1Early 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 from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid her.”
3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5The beloved disciple bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following, and went into the tomb. Simon Peter saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that Jesus must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid her.”
14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.
15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
Supposing this stranger to be the gardener, she said, “Please, if you have carried Jesus away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take her away.”
16Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
She turned and said in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).
17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Divine Parent. But go to my siblings and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Parent and your Parent, to my God and your God.’”
18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that Jesus had said these things to her.
Resurrection is a Process
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb...” (John 20:1)
A couple Wednesdays before Easter, I learned that the West Somerville churches were having their Easter sunrise service at 6am. I balked, because sunrise on Easter Sunday was at 5:50am this year, and Easter sunrise service is supposed to begin in darkness, moving into light both liturgically and literally.
Ian T. suggested that the women would have waited until the sun was up before heading out to the tomb.
I said, "If the person I loved most in the world had died two days ago..."
"You wouldn't wait for the sun to rise?" Ian filled in.
"I don't think I would have been sleeping very much..." I said. I knew in the moment that it was a lie, as grief doesn’t tend to make me insomniac, but it seemed like the thing to say.
I’ve never had a desperate grief for a physical body -- my griefs have been for relationships...
But I can imagine being haunted by the image of the person you love most in the world dying -- cruelly, brutally, alone... You watched, but you could only watch from a distance -- you couldn’t hold their hand, place a cold cloth on their forehead, smooth the blankets, couldn’t do anything to ease their pain. Of course you would want to tend to their body after death -- to offer that care that you couldn’t offer in the last moments of their life.
So what do you do if you find that body gone?
Simon Peter and the beloved disciple -- they are content with the knowledge that the body of their lover is gone. They lock themselves in an upper room, hiding their grief away from those who had killed Jesus, curled up tightly with others who share their grief.
But Mary does not leave the tomb. Her grief is a gaping wound, as open as the empty tomb, no stone to seal it up. She weeps. Her grief will not be contained in an upper room, rather it pours out into the ground.
We hear, in verse 8, that “the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and saw and believed.” Now, I don’t know what it is that the beloved disciple believed, because the sentence continues: “for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that Jesus must rise from the dead.” But they certainly believe that the body is gone, that the tomb is empty.
Not Mary. She looks into the tomb again.
And this time she does not find it empty. She sees two angels. And they ask her why she is weeping.
Now, it’s arguably a foolish question. They are sitting by the very linen wrappings that mere days before were cradling a dead body. Surely they understand.
But perhaps they don’t. Perhaps they, like us, know the punchline of the story. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ is with us now. Alleluia. Alleluia! (Can I get an Amen?)
And what is there to grieve when this is the Gospel? Why are you weeping at this very evidence of resurrection and triumph over death?
In Luke, the angels send Mary away -- “Why do you look for the living among the dead? She is not here but has risen.” (Luke 24:5b-6)
But not in this story. No, in answer to Mary’s anguished plea, Jesus shows up. The Resurrected Christ, symbol of new life and triumph over death, shows up. Here. At this tomb.
I keep thinking of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5), who lived among the tombs. Jesus shows up in the places of death -- for “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12, Mark 2:17, Luke 5:31).
So that is the first point I want to make: That God comes and meets us in our places of brokenness and grief. Maybe you feel full of resurrection life this Easter Sunday -- or maybe you are still deep in grief. Regardless of where you are, God meets you right where you are.
Jesus says to Mary Magdalene: “Noli me tangere. Because I have not yet ascended to the Divine Parent. But go to my siblings and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Parent and your Parent, to my God and your God.’ ”
This whole “ascending” thing makes me profoundly uncomfortable. Yes, Divinity is transcendent, but Divinity is immanent as well. Is the Good News that Jesus sends Mary out to be the first apostle with really, “Jesus is Ascending to God?”
Elijah was taken up into Heaven in a whirlwind with a chariot and horses of fire. Enoch did not die but got taken up by God. Ascension’s a pretty elite club, but I don’t think I’d call it Good News with capital letters.
But Jesus doesn’t say, “I will Ascend” -- though, spoiler alert, She will -- Jesus says. “I am Ascending.” Present participle. Progressive tense. It’s a process.
Jesus is back, but different, still in a liminal space.
