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Politics of Scripture

Memory and the Risen Christ—Luke 24:1–12

The story of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the foundational memory of Christianity. It is a story that not only tells of God’s power over death and the fragility of the empire’s power over life, but also demands that all perspectives be heard, in a grand cacophony of voices, all in common song, singing of the impossible mystery: Jesus is risen, indeed.

Luke 24:1-12

24:1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.6Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ 8Then they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

Memory is slippery and fragile. It is susceptible to manipulation, both intentional and unintentional. Despite this—or even because of this—our fundamental sense of self is inextricably bound up in our memories, whether they are our individual memories, or the collective “memory” of groups, communities, or nations. It would not be an overstatement to claim that how we remember dictates what we remember, why we remember it, and who is permitted to remember or required to forget.

The story of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the foundational memory of Christianity, the cornerstone which unites all Christians into a common people through their common connection in the one story. We are all invited to participate in the story and are welcome to make it our own. Yet, woven into the fabric of the story are reminders of the role that trauma, power, and desire can play in creating, and shaping, human memories of the Divine story.

For the Gospel of Luke, the betrayal, arrest, trial, torture, death, and burial of Jesus rends an irreparable tear across the entirety of existence. This is metaphorical, where verse 23:49 speaks to the damage inflicted upon the small, inconsolable group of mourners left at the foot of the cross once everyone else scattered due to fear of the Roman authorities. This is literal, where verse 23:45 speaks to the inverse tear in the physical reality which destroys the sacred fabric of the temple and upturns the fabric of time, where what was hidden becomes visible, and the light of day becomes the dark of night. The trauma of this event is therefore experienced at all levels. People encounter their real selves, from Peter discovering how flawed he truly is in verse 23:62, to the Centurion in verse 23:47 coming to the dangerous conclusion that he had participated in the execution of an innocent man at the orders of Rome.

In Luke’s memory of the event, every level of human society is impacted in a grand opera of courage and failure. The cosmos is shaken to its very foundations and transformed. As would be proper for an event that inverts the first creation story in Genesis, the story is brought to a conclusion by the humans surveying the destruction they have wrought and then resting on the sabbath day.

When the curtain opens again on the story with the sunrise on the first day of the new week, women emerge to make sense of the carnage. They intend on making meaning of it all through the ritual of preparing Jesus’s body for burial. This ritual act not only begins the work of healing through engaging in a practical act of “remembering” the person who died, but also by re-establishing the bonds of memory with their ancestors through a communal tradition. This was the work of women, whose domestic work of cleaning and caring for bodies wove back together the “members” of the body of the community that had been torn apart by death.

In the context of the Roman occupation, where the empire purposely engaged in grisly public acts of torture to destroy any sense of communal identity and thus to stamp out any budding seeds of communal resistance, this seemingly simple ritual of mourning and the acceptance of death was also an inherently political act. Through their strict adherence to Jewish sabbath law—by waiting to care for the body until the dawn after the sabbath—they demonstrated that Rome had not succeeded in destroying their sense of common identity.

They also demonstrated significant courage in going to the temple with materials to care for Jesus’s body, as marking oneself out as a follower of someone tortured and killed by the state is never a safe move, in any time. Through their insistence on engaging in the proper rituals of memory, even for a body destroyed by the state in a demonstration of their overwhelming authority, the women are claiming an authority of their own, a moral authority whose compassionate, sacrificial care stands in contrast to the blunt, faceless force of the state. They refused to allow the state to establish the “official” state memory of the event of Jesus’s death. Through their willingness to do so when no others—including the male disciples, it should be noted—were willing to risk the danger of stepping outside in a post-crucifixion Jerusalem, they claimed the right to remember the tomb as they experienced it.

And what an experience! They arrive at the tomb in verse 2 and nothing is as they expect it to be. Echoing the tearing of the temple curtain, the stone has been rolled away, revealing what was intended to be kept hidden. The women are shocked by seeing an empty tomb, devoid of the body. Before the women had any time to process the compounding trauma of having their loved one’s body stolen, they are suddenly aware that two men have suddenly appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. These mysterious men immediately chide the women for their failure to remember the divine nature of the being they were seeking to remember as a human through their very human rituals of burial and mourning. In essence, by asking the women in verse 5 why they sought the living amongst the dead, the men are reminding the women of what they had always known: Jesus was not just a man.

Yet, due to the overwhelming power of trauma to warp memory, they’d been treating him as such and assumed that the story of redemption and salvation begun by Jesus’s ministry had come to an end. They are healed of their trauma when they remember in verse 8 and are now fully capable of preaching the good news of the resurrection to the disciples. In this, they become the first speakers of the Gospel and their memory—and the story that their memories construct—establishes the first frameworks of this foundational story.

At this moment, in verse 11, when the women are telling the disciples the best news that they could ever hear, the disciples fail. They immediately discount their story as an “idle tale,” and they refuse to believe the women. Now, if we were going to be generous towards the disciples, the resurrection of someone who was quite thoroughly dead two days prior is a rather difficult story to accept. Yet, I can’t help but think that resting just behind their dismissal of the women is the implication that their memory, and testimony, isn’t worth taking seriously due to their status as women. This isn’t simply a biased read, I’d argue, as the text itself supports it. Peter is alone amongst the disciples to wonder whether the women may actually be telling the truth, and decides in verse 12 to see for himself. Peter does not see the men, but sees the linen cloths and, coupled with the women’s memory of the men in dazzling clothes, accepts that something amazing has happened. This is translated on the road to Emmaus, in verse 24:22–24, as

22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’

The unknown man (Jesus, of course) walking with the two disciples then proceeds to chide the men about their failure of memory, echoing the message the women received. Only when the men finally see Jesus, do they finally accept the truth of the women’s story and rejoice about the resurrection, beginning to preach the Gospel.

Luke’s recounting of the events is, of course, only one memory of the event and each account (including the other Gospels as well as Peter’s recollection and Paul’s framing of other’s recollections) emphasizes different elements and highlights a variety of memories of the events. This multiplicity of perspectives is not a negative feature of the story, something to “correct” by smoothing over the cornucopia of jagged edges into one single passion narrative. The confusing discrepancies and disagreements are an intentional editorial choice, reflecting the Jewish editorial tradition of laying differing accounts of the same tale alongside each other, allowing “truth” to be multivalent, and the story of God’s relationship with God’s people to be complex, holding room for divergent interpretations and meanings to co-exist within the Christian community.

The resurrection story is the core story of Christianity not only because of the truth it tells about God’s power over death and the fragility of the empire’s power over life, but also because of the story it tells about memory. The story does not dismiss the first preachers of the Gospel; humans did that and continue to do so. The story recognizes the frailty of the human condition, especially in its susceptibility to the ravages of trauma and hierarchies of power, and counters these with the healing power of the story itself.

Finally, the story rejects all attempts to create master narratives with boundaries that can be policed by calls to establish the “fundamental” truths of the story. Instead, the story demands that all perspectives be heard, in a grand cacophony of voices, all in common song, singing of the impossible mystery: Jesus is risen, indeed.

One thought on “Memory and the Risen Christ—Luke 24:1–12

  1. Dr. Randazzo,

    Thank you for your richly textured essay on memory and Resurrection. You have covered a lot of ground in a short space (and with a nice felicity of expression) and given readers much to ponder as we approach the culmination of Holy Week. Please continue to write!

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