Pilate sat in pensive silence after Joseph of Arimathea left. Inside the palace’s thick marble walls, even in his atria, the sounds of the temple mount were faint. It had been a steady low thrum of bleating sheep, people’s voices, and the hum of movement. Soon, there would be quiet, for the day was waning, and they would all be in their homes, celebrating their ancient freedom festival.
It had been a particularly trying day. The earthquake had been so severe, the lintel had cracked over the temple entrance, and several lesser buildings had sustained considerable damage. Many precious artworks and glassware had been smashed, and all his household thrown into disarray, as runner after runner had come with distressing news of upheaval, looting, and tales of injury and death. Of particular concern was the aqueduct, though reports had thus far reassured him only minor repairs would be needed.
Pilate had in mind to accept Herod’s invitation to dinner, for they had connected over the day’s events, and it seemed they might be friends, after all. It would be, perhaps, a welcome diversion.
Early the next morning, Pilate was once again rousted from a deep sleep, the night before having gone long with much wine and discussion. The chief priests and Pharisees, it seemed, wished another audience, yet it would once again have to be outside, for today was one of their great Sabbaths. Disgruntled and surly from the unwanted disturbance, Pilate sent his porter back to the palace entrance while servants scurried to dress him and press a glass of cooled wine into his hands, infused with rosemary. The enslaved Egyptian he had recently purchased wordlessly slipped a necklace of Alexandrian chamaedaphne leaves freshly plucked, to offset the procurator’s malaise from the previous evening’s festivities.
Without preamble, Caiaphas addressed the governor the moment he saw Pilate appear at the palace’s entrance. Sire, Caiaphas tried, to ingratiate himself. Pilate watched him without expression. Caiaphas was nervously lacing and relacing his fingers together as he spoke.
Sire, it has come to our minds, and here the high priest glanced at his father-in-law Annas, then back to Pilate, That this deceiver said while living, ‘after three days I will be raised from the dead.’ Caiaphas paused, then seemed to square his shoulders under Pilate’s stony stare. Therefore command the tomb be rendered secure until the third day, so not even one of his disciples who come can steal him and say to the people, ‘he has risen from the dead.’ For this will be the utmost deceit, worse than before.
In spite of himself, Pilate saw Caiaphas’s point. With a slight movement of his hand, one of the gate guards swiftly left his post and made his way to the quarters for the captain of the guard, to summon him. As he left, Pilate answered Caiaphas, You have a Roman sentry. Depart. Make it as secure as you know how. Pilate looked up as he saw the captain approach. He would trust his captain to assign the appropriate contingent.
The crisp morning air, redolent with the everpresent temple incense, spread a refreshing waft of breeze over Pilate as he watched Caiaphas’s and Annas’s receding figures. Even he knew it was a special Sabbath. Yet these two continued to work their schemes as the rest of their people worshipped their God, staying in their homes and local synagogues. He knew they would seal the stone and post the guard his captain had given them.
Yet again, the following morning, before the sun had barely begun to shine over the hills of Zion, Pilate was thrown from his bed with a sudden bucking and rolling of the entire palace. Shouts rang through the corridors, and the mighty sound of thunder heaved through the expanse of the temple mount. Pilate found himself pinned to the floor, unable even to raise himself to his knees, as the earth hove beneath him like a ship tossed by a tempest. Glass shattering, screams, the sickening sound of stone thudding into bodies lasted long minutes, until with a shudder and an eerie silence, the severe aftershock of the previous days’ temblors was done.
In the soft and gentle predawn glow, a flash of blinding light streaked through the trees of the garden where Jesus lay. As the light took shape and form, brilliant motes of every color swirling around it, an angel of the Lord coalesced, having come down from heaven. As his feet touched the earth, all creation broke open with bursting life, and it seemed the trees clapped as the mountains danced for joy. With one movement, the angel placed his mighty hand on the stone sealed to the tomb entrance, rolled it completely back, and swung himself up with the ease of a supernatural athlete to sit upon its top.
The Roman guard, hardened and battle-scarred men, trembled with the palsy of terror as they stared transfixed at the luminous presence before them—a god! Having lost control of their bodies, the men melted as wax to the ground, their legs and arms no better to them than butter in the hot sun, and they lay there as though dead.
Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome had already bought and prepared spices and perfumes for Jesus’s body. Now, with dawn only beginning to show, they gathered the supplies they had made ready. When the light broke, the Sabbath would be over, and they could return to Jesus’s garden tomb. But Mary of Magdala could not wait. While it was still dark, she went to the garden only to see, as she approached, that the stone had been removed. Without a word, Mary turned and ran back to where Peter and John were staying, breathless and distraught, her eyes wild, her hair flying free, her headscarf in her hand.
They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, she gasped, and we don’t know where they have put him!
It was still too dark to be truly the first morning of the week, but both men pulled on their sandals and cloaks and ran with Mary back to the garden.
Meanwhile, the women, laden with heavy ointment amphorae, watched for the true light of morning. There was no rush, and their burdens were heavy. They had been fortunate as well as wise, for the previous days’ earthquakes had put them in mind to carefully secure their fragile perfume containers. This morning they remained unbroken, even through the bucking aftershock.
Soon it was time. As they walked, slowly and steadily under their costly burdens, one of them asked a question that had been gnawing at all their minds, Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?
None as yet knew the tomb had been sealed, that guards had been posted, that their chief priests had been busy at much work on the Lord’s Sabbath day. And none knew an angel of the Lord had already rolled that great stone away, that not just the seal of the temple authority, but the seal of death itself had been broken.
John outran Peter, but graciously allowed the older man to run first inside the tomb as he looked on. It was true. The linen strips rested empty on the stone slab where Jesus’s body had once lain, and the headcloth neatly folded. Peter stumbled back out, dazed and horrified, but John lingered, thoughtful, a glimmer of understanding beginning as a small ember warmed from within him. Yet both men wordlessly left the grief-stricken Mary as they returned to the holy city.
The risen Lord was about to be revealed, first to Mary, then to the women who had come to complete his burial, and finally to the disciples and all those in his inner circle of one hundred and twenty devoted supporters and friends.
Over the next week, we will look deeply into each of their stories. Today, let us celebrate together this beautiful truth—He is risen! Christ is risen indeed!
[Jesus’s Resurrection | The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot, Public Domain]