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Essay

No Loitering

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These last few days on The 12 it seems as if we’re in the middle of something of an intentional series here, thinking through various biblical texts.  Not anything we planned, but a good reminder about how lovely it is to continue to be surprised by the plentitude of scripture.  That is a gift, no doubt: the way that each time we return to a passage, it tells us something more, something new, something else about God, creation, ourselves.

This was true for me quite recently—and with one of the most familiar texts possible.  On Easter this year, I was asked to read aloud for the congregation the story of the resurrection, given in Matthew 28.  Here it is:

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

Now, a few things stuck out to me that I don’t remember paying much attention to before.  And they all relate to what I’ve decided is a rather attitudinal angel.

I mean, first of all: what’s with the angel sitting down and hanging out after he rolls away the stone?  Clearly it’s not a hard effort on his part.  And even though the soldiers are scared to the point of passing out (which one might be if Lightning Boy had just come down and casually whipped away a ginormously heavy rock), the angel himself seems super casual as he lingers.  The resurrection is effortless.  No big. 

But the lingering struck me as weird too: you’d think the angel’s assignment might be roll away stone, get on with day.  But no—it’s clear that communicating what happened is part of the resurrection process too.  Of course, Christ’s resurrection doesn’t depend on an absent stone—the later appearances of Jesus through doors prove that nothing can hold him. But the stone removal is important because it makes the resurrection clear to us.  And just in case we don’t understand that symbol, the angel says to the women the equivalent of “hey, I knew you were coming. Let me give you a tour just to make sure you get it.”

The thing is, we’re not very quick learners.  I can’t tell you how often my colleagues and I lament about how we have told our students something over and again, and yet, when the time comes for that information to be applied, somehow the students haven’t heard, didn’t get it, weren’t paying attention.  And we say to each other, “seriously—I must have told them a hundred times to do X and such. Don’t they ever listen?”  But, of course, we’re just as guilty.  That’s pretty much the human condition.  The two Marys show up convinced that Christ is still in that tomb, and the touch of incredulity in the angel’s words–“He is not here; he has risen, just as he said”—suggests, that like me with my students—the angel can’t quite believe that the women didn’t act on what they had been told, that they didn’t really believe what Jesus had told them so many times.   But that is a profound pedagogical principle (not surprising from Jesus, whom Mary Magdalene immediately calls Rabboni, teacher): it is that hearing is not enough—intellectual assent is transformed into belief through lived experience.  Come, see, look.

The part I was most surprised by, however, and the part I think I like best is when the angel declares, “Now I have told you.”  What an odd thing to say.  What does that mean?  It sounds somewhat dismissive, somewhat impatient.  A version of “okay, my work here is done—move along.”  But maybe that’s exactly what it means: the angel’s job is done, and now it’s the women’s job to begin spreading the very good news to the other disciples, and for the women and the other disciples to begin living in a post-Resurrection reality. With “now I have told you,” the angel puts the responsibility squarely on Jesus’s followers to continue the work of rolling the stone away and revealing Jesus’s miraculous defeat of death.  

Lingering at the tomb is not on the day’s agenda. 

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

One Comment

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Jennifer, anytime anyone invites me to look close at a story from the Bible, noticing it, enjoying it, that person is an angel.

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