tried repeating the phrase, “They won’t hurt you, they won’t hurt you,” but he couldn’t get himself to believe it. I had told him ducks wouldn’t hurt him, he had repeated it to himself, but he didn’t know me that well, and those ducks were terrifying, so he ran behind my leg for safety.
The world is a dangerous place. Terrible things happen routinely. Things do not always work out for the best, in fact, they seldom do. It is hard to believe that death, cruelty, despair, apathy, and meaninglessness do not have the last word. It is nice to have others tell us that things will be ok, it is good to try and reassure ourselves that somehow in the end things will be ok, but so often that is just not enough. Its not enough to contradict the evidence. There’s just too much that is wrong in the world, that is scary, that is bad. Those ducks are mean looking and they are coming right for us. Telling ourselves otherwise is not enough to make it not so.
But hearing the words, “Do not be afraid,” from the one who was tortured, mocked, humiliated, and hung to die on a cross, carries a good deal more authority than it does when anyone else says it. When one who has experienced the fear above all fear, has experienced death itself, tells us not to be afraid, He speaks as one with authority. Jesus is not saying that things can’t go wrong. For surely he knows that they can. He is not saying that all will now be perfect, because we know that it won’t. When Jesus tells us not to be afraid, it is because ultimately we have nothing to fear. It is because whatever happens to us, no matter how bad it gets, God has the power to carry us through it. It is because whatever we have to face, we do not have to face it alone. It is because not even death is stronger than the love of God. It is because in the end, and sometimes even before it, God’s love is victorious. When Jesus tells us not to be afraid, he does so with authority.
The first word that the risen Christ speaks is translated “Greetings,” in our English version of the bible. It is a good translation, as the greek word being translated, was a form of greeting. The more literal meaning of the word however, is rejoice. I like that translation a little better, because if the women trusted Jesus, if they were able to leave behind their fear, then all that would be left is great joy. Great joy. That is what the resurrection is about. It does not offer a superficial happiness that must hide itself from the pain of the world. It does not offer a utopian existence free from all suffering. The resurrection of Jesus Christ faces all of the pain and suffering in the world, acknowledges the ducks that terrify us, and nevertheless proclaims with authority that we need not be afraid. For one who loves us more than we can love ourselves, has gone before us, and goes with us now. And with the power of the risen Christ, we may, from time to time, shed all fear and live fully. We may live in great joy and rejoicing, for Christ has risen. Amen.