Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, and all she saw was that the stone had been removed from the tomb. She had spent the sabbath at home, but it had not been a good sabbath, not a day of holy rest and rejoicing in creation’s beauty and abundance. It was nothing but an endless stretch of grey time and numb silence, interrupted only by her sighs and moments when memories welled up and her tears just started flowing.
She was heartbroken and sad, angry at the world and the powers that ruled it violently. Only a little while ago, Jesus had dared her and his other followers to imagine a world where masters wash servants’ feet, where the blind see and the lame dance, where the hungry are fed, and all who mourn are comforted.
She had allowed this man to awaken hope in her, boundless, beautiful hope. Because of him, she had dared to believe in the possibility of forgiveness, the possibility of a community shaped by mutual love, the possibility of life abundant for all, young and old, friend and stranger, wolf and lamb.
And now he was dead; and with him, her hope had died. She found herself lost in a void that swallowed up light and life like a black hole. All she had were memories – and the place where Joseph and Nicodemus had laid Jesus’ body.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb. She was by herself, she wanted to be alone, I suppose, or she could have asked one of her friends to come with her. She came to the garden and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. Talk about a black hole – this gaping mouth of death, it was all she saw. The body was gone.
Mary Magdalene had lost everything she loved, everything that had made her life an overflowing well of joy, and now even that last place of tangible connection with Jesus’ body had been violated. She ran back with the news and told the others, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” They – whoever they were – had managed not only to quench the light of his luminous presence in the world, but to make his absence unbearably complete.
She returned to the tomb; she stood outside, weeping.
“Woman, why are you weeping?” the angels asked her. Had she had any strength left in her, she would have asked them, “Why am I weeping? Why aren’t you? Haven’t you been paying attention? Don’t you see what is going on here? Don’t you see how they take away everything that is beautiful, destroy everything that is promising, and pile up ugliness and death on every side? How can you not weep? They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
The angels had no comfort to offer. They just sat there, the silence of heaven in the face of human loss and pain. What do angels know about the brokenness of life? What do angels know about betrayal and denial? What do they know about abuse and torture in the name of political calculation and religious conviction? What does heaven know about them that turn the garden of life into a graveyard where our best hope has been buried?
Mary turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. You see, there was and is nothing obvious about the resurrection. There were no trumpets playing, high, bright, light, and clear, no timpani, no choirs of children and angels. Easter doesn’t so much burst forth with an eruption of light and sound as it creeps onto the scene, barely noticed, emerging from the darkness and the sorrow and confusion.
“Woman, why are you weeping?” the stranger asked, sounding just like one of the angels. “Whom are you looking for?”
And a third time she talked about her loss, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
You almost want to step in and say, Mary, can’t you see? but there’s nothing obvious about the resurrection.
On the night before his arrest, Jesus told the disciples, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.” They said, “What does he mean by this ‘a little while?’” and he responded, “You will weep and mourn, you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice” (John 16:16-20).
And there in the darkness before dawn he saw her, but she didn’t see him, or saw him but didn’t recognize him until he spoke her name. “Mary!” – and she turned, and light and life returned to the garden, and she sensed a joy no other had ever known. “Rabbouni!” she said, calling him what she had always called him, “My teacher!” She wanted to hold on to him, she was determined not to lose him again, but then she heard his call to turn once more and tell the disciples what she had seen and heard, and she left the garden.
“I have seen the Lord” she announced to them, beginning the church’s proclamation of the Risen One.
“A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.” These words describe not only the experience of the first disciples, but of all followers of Jesus. The vision of God’s reign awakens hope in us, but then the powers of this world destroy and bury that hope. We mourn, we weep, we seek to reconnect with what we once knew, wondering who has taken it away, wondering where we might go and find it. We seek answers from silent angels and all kinds of chatty experts, we run back and forth, and most of what we see is ambiguous, and for a while, like Peter and the other disciple, we may just go home – except that home without that hope isn’t much of a home.
And so we keep searching and wandering, until we hear the familiar voice calling us by name, and we see the One whom we didn’t recognize, and we dare to believe that death cannot destroy the love that makes us one with God and one another, the love that makes, redeems and completes all things.
Easter is not the triumphant return of what was. Easter is the glorious beginning of what shall be, the first day of a new creation, high, bright, light, and clear. That’s why we bring in the trumpets, roll in the timpani, and Julia pulls nearly all the stops on the organ.
The resurrection is not a turning back of the clock that somehow undoes the reality of injustice and suffering, the brutal reality of the crucifixion and of ultimate loss. The resurrection is the beginning of a new relationship between Jesus and his followers, between God and the world God loves. The resurrection is the beginning of new life in the midst of the old, the birth of hope for complete redemption.
When Jesus met his first followers, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” and he invited them to come and see (John 1:38-39). When Mary stood outside the tomb, mourning and weeping, he asked her, “Whom are you looking for?” and, calling her by name, he invited her again to come and see. Like them, like her, we listen for that call and we follow, we seek, we find, we lose, we see without recognizing, we hear our name, we want to hold on, and we let go for the promise of fulfillment beyond our imagining.
We hold on, not to the way in which we once knew Christ, but to the promise that he will not leave us orphaned in a world of our own making. A little while, and we can see nothing but the gaping mouth of death that swallows everything, and again a little while, and we see God present among us to abide with us. A little while, and we find ourselves alone in a god-forsaken world, and again a little while, and we find ourselves embraced by the God who will not let us go.
“What does he mean by this ‘a little while’?”
There is the moment he bowed his head and gave up his spirit, and the moment he breathed on his disciples, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 19:30; 20:22), and there is the darkness between them – a little while.
There is the deep sadness of Mary’s words, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” and the deep joy of her witness, “I have seen the Lord!” and there is the daybreak between them – a little while.
There is our own loss of faith and hope in the face of what human beings are capable of doing to each other, and the renewal of our hope in the face of God’s unshakable faithfulness, and there is the resurrection between them – a little while.
The Risen One speaks our name, and the Friday darkness gives way to the light of the new day. The Risen One breathes on us, and the Spirit gathers us into the intimacy and joy of the divine life.
Easter doesn’t so much burst forth as it creeps onto the scene, silent as light, barely noticed, emerging from the darkness of death and the shadows of sorrow. In the place of our most profound loss, the Risen One calls us again by name and invites us to live as the body of Christ in the world.