In the Garden

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.

What kind of sabbath had she passed the day before?

Surely not a day of holy rest, a day of rejoicing in creation’s beauty and abundance. More likely, she spent her sabbath in numb silence, a vast stretch of grey time, punctuated by episodes of hellish fury against Rome, against the temple leadership, and against God.

She had allowed this man to awaken hope in her; she trusted Jesus like she had never trusted anyone before. Because of him, she had dared to step out of the darkness into a life of forgiveness, love, and promise. And now he was dead; and with him, her hope had died.

How do you put into words that your world has a hole in it larger than life itself? How do you sit with this unending absence, this void that swallows up light like a black hole? A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty, says Philippe Ariès.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.

On Monday, an earthquake shook the ground under the small town of L’Aquila in central Italy, killing 292 people. We do not know how many went to the graves, early this morning, while it was still dark, to touch the earth, or to just be where they had buried a loved one without whom the fabric of their lives was little more than a frayed cloth about to fall apart.

On Wednesday, news anchor Dan Miller, a virtual family member of thousands in Middle Tennessee and a husband, father and friend, died suddenly, only 67 years old.

On Friday, a tornado touched down several times in Murfreesboro, killing a mother and her baby, injuring dozens of people, and damaging or destroying 250 homes. The same storm system had caused three deaths in Arkansas on Thursday.

Too many funerals that did not come at the end of long, well-lived lives, but too soon, too violently, ending too many dreams, leaving too many promises unfulfilled.

Earlier this week, somewhere in America, a woman was called into her supervisor’s office. Sales had been down since September last year, and the company was losing money daily. ‘So sorry,’ the supervisor said, ‘we have to let you go.’ She cleaned out her desk, wondering how long their family could afford to pay the mortgage with just one income.

Earlier this week, somewhere in America, a man sat across the desk from his doctor, trying to make sense of the words, ‘three months, perhaps four.’

Someone else heard the words, ‘I have never loved you,’ and slipped over the edge into nothingness where life is a fall without end and the darkness is overwhelming. [See Craig Barnes, “Savior at Large”]

Earlier this week, the darkness of Friday covered the world like a suffocating blanket.

Early on the first day, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.

She didn’t want to see anybody, or she could have asked one of her friends to come with her. She wanted to be alone, close to the one who used to be the light of her world, whose name was the first name of her hope.

The moment she saw that the stone had been removed, leaving the entrance to the tomb wide open, Mary ran to tell Peter and another disciple that Jesus’ body had been stolen. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

Then John tells us that for a while there was a lot of running back and forth to the tomb, with what sounds like an odd competition between Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved – an entire paragraph about who got there first, who entered first, and who saw what and when.

After emerging from the tomb, rather than starting to search the garden for the missing body, the two disciples went home, without another word to each other or to Mary. John explains that ‘as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.’ A generous interpretation would suggest that they went home to study the scriptures some more.

Mary didn’t go home; I suspect she didn’t have anywhere to go, since the closest she had ever come to feeling at home had been with Jesus. Mary stood outside the tomb, weeping.

The angels she saw sitting where the body of Jesus was supposed to be, showed remarkably little sensitivity.

“Woman, why are you weeping?” they said to her.

She told them what she had told the disciples, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

The angels had no comfort to offer.

You have to wonder if angels do not know how difficult it is to keep on living after someone you love has died. Not being mortal, they may not know the pain of loss and grief. They may well lack the capacity to imagine a world without hope, a world without light, a world falling and collapsing into a dark, formless void.

Are you hearing echoes of the first chapters of Genesis? I am.

This is the first day, while it is still dark. This is the darkness before God speaks. This is the garden where it all began, where it begins again and again with the love of God for a rebellious humanity.

The cross is the ultimate clash between the will of God and our will; it is the tree of life robbed of its fruit, stripped of its leaves and roots, and perverted into an instrument of death. The cross shows us what we do to each other in the name of justice, political ambition, and religious conviction. We betray, we deny, we forsake, we accuse, abuse and condemn. We turn the garden of creation into a world where God is crucified and buried.

This day is not about a missing corpse. Mary turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.

“Woman, why are you weeping?” the stranger asks, sounding just like one of the angels. “Whom are you looking for?” She doesn’t answer him; all she wants is for him to give her back the dead body of Jesus.

And he says, “Mary!” – and she turns and light and life and laughter return to the garden.

“Rabbouni!” she replies with wonder and joy, lunging forward to embrace the long-lost friend.

How is the scene to end?

Richard Hays suggests, in a 1992 article in the Christian Century,

A Hollywood director (…) would finish the scene with lush strings, Cat Stevens on the vocal track, glints of light from the rising sun on the morning dew, slow-motion shots as Mary runs to embrace him.

Some of you may not remember Cat Stevens, but we have seen enough movies to imagine the closing scene, the long tearful hug and Jesus saying with a nice baritone voice, “Let’s go and get the others; time to go home. I will never ever leave you.” Cut – and roll the credits.

But this is not Hollywood; this is the first day of the new creation. The Risen One frustrates our desire for closure, and says abruptly, “Do not hold on to me.” This is not the resumption of a former relationship, a turning back of the clock that somehow undoes the reality of suffering, the brutal reality of the crucifixion. There is no going back. This is the beginning of a new relationship between Jesus and his followers.

On this day, we do not cling to the hope that Jesus will take us back to the life we once knew with him. What we do hold on to is the promise that his departure was not a fall into oblivion, leaving us orphaned in a world of our own loveless making, but rather the opening of a window through which the Holy Spirit comes to us to abide with us.

This day is our celebration of the wondrous resilience of God’s purpose, of the faithfulness of our God who will not let us go. The Friday darkness gives way to the light of the new day, and on this day the Spirit gathers us into the intimacy the Son shares with the Father, an intimacy God has willed and desired for us since the beginning of time.

Mary doesn’t cling to the body in which she first encountered the love and grace of God – instead she receives and embraces the commission to speak about God’s will and desire to draw humanity into the communion of the divine life. And so Mary leaves the garden, not as one driven out but as an apostle who is being sent on a mission.

The sad sabbath of loss and grief did not end while she was groping for a way through the dark, nor when she saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. Not even a vision of angels had the power to change her lament, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

But then she recognized the voice that called her by name. Mary left the garden confessing, “I have seen the Lord,” and everywhere she went, everywhere we go, proclaiming the Risen One, the dead wood of the cross leaves, blossoms, and bears fruit. Thanks be to God.