by Meghan Johnston Aelabouni—
In the last few weeks of my grandmother’s life, while she was still alert enough to talk with us, she started recalling old memories: her childhood in New Jersey, seeing the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall and a certain snowy night she spent during World War II decorating the church hall for Christmas, when a young soldier braved the weather to bring her his silk scarf as a gift—a promise fulfilled when they later married.
One story was about Grandma Ruth’s mother, my great-grandmother, who grew up in Poland and kept a pet named “Paschke.” Grandma’s brother, Augie, was apparently certain that Paschke was a pig, but Grandma begged to differ, telling us firmly: “It wasn’t a pig; it was a sheep.” She knew, she said, because her other brother, Willie, had once bought their mother a small stuffed sheep from the mattress store to help her remember Paschke.
Grandma Ruth insisted that we remember and tell the correct story, even though—like many family stories—there was some disagreement about the details. At the time, so near the end of her life, we wondered what the significance of this memory might be: Some unresolved tension between Ruth and her brother? A last attempt to pass on our family history? Or perhaps the simplest explanation of all: that as her life waned, her thoughts were coming full circle. She was drawing away from us, drawing closer to the loved ones she was eager to see again in eternal life. No matter her reasons, my grandmother succeeded in planting these stories in our minds and hearts. The sibling squabble over the facts of the tale only made it more memorable. Now we chuckle as we admonish each other: “Remember, Paschke was a sheep!”
A story of contrasts
The Easter story, seen through the lenses of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, has always been a little like that. Each Gospel contains different details: Was it two women who went to the tomb, as Matthew reports; or three, as Mark says; or Mary Magdalene alone, as John suggests? Is Matthew correct in saying that the women felt an earthquake and saw the stone of the tomb roll back, or did they arrive to find the stone already moved, as in Mark, Luke and John? The contrasts go on: Depending on who is telling the story, Mary and the women run to tell the disciples, or else they go out and say nothing to anyone, for they are afraid. In some versions, the disciples see and believe; in others, they doubt or reject Mary’s news. Some Gospels count Peter and the disciples as among the first to see the risen Jesus; according to Mark, however, Christ comes to the eleven only after he has appeared to multiple others, and they still do not believe. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives the Great Commission, sending the disciples to “go…and make disciples of all nations.” Luke, on the other hand, ends with Jesus entreating the disciples to “stay in the city…until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Which is it: Go or stay? Tell or keep quiet? One or three? Alleluia? Or Hallelujah?
The differences in these stories puzzled and frustrated me as a child—and as a pastor. I wanted to know what really happened. I felt the skepticism of those who tsk-tsked that we Christians couldn’t even get our story straight, who suggested that the many discrepancies and contradictions proved that the event itself was fabricated. Surely the early Christians who finalized our New Testament could have made things easier for generations of faithful people to come, yet the final decision was to include all four Gospels, without attempting to reconcile the differences or smooth out the bumps in the stories. Why?
One answer may lie in the surprising detail that all four Gospels make clear: No one, it seems, was expecting resurrection. This is easy to forget, 2,000 years after the fact, when Christians come to the texts already knowing and anticipating good news. On that first Easter morning, however, the Gospels agree: The women (no matter how many) who ventured to the tomb in the early morning were prepared for death, not life. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell of no one who awoke on Easter morning and set out confidently toward a tomb they expected to be empty.
The Rev. Meghan Johnston Aelabouni is an ELCA pastor in Colorado, a full time Ph.D. student and a mom to three.
This article is from the April 2018 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.