Dawn: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Easter Sunday
Easter Sunday (Year C): Luke 24:1-12
1) Easter Sunday! Today begins the season of Eastertide, fifty days of celebrating Jesus’ resurrection - outpacing the forty days of Lent, and at the same time making up roughly one seventh of the entire year, in effect a “sabbath” writ-large for the year as a whole. The resurrection is so great a mystery, and calls for so grand a party, that merely one day won’t do. Bring on the fifty-day season of jubilation!
2) Easter Sunday! At the very outset of Luke’s Gospel, the priest Zechariah (Elizabeth’s hubby and John the Baptizer’s dad) sings a song known today as the “Benedictus,” including the line: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79). Now - at last - that dawn has come!
3) But dawn is not the day. Easter Sunday is only the beginning: Jesus’ resurrection is the “first fruits” of the harvest, an encouraging glimpse of what’s ahead (compare 1 Cor 15:20-23). Accordingly, it comes not as the solution to creation’s problems but rather as profound assurance that a new, irrevocable era has dawned - and in the end, love and justice, shalom and joy, will have the final word. The sun will rise!
1) Having rested on the sabbath, the women arrive to embalm Jesus’ body the next day, “the first day of the week,” a poetic turn suggesting a new beginning (Luke 24:1). Tombs were typically sealed with a large, disc-shaped stone, and this one, the early light reveals, has been inexplicably rolled aside. The corpse is nowhere to be found, and instead two angelic figures in “dazzling clothes” - reminiscent of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-31) - appear beside the women: Why do you look for the living among the dead?
2) The women betray no sign of expecting the resurrection; Jesus has spoken of it before, but like the male disciples, they either don’t remember or don’t understand (see Luke 9:22; 18:33). The angelic figures remind them this way: “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Humanity must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again” (Luke 24:6-7).
3) The Greek term for “remember” here - mimnesko - means more than just mere recollection; it means something more like “to bring past actions to bear on the present, with new power and insight.” The same underlying word appears in Mary’s Magnificat with reference to God helping Israel “in remembrance of God’s mercy,” and also in the crucified thief’s plea, “Jesus, remember me” (Luke 1:54; 23:42). It’s a tangible, consequential kind of recalling, a form of remembering that is at the same time a form of action - and for the women at the tomb, it carries the force of an epiphany and a commission: “Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest” (Luke 24:8-9).
4) The men receive the women’s proclamation as “an idle tale” - or, as another translation has it, as “nonsense” (Luke 24:11). They don’t believe. Here Luke deploys the same term - apisteo - he uses later in Acts for those who “refuse to believe” Paul’s preaching (Acts 28:24). The irony here is intense: this is the first post-Easter Christian sermon, proclaimed by Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women who were with them - and the men, the supposed “apostles,” refuse to believe it.
1) It’s Easter Sunday, but the reading from Luke is hardly a simple story of triumph! It’s only the beginning - and rightly so, since a mystery as fathomless as Easter can only begin on a single day, beckoning us to enter into its depths and riches for the fifty-day season to follow, and beyond.
2) In this way, the reading makes clear that Easter Sunday is not the end of Lent - it’s the beginning of Eastertide, and in a deeper sense, the beginning of Christian life, a life lived in the light of God’s resurrection. The trumpets and lilies signal not a final victory, then, but a commencement, a launch, a kickoff - a dawn of a new day.
3) And that “new day” still has shadows, and wounds (Jesus rises, please note, as a still-wounded savior), and struggles, and doubts. Indeed, if our first reaction to a report of resurrection is skepticism, we’re in good company. Jesus’ own disciples, the ones who arguably knew him best, initially refuse to believe. Peter, after seeing for himself that the tomb is empty, is “amazed” - but not yet convinced (Luke 24:12). And as we’ll see in the weeks ahead, this kind of stance - amazed-and-not-necessarily-convinced - is what Easter faith looks like more often than not. For after all, there are at least two ways to miss a miracle: first, to dismiss it, to reject it too readily, as if astonishing things never happen; and second, to domesticate it, to accept it too readily, as if it isn’t astonishing at all.
4) The women, however, take their amazement another step forward: whether or not they’re completely convinced, they proclaim the mystery. They announce the good news. They are the original apostles: precisely where the men are “slow of heart,” precisely where Peter is silent, these women courageously, eloquently preach (Luke 24:25). To anyone who argues that women should not be leaders in the Christian church at the highest levels, this story stands as a luminous, devastating reply.
5) Easter Sunday! What’s the good news of the Gospel today? For those who despair that death-dealing powers have the upper hand - fear not! Easter means God ultimately is and will be victorious over the powers of death. For those who despair that our guilt is too great for God to forgive - fear not! Easter means God has cleared all accounts, liberating humanity from shame, reconciling us to God and each other as God’s children. For those who despair in the midst of pain and anguish - take heart! You are not alone: Jesus suffers with you in solidarity and companionship, and Easter means you will rise with him. For those who despair over a world filled with hate, violence, and scapegoating - be encouraged! In Christ’s passion, God has taken the place of the scapegoat in order to expose humanity’s violent ways - and Easter means God one day will overcome violence. Indeed, Easter means that God has taken one of the worst things in the world (the Roman cross) and remade it into one of the best (the Tree of Life), a sword into a ploughshare - and if the worst, then also the whole creation in the end! Like the cross, the empty tomb is a great divine mystery, a rising sun dispelling shadows in multiple directions. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!