When I was a child, I expected to wake up on Easter morning to find a basket, mysteriously delivered by a rabbit, filled with chocolate eggs waiting for me.
I also expected to wear a hat and white gloves to church, to sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” and to be joined by my grandmother for dinner. It was these expectations and the anticipation they elicited that, in part, made it a special day.
We tend to assume that when the women came to the tomb, they were completely unprepared for what they encountered. But this isn’t the way Matthew tells the story. In fact, Matthew takes great pains to suggest that the women are waiting and watching with a sense of anticipation. The surprise may be for us: that all of a sudden we have been invited to follow these women from the cross to the tomb — women who, up until a few verses earlier, have been both silent and unseen.
When the women are first introduced in Matthew 28:55 we learn that they have followed Jesus from Galilee and have “provided” for him. The word “provide” (Greek: diakonei) reveals a good deal about these women. After Jesus has been tempted in the wilderness, angels come and “provide” for him (4:11). The next person to “provide” for Jesus is Peter’s mother-in-law, after she has been raised from her sickbed (8:15). In 25:44 the sheep are those who “provide” for Jesus by tending those who are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, sick, or in prison. And then there are the women from Galilee. Surprisingly, the disciples never come near the word. The only other person associated with the word is Jesus himself, who declares that he has come not to be provided for, but to provide (20:28). The women, then, are not latter day tag-alongs. They have been intimately bound to Jesus, from the very first days in Galilee, and in following him have pursued the path of discipleship that Jesus’ himself models.
These women, who have watched the crucifixion from afar, and sat opposite the tomb where Jesus is laid, arrive as the first day of the week is dawning to see the tomb. Matthew should not be confused here with Mark or Luke, where the women come to the tomb with spices to anoint the body of Jesus. In Matthew, they do not bring spices but come to see, a verb that means not only to perceive visually, but also to gain understanding. When the women approach the tomb, then, it is with a sense of anticipation, of expectation even. If they have followed Jesus from Galilee and “provided” for him, they have surely also heard him say that he will die, and that he will be raised on the third day (16:21; compare 20:17-19 where he speaks these same words but only to the twelve).
We shouldn’t be completely surprised either. We, as readers, have also heard these words. Moreover, when Jesus breathes his last, we are told that the earth shook and the tombs were opened and the bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised (27:52). When we approach the tomb, even sealed as it is, we come with a sense of expectation that we are about to see something; not only see but also understand.
When the women arrive at the tomb, the earth shakes again as an angel descends from heaven, rolls back the stone from the tomb, and sits on it. The guards, posted in front of the tomb, clearly are not expecting this and fall to the earth as if they were dead. There is no small amount of irony in this: the living become as the dead, while the dead are revealed to be living. Unlike the guards, the women don’t faint. Instead, they hear the angel tell them that Jesus who was crucified has been raised, as he said. I am less inclined to see in this a movement from sorrow to joy as a movement from anticipation, expectation even, to understanding arising from what they have both heard and seen. The women have come to the tomb to see and now they know.
The silent women are given a message from the angel that they are to carry to the disciples: namely, that Jesus has not only been raised from the dead, he has gone ahead of them to Galilee where they will see him. The women, filled with awe (fear) and joy set out immediately. Then, suddenly, Jesus himself appears in front of them: before he arrives in Galilee, and before the disciples have seen him. Perhaps this moment is unanticipated, or perhaps it shows what can happen when you anticipate on the basis of what you have seen and heard, and believe — or at least seek further understanding. Regardless, the women fall down and worship Jesus — like the magi (and not like Herod who said he wanted to worship Jesus only as an excuse to seek him out in order to kill him). It is worth noting that when Jesus does appear to the disciples, some will worship, but some will also doubt (28:17). Apparently this isn’t a barrier to discipleship. But it does set the women a part.
All this time we never actually hear the voices of the women. The emphasis, rather, is on what the women do. They follow, they provide, they watch, and they wait, and they go in order to see. And when they are told to go tell the disciples, wherever they have been hiding, that they must go back to Galilee where they will see Jesus, the women depart quickly to carry out the task. There is something refreshing in this. It doesn’t surprise me at all that the women are likened to those who tend the hungry and thirsty, the stranger, the sick, those in prison, without necessarily recognizing that in doing so they have provided for Jesus. They are women who, filled with anticipation, have come to the tomb to discover what is next and to do it.