(A sermon for Easter Sunday April 4, 2010 John 20:1-18)
Early on the first day of the week—
Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. It was so early it was still dark. And in the darkness she saw one unbelievable thing after another.
But it was a time for supposing things that were not true.
Early on that morning, when Mary Magdalene awoke, she felt the terrible shock we do when the death of someone close is so fresh that we have to realize it again, to tell ourselves the bad news and make ourselves believe it.
We get up and move because we must, because we fear if we do not, we might never move again.
We get up and do something—anything—because anything is better than nothing.
Mary Magdalene got up and went to the tomb. It’s not clear what she went there to do, at least not in John’s gospel.
Or maybe it is. She went there to be a witness. She went there to be a disciple. Oh, she may not appear on lists of the twelve—all men—but she appears in each of the four gospels , in combination with various other women, or here alone. Every version of the story tells us that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, early on the first day of the week.
Supposing she hadn’t?
In John’s gospel, she is the first witness to the empty tomb. She carries the message to the disciples, and they follow her back to see if she can possibly be telling the truth.
Somewhere behind Mary Magdalene I imagine a mother telling her something like my mother used to tell me when I complained of not feeling well: “Get up and get moving and you’ll feel better.” Keep at it. Do the tasks of daily life. Weed the flower bed. Take a walk.
Go and visit the cemetery.
And Mary Magdalene did.
When the men left, shock having been added to shock as they saw the empty tomb and for the moment failed to fully realize what had happened, Mary stayed.
Supposing she hadn’t?
When we look back over our lives, surely all of us can identify moments of decision, especially the big ones—where to go to college, or what career to follow, or whether to get married. But I suspect it’s in the smaller moments the history of the world is written, the turning back to get something we forgot, the smile exchanged with a stranger who later becomes a friend, the stray thought that crossed our mind and then settled to become a deeper idea or realization.
Mary stayed and wept, and she saw angels—again, the number and description vary, but she always sees the transcendent delegation. They always speak to her, but here they are not the only ones. It is the risen Christ who speaks to her, asking why she weeps. She thinks he is the gardener and makes an odd leap, asking if the body has been moved, offering to carry it—to carry him—away.
“Supposing him to be the gardener”—I love that. It tells us he looked vaguely human to her, not so unfamiliar as the angels in the tomb. He looked human, though he was more than human. But he had to do more than speak for her to know. He had to say her name.
It was not just the sound of his voice, but the sound of her name that helped her really see him, though he had enough form, according to the story, that she could grab onto his feet.
What do you suppose she thought then?
I’ve had those moments, the flash of hope that the bad thing never happened, the urgent rush of optimism. “Teacher,” she cried, thinking they had it all wrong. Maybe he hadn’t died! Maybe in the shock and the despair she had misunderstood, they had all misunderstood.
Don’t hold onto me, he tells her. They meet at a liminal moment. He is between two states, and so is she. The Jesus of Friday has died, and the Christ of heaven is not yet ascended. Mary Magdalene, the grieving follower, has only a moment to kneel before him, a moment to transform into Mary Magdalene, the first evangelist.
This is a big day, the day we remember and celebrate the Resurrection. We pull out all the stops with flowers