In the half-light of dawn, in a graveyard, it might have been tempting to believe that their eyes were playing tricks. But the body the women had come to anoint was indeed gone, and the proclamation rang out through the eeriness and emptiness of the place: "He has risen."
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary fled from the tomb "with fear and great joy," according to Matthew's account. It was a case of mixed emotions entirely appropriate to the occasion. The women were bursting to tell the news to the other followers, and yet they were afraid of this awesome truth that had been revealed first to them.
Before they ever reached the others, they encountered their risen Lord. He greeted them and then offered the words of reassurance they most needed to hear: "Do not be afraid."
The words are common in the biblical narrative. At the time of Jesus' birth, another time of uncommon joy and fear, Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and the shepherds in the fields all received the words as reassurance. "Do not be afraid" was part of Jesus' invitation to Peter to be a follower, and the same words rang out over a storm when the disciples became fearful and an overly brave Peter stepped out to walk on water.
Jesus regularly reminded his followers not to fear their enemies or the uncertainties that lay ahead. He invited three trembling disciples at his Transfiguration to discard their fear, and said to the ruler Jairus at his daughter's healing, "Do not fear, only believe."
After Jesus' crucifixion, fear ran rampant among his followers. According to John's gospel, Joseph of Arimathea, owner of the tomb, asked Pilate for Jesus' body "secretly, for fear of the Jews." Nicodemus came with spices to help prepare the body for burial, but only under the safe cover of night. And the inner circle of Jesus' disciples, who had abandoned, and in Peter's case even denied, their Lord, remained hidden behind closed doors.