The light of life

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

In Matthew, we’re told it was at dawn. In Mark and Luke, we read it was early, very early, when the sun had risen. Only in John are we told that it was still dark. And it’s not because they’re fussing about where exactly the sun was in relation to the horizon. It was still dark because the light of the world was gone.

Mary had spent the sabbath at home, but it had not been a good sabbath. It had not been a day of holy rest for her, a day to enjoy the beauty and abundance of creation. It had been an endless stretch of numb silence, interrupted only by her sighs and sudden tears. Mary had allowed this man to awaken hope in her. Because of him she had begun to believe in the possibility of forgiveness for all, the possibility of a community shaped by love, the possibility of life abundant for all, young and old, friend and stranger. Because of him she had felt more like herself than she had ever felt. Jesus had dared her and the others who had come with him from Galilee 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. He had dared them to imagine such a world, and following him, they entered it. And now he was dead, and with him, her hope. All she had were memories, and this garden tomb, 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 and saw that the stone had been removed. The tomb had been tampered with somehow; the one place left in the world where she could go to be close to Jesus had been violated. So she ran back to tell the others, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” They had managed not only to quench the light of his luminous presence in the world, but to make his absence unbearably complete. Jesus gone.

Peter and the other disciple saw the grave cloths, carefully folded up, and they went home. John tells us that the other disciple saw and believed. Believed what? That the body had been stolen? But what grave robber unwraps a body, and folds the strips of linen with such care? Perhaps the other disciple believed that the tomb’s emptiness bore witness that Jesus had conquered death; that no one had taken him away, but that Jesus had left death behind. And yet, Peter and the other disciple went home – without so much as a whispered Hallelujah, let alone big anthems, shouts of resurrection joy, trumpets, banners, timpani and rumbling shutters. John’s account of this morning of mornings is much quieter than the full-on jubilation of our Easter worship.

Mary didn’t go home with the other two. She didn’t walk away from the confusion and bewilderment. She stayed. She stood outside the tomb, weeping. It was still dark.

“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, good and true, 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.

What do angels know about death’s rule over life? What do they know about betrayal and denial? What do they know about hope and loss?

On Monday, news broke that Notre Dame in Paris was on fire. There were very few details, but the news spread around the globe, shocking people everywhere. One of the great cathedrals of Europe, more than 800 years old – the thought that it could be destroyed by fire in a few hours was simply unimaginable. The news coverage was extensive, and people around the world were relieved to hear that because of the heroic efforts of hundreds of firefighters the collapse of the main structure, only minutes away, was averted.

Amid the constant coverage, another news item related to church fires almost got lost. On Monday, officials in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, charged 21-year-old Holden Matthews with hate crimes, adding to three charges of arson that had been filed the week before. Over the course of ten days, between March 26 and April 4, three predominantly black churches in that Parish, west of Baton Rouge, had gone up in flames: St. Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, each of them in existence for more than a century. “All you see is charcoal,” Freddie Jack, president of the Seventh District Baptist Association, told the New York Times. “It’s a total, complete loss at all three sites.”

In Louisiana, authorities initially avoided suggesting that the three fires were racially motivated. Perhaps it was out of concern for an unbiased investigation; they didn’t want to jump to conclusions. Or was the thought that this kind of terror wasn’t a thing of the past, was the thought fraught with such guilt and shame and dread that they didn’t want to face it until it was undeniable?

I thought about these four church fires, and which of them was more devastating: Notre Dame in Paris or three little black Baptist churches in Louisiana? In simple dollar terms, it’s got to be Notre Dame. Even in terms of global cultural significance, I would say Notre Dame, although with some hesitation. But the most devastating fires were the ones in Louisiana. A human being carefully selected three targets for arsonist attacks, continuing the cursed legacy of oppression, hatred and terror against blacks and their houses of worship. The most devastating fires were the ones in Louisiana, because Notre Dame was an accident, perhaps the result of a computer glitch, but the church burnings were reminders of the deep darkness of hate that surrounds and assaults us all, and that won’t go away on its own.

On Aptil 10, the Seventh District Baptist Association started a fundraiser to help rebuild the three Louisiana churches. On Tuesday morning, the campaign had raised less than $100,000, but then a wave of donations started, following news about large gifts pledged for the rebuilding of Notre Dame in Paris. On Wednesday afternoon, the campaign had raised roughly $1.4 million, and by Friday the campaign had raised more than $2 million. Rev. Gerald Toussaint, pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, told reporters, “What the devil meant for bad, God’s going to turn it into something good.”

That’s a fine Easter sermon, Pastor Toussaint. What the devil meant for bad, God’s going to turn it into something good.

Mary stood where her hope had been buried. She didn’t go home. She didn’t go back to her life before Jesus. She was still intent on finding a dead man’s body. Then she turned around and saw him standing there, very much alive, but she didn’t know that it was Jesus.

C.S. Lewis, in a book he wrote after his wife’s early death from cancer, said, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid ... At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says.” Mary couldn’t see Jesus through the invisible blanket of her grief. Easter didn’t so much burst forth with an eruption of light and sound as it slowly entered the scene, barely noticed, emerging from the darkness and the sorrow.

“Woman, why are you weeping?” the stranger asked, sounding just like one of the angels. “Whom are you looking for?” And a third time Mary talked about her loss and her desire to find the body of Jesus, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

On the night before his arrest, Jesus had 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 to each other, “What does he mean by this ‘a little while?’”

Jesus told them, “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 deep darkness he saw her, but she didn’t see him — until he spoke her name, “Mary!”

“Rabbouni!” she said, as suddenly, wondrously light and life returned.

The promise of God’s reign awakens hope in us, but the world knows a thousand ways to bury our hope. Whatever acclamations we cry out on Easter Sunday, be it with deepest conviction or with a little hesitation, eventually we’ll stand by the grave where our hope, our love, the song of our life has been buried. And if we can’t hear Jesus whispering our name, perhaps we can at least hear Mary tell us, “I have seen the Lord!” And because of her witness, perhaps we too can find the courage to stand in the dark after everyone else has gone; perhaps we too can find the courage to stay and weep, the courage to trust the beautiful proclamation that when the world snuffed the light of life on that darkest of Fridays, love had the last word.

The good news of this day of days is that the ruler of the world has been rendered powerless by the fullness of Jesus’ love. Death did not defeat Jesus. Jesus defeated death, and with it every shade of darkness that drains life of the joy of communion.

Thanks be to God who raised our brother Jesus from the dead.

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