Another personal and biblical reflection on Easter on the Saturday in Easter Week, April 27, 2019
When all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all (Jesus’) acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things (Luke 23.48-49)
The crowd, with curious, voyeuristic eyes, watched a man dying a gruesome death.
His friends, especially the women, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them,(1) with anxious, anguished eyes, witnessed their dying friend.(2)
There is a difference between watching and witnessing, which makes a difference in what Easter means.
These women continued their witness, coming to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, hastily taken from the cross two days before, for burial. They found not Jesus’ body, but two angels who declared, “He is not here! He is risen!” The women told the disciples, who did not believe. Peter did go to the tomb, looked in, and walked away “amazed,” but only that Jesus’ body was missing.
Again, the women witnessed.
At the crucifixion, the crowd saw only a man dying. The women witnessed their friend taking his last breath.
On the first day of the week, the disciples did not believe and Peter saw only an empty tomb. The women witnessed that Jesus was alive not because they had seen him, but because “they remembered his words,” meaning that his spirit, his life had come alive in them.
After years of Easters, this I have learned…
If I only watch Easter, even if that means I, like Peter, see the empty tomb, there is no guarantee I will believe. If I only watch Easter, even if that means I see Jesus rise from the dead, that (as is the case with many observable phenomena) would elicit my momentary, breathless, “Wow!” then I, soon after, doubtlessly (as has been the case with phenomena I have observed), would return to life as I know it. After all, I am human. As human, my capacity for enduring amazement, indeed, lasting transformation through what I merely watch is negligible to nonexistent.
However, when I witness Easter, when Jesus, his word, his spirit, his life come alive in me, I find myself in a different place, for I become a different person.
After years of Easters, I’m still not sure how it happens that Jesus comes alive in me. The precise elements and operation of “the mystical mechanics” of God in Christ working through the Holy Spirit elude me. Nevertheless, I know that it happens. For whenever I see another person, whether known or unknown, whether similar or different, and my conscious thought is “What is my unconditionally benevolent behavior toward this person?” then I witness Easter in me. And, when I choose to act in love, then I bear witness to Easter with that person.
I recall another Jewish story about a rabbi who tells me something, everything about how to witness Easter.
One day, a rabbi turned to his disciples and asked: “How do you know when night has become day?”
One disciple answered: “You know that night has become day when you look in the distance and see a tree and know whether it bears figs or olives.”
The rabbi replied, “No.”
Another disciple answered: “You know that night has become day when you look in the distance and can tell the difference between a sheep and a goat.”
The rabbi replied, “No.”
None of the remaining disciples dared speak. After a moment’s silence, the rabbi said: “You know that night has become day when you can look in the distance and see in the face of any man, woman, or child your brother or sister whom you are called to love. Until you can do that, even at high noon, you remain in darkness.”
(1) As identified in Luke 24.10
(2) The distinction between seeing (or watching) and witnessing can be detected not in English translations of the biblical text, which, variously, may use these and other words interchangeably, but rather only in the Koine Greek. There, in the original text, the crowds were theōrēsantes, literally, “gazing at” or “staring at” (as in watching) a spectacle. Jesus’ friends were horōsai, literally, “seeing” (or witnessing) his dying.
Illustration: The Holy Women Witness from Afar, James Tissot (1836-1902)