“I am Ascending.” I am not here, I am not there, I am in transit.
Jesus sticks around for 40 days post-Resurrection -- a good Biblical number.
At faith-sharing group the Tuesday before Easter, I ostensibly led us in a discussion about Resurrection, and one thing I said, as we telescoped in time both before and after Jesus’ resurrection, was, “What if post-Easter Jesus stuck around not just to do trauma recovery grief work with the disciples but because Jesus didn't want to leave?”
It occurs to me now: What if Jesus stayed for 40 days because She wasn’t ready to leave yet -- not in an “I have unfinished business” kind of way, but in that way where preemies in incubators aren’t ready to leave the hospital immediately?
I’ve heard/read/discussed a bunch of Easter Sunday sermons this year, and one of the themes that has stuck with me is the idea that the Resurrected Jesus is unrecognizable.
I often invoke the image Tiffany used in a Children’s Time one Easter -- about a caterpillar turning into a butterfly … it is still the same creature, yet so incredibly different that you would never think they were the same.
It’s easy for us to imagine the Resurrected Jesus walking around on Earth as just the same as the pre-Easter Jesus, to interpret all the stories of the disciples not recognizing Jesus as being just because this is so surprising (the disciples expected to never see Jesus alive again), or because their eyes are still blurred by tears of grief (literally and/or metaphorically), or because Jesus is playing some game of hide and seek.
All of these explanations hold some appeal, but I also think Jesus genuinely looked different, in a very real way.
The Resurrected Christ shows up in locked rooms -- and also cooks fish on the lakeshore. She is both corporeal and non.
What if She is still in the process of becoming Her Resurrected self?
Nadia Bolz-Weber said, “when Mary Magdalene stood at the tomb she didn’t encounter some perfected radiant glowing spiritual Jesus that first Easter morning.” Nadia reminded us that Mary mistook Jesus for a gardener and said, “I like to think that Mary Magdalene mistook the resurrected Christ for a gardener because Jesus still had the dirt from his own tomb under his nails.”
She talked about how we clean up Jesus, and ourselves, for Easter -- just like we do for Christmas and all the other Sundays, but we seem to especially want to be shiny and impressive for Easter. We want to look nice. And she said, “God isn’t about making you nicer. God is about making you new.” Now, I’m not inherently opposed to outward performance of the resurrection life we know internally to be true -- and yes I realize I basically just called Easter bonnets a sacrament -- but I do think she has a point. Incarnation is a hugely important part of my theology, and Incarnation is not all shiny new clothes and perfectly coiffed hair. Incarnation is blood and sweat and tears. Incarnation is messy and breakable.
Nadia finished her sermon by saying:
if there is anything impressive about following Jesus it’s that you are loved so powerfully by God that God has swept you up into God’s own story of death and life and life after death. And if there’s anything impressive about Christians, it’s that we are a people who still have the dirt from our graves under our nails, while we stand here shouting Alleluia! Christ is risen.We are a Resurrection people -- an Easter people in a Good Friday world, you may hear often this season. But Resurrection is a process. It’s not something that just happens one Sunday and boom, we are transformed once and forever.
At faith-sharing group that Tuesday, I mentioned the Harrowing of Hell. I grew up low-church Protestant, and I still don’t really believe in the Harrowing of Hell, but I’ve been coming to a greater appreciation of the power of story -- of the fact that Christianity isn’t a series of propositional statements but rather a collection of stories, stories that get told and retold and have so many different meanings and resonances to so many different people at different times in their lives. And the Harrowing of Hell is admittedly a pretty bad-ass story: Jesus descends into the place of death and darkness and oppression and suffocation and torture -- and Jesus busts open those looming wrought-iron gates that keep the people trapped, and Jesus cries out, “YOU ARE FREE!”
And that’s something like what happens to all of us with Christ’s resurrection -- God’s insistent and definitive “no” to death.
We are freed from the power and bondage of death.
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, Jesus Herself likewise shared the same things, so that through death She might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15)Now, this “You are free” is a performative utterance -- like, “I now pronounce you married.”
A new reality has been enacted. And you have choices about living into that new reality.
We have the fullness of Eastertide to begin that process, to journey with the Risen Christ and the surprised disciples.
And so I close with a quote from Mary Oliver:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
(from "The Summer Day")