The divine surprise at the heart of the Christian faith

by Anne Moore

There used to be a theory that if you believe something long enough you can convince yourself it happened. According to this idea, Jesus’ disciples were so besotted with the idea of his resurrection that, of course, it happened! Or, at least, they thought it did.

But this view cannot be substantiated. Mary Magdalene and a few other women in Jesus’ circle came to the tomb early Sunday morning after his Friday crucifixion, ready to anoint his body according to Jewish tradition. They would have done this Saturday (Sabbath) evening if they’d had the time.

Their surprise was total. Finding the empty tomb, Mary ran to Peter and exclaimed, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20:2b). ‘They’ must refer to Jewish or Roman authorities, and her natural assumption was that Jesus’ body had been removed. She did not conclude he was risen. This presupposition runs through all the Gospels. No one expected the resurrection. For that matter, Jesus himself was elusive on the subject. He gave a few hints here and there, but they were obscure and not taken up by his followers.

The second surprise in the story of Jesus’ resurrection is how the male disciples are shown in such a poor light. Clearly they had not expected their friend and leader’s crucifixion, let alone his resurrection. Their hopes for a saviour from the miseries of Roman rule had been dashed. Instead of following an exciting young leader into a glorious future, they felt all was over. The times were violent and the men left hurriedly to avoid the same fate as their leader.

The women felt no such panic. Since society at the time gave them no status, they did not fear physical reprisals for being followers of Jesus. They could watch with Jesus and make sure he had a decent burial, with all the ritual that went with it.

But the men ran away. We have documents recording that no man had the courage to stand alongside their leader. Shame runs through the Gospel record. Boasting, cowardice and betrayal scar the apostolic witness. That gives the ring of truth. A made-up story would have sanitized these shameful features of humiliation. The women have too high a profile in a story in which men are supposed to have the central place. This supports the credibility of the narrative as a whole.

Ever since that day—the most important day in history—the reality of that divine surprise has been the heart of the Christian faith. May Resurrection joy and surprise be yours this Easter time.