“With Fear and Great Joy”

Anne Lamott says, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” Mary Magdalene and the other Mary faced their fear, that first Easter morning. They went to see the tomb, to be present to their loss and the trauma of their community, to hold vigil in that cold, dark, damp space of death. They went to see the tomb, to come to terms with a peaceful resister, slain. Love’s revolutionary prophet, silence. The people’s hope for a better future laid in its final resting place.

Easter comes to us only when we see the tomb—the immovable stones that block our way to liberation, the airless prisons we have been called home. Easter comes as we hold vigil with the “mother of all bombs”, and the possibility of nuclear conflict, with immigration raids that tear families apart, with racial bias that makes a mockery of justice, with the killing hate of transphobia, with holocaust denials and threats to register our Muslim friends, with the groaning of our earth’s troubled climate.

Recently, our confirmation youth and other members of the congregation gathered for a time of learning about addiction. Everyone’s story is their own, so I won’t name names. But I can tell you that we saw the tomb. We held vigil with its deathly silence and chilling drafts as people spoke of losing marriages and jobs, as they described patterns of self-harm, and the need to medicate with uppers and downers to get through the day. As they explained that they were using drugs to blunt a deep discomfort of living in their own skin. As the NIH website puts it, “to an addicted person, [the object of the addiction] become life itself, driving the compulsive use of it—even in the face of dire life consequences.”[1]

Even as we held vigil at the tomb, Easter came to us. A great earthquake of love and joy shook that circle huddled in the church basement as people named their dates of sobriety, celebrated their months and years of recovery. The imprisoning stones were heaved away with a loud crack as they remembered how, even on the path toward certain death, they wanted to live again.

Fear plays a leading role in Matthew’s resurrection story. Only Matthew mentions the soldiers guarding the tomb. Indeed, they symbolize the fact that, in Matthew, more than any other Gospel, the clear threat of violent death shadows Jesus from the very beginning. Remember how King Herod, having heard of the birth of the “infant king” ordered all the baby boys in Jerusalem slaughtered? Remember that Jesus became a refugee as his family fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s jealous rage? The soldiers at the tomb represent terror itself. They symbolize the power that drives cruel nails through flesh; that mocks a dying man as he gasps for breath; that makes a gruesome example of one person in order to keep all the people down.

It’s so very fitting that the representatives of terror “shook with fear,” that the agents of death themselves became “like dead men.” Not to demonize them; they were just following orders, doing their work so that they could feed their families. I want to leave room for the possibility that the soldiers’ fear changed them. That in the blinding light of the angel messenger they saw the tomb as their own tomb, and with the sudden earthquake, they were shaken free from their deathly captivity. I want to imagine that the fear they felt in that moment was of a different quality from the fear that motivated them to take up arms. The fear that the emperor’s commands evoked in them.

Perhaps their fear was more like awe; more like a force compelling them to step closer, even as their limbs trembled and their hearts quaked.

Really, it’s the same sort of fear that gripped the women. Matthew describes their feelings with such an interesting phrase. He says they ran from the tomb, ran to tell the others “with fear and great joy.” Fear and great joy. Scholar Melinda Quivik comments that perhaps Matthew’s linking of fear and joy is his way of saying “that we cannot see what is truly important without also experiencing fear.”[2] If you have welcomed a child into the world or laid on your back in the grass, gazing at the galaxies all around us or started a new year at school or a new job, then you probably know what fearful joy, and joyous fear, feels like.

“Do not be afraid,” both the angel, and then Jesus, declared to the women. I don’t think these words are a rebuke of their fear, a denial of fear’s reality or even its necessity. I hear, “Do not be afraid,” as a tender affirmation of courage, as an invitation not to let fear rule us, or paralyze us. The women remained with Jesus as he died. They came to see the tomb. And then, they continued to hold vigil with a mystery even more terrifying than death. Jesus was gone. The angel rolled the stone away, not to release Jesus, but to reveal his absence. When Jesus appeared to the women, later, they must have realized that resurrected life is life of a different quality altogether. It is life that no stone can block, no tomb can hold. Life that is centered in God’s love, love that is stronger than our fear, love that persists through death.

Julia Esquivel, a Guatemalan poet, theologian and activist, holds vigil, through her writing, at the tomb. Her country endured 30 years of civil war, a conflict that was started and perpetuated by the U.S. Hundreds of thousands of indigenous people were murdered by the armies of the Guatemalan state.[3] Esquivel’s poem, “Threatened with Resurrection,” concludes with these stanzas:

There is something here within us
Which doesn’t let us sleep, which doesn’t let us rest,
Which doesn’t stop pounding deep inside,
It is the silent, warm weeping of Indian women without their husbands,
It is the sad gaze of the children
Fixed there beyond memory,
In the very pupil of our eyes
Which during sleep, though closed, keep watch
With each contraction of the heart
In every wakening…

What keeps us from sleeping,
Is that they have threatened us with resurrection!
Because at each nightfall,
Though exhausted from the endless inventory
Of killings since 1954,
Yet we continue to love life,
And do not accept their death!

…Because in this marathon of Hope,
there are always others to relieve us
in bearing the courage necessary
to arrive at the goal which lies beyond death…

Accompany us then on this vigil
And you will know what it is to dream!
You will then know how marvelous it is
To live threatened with resurrection!
To dream awake,
To keep watch asleep
To live while dying
And to already know oneself resurrected!

[The congregation sings, “Don’t Be Afraid.]


[1] https://science.education.nih.gov/supplements/nih2/addiction/guide/essence.html

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1990

[3] http://www.veteransofhope.org/veterans/julia-esquivel/