St. Peter underscored his belief and teaching in the Resurrection by maintaining that (1 Pet.3:18): “Christ himself died once and for all for sins, the upright for the sake of the guilty, to lead us to God. In the body he was put to death, in the spirit he was raised to life, and, in the same spirit, he went to preach to the spirits in prison.” The foregoing, among several other passages, consolidates the theological basis for the Holy Saturday liturgy, which directs the eyes of Christians to the tomb where the dead body of Jesus was laid. The eyes of the guards were on that tomb, as well as those of the devout women who went early in the morning to the grave. Both groups were keeping watch over the tomb for various reasons: the guards kept watch to prevent a fraud being committed by the disciples (Mtt.27:63 – 66); the women went to embalm the dead (Mk.16). Neither of the two groups was overtly expecting the resurrection light to penetrate the secured tombstones. The question: who will remove the stones of the tomb? (Mk.16:3) highlighted both the incredulity and the anxiety that filled the hearts of the women, the anxiety of an unbelieving love. Yet, more than two thousand years after, the same question remains the cry of believers and sojourners of faith today when we are assailed by problems that seem to overwhelm us; when we do not know who or how the barrier might be overcome. Unlike ourselves, this anxiety never stopped these devout women from marching on, from daring the guards and the traps of the chief priests and the Pharisees. But even as they approached and noticed the stones rolled away, and the tomb emptied of its corpse, the women still did not comprehend. Do we not feel the pain of this incomprehension in our lives when we refuse to believe that the hour of our liberation from fears, chronic addictions, substance abuses, gambling, and sundry habits, could be near at hand? We refuse to escape from such Goshen experiences, even when the cost on our physical, mental and spiritual health is incalculable.
Mary of Magdala again returns to the sepulcher (John 20:10ff) in another scene. And with Mary Magdalene we question the bystander at the garden: who has removed our Lord from the tomb? And where have they put him? And this bystander was supposed to give information to the believer about the object of her love! This is often the situation when love is assailed by doubts, and when love is looking up for excuses, for a way out of an impossible situation. And so even among us believers of today, we can perhaps follow the struggle of the early disciples of Jesus to come to a belief in the resurrection, to trust that there could be a miracle of life beyond the tomb – an escape route from Goshen.
Many of us, perhaps without realizing it, are residents of the tomb, held back in Goshen. Eternally we enter into the tombs, mostly because of sin, or a lack of faith, or perhaps driven by some overwhelming emotions. Mary Magdalene was rescued by Christ from a tomb sealed by the seven devils of sin; Peter was in a tomb dominated by doubts and denials; the disciples locked themselves up after his crucifixion in a tomb dominated by fear. How many times do events shake us, and we take refuge in the tomb, one that we have fashioned for ourselves. Other times events, circumstances, and persons conspire to erect tombstones on our dreams, and to swallow up all hopes of another dawn. Goshen became like a massive tomb that trapped the people of Israel in a foxhole. And majority of them had gotten so used to the darkness that it sounded hollow when Moses came to announce to them the imminence of the hour of freedom.
The stirring awakening
Goshen is that place or situation that we all must break through, the point in a man’s life that we must all depart from. Faith, as an adventure of liberation along the open highway of life, must always begin with a stirring awakening. Israel needed to be awakened to the reality that eternal bondage was not a destiny written in her stars. When their condition became so repressive, the people raised their voices and cried to their God, and the heavens heard them: “The Israelites, groaning in their slavery, cried out for help and from the depths of their slavery their cry came up to God. God heard their groaning; God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God saw the Israelites and took note” (Exod.2:23 – 25). Thereafter in the book of Exodus, the story of Israel’s liberation gathers narrative momentum with the call of Moses, his return to Egypt to confront both the ‘hardness of heart’ of Pharoah as well as the doubts in the heart of his people, the events of the plagues culminating in the Passover celebration, as well as the eventual departure out of Egypt.
These details in the stories at the beginning of the book of Exodus only go to show that there were obstacles to be overcome before the first steps on the ‘march of freedom’ could be taken. Moses was uncompromising when he stood before Pharaoh and demanded on behalf of God: “Let my people go!” This has been the same cry of freedom fighters of all ages, the battle cry of victims of oppression, discrimination of all sorts, and other residents of the Goshen of our time. It is a cry that must resonate again today whenever we allow God’s will challenge ours, whenever we awaken in us the desire to rise beyond all that limit us. Other details in the story of Israel’s departure from Goshen highlight the actions of individuals who aligned themselves with Yahweh’s project of freedom for Israel, and who worked against Pharaoh and his system of enslavement.
We are not using the word ‘stirring awakening’ lightly here. There is an interesting anecdote attributed to the Hasidic preacher Rabbi Yehiel Mikhal of Zlotchov:
Rabbi Mikhal was once approached by a student who was troubled by the wording of God’s promise to Moses in Exodus 6:1 that Pharaoh would drive the Israelites out of Egypt “with a strong hand.” Why, the student asked, should a slave who is being offered his freedom need to be forcibly driven out? Won’t he run willingly from his slavery?
The Rabbi answered that Israel’s exile is always self-inflicted. Only when the Jews decide to release themselves can the demonic powers inside them be vanquished, and only then will the earthly rulers lose their power to subjugate Israel.
Concluded Rabbi Mikhal: Until Israel in Egypt declared themselves willing to return from spiritual exile, God was as it were powerless to help them. In the end, the sparks of holiness that were implanted in the enslaved Israelites awakened and were able to overpower the demonic forces of Egypt, which could not endure them any more and proceeded to drive them out.
A true emancipation of the mind is not an easy task for any group. Centuries of servitude have the capacity to break the human spirit and undermine confidence in the possibility of a transformation. It was never going to be an easy task persuading the people Israel in Goshen to act toward achieving their freedom. The awakening that was asked of Israel was not of the type that required a change in difficulty, but actually a change in attitude, a change in how these difficulties were met. The challenges remained the same; the hands of oppression were even tightening the more; the determination of Pharaoh to weigh the people down by forced labour was unquestionable: “So the Egyptians gave them no mercy in the demands they made, making their lives miserable with hard labour; with digging clay, making bricks, down various kinds of field work – all sorts of labour that they imposed on them without mercy” (Exod.1:13 – 14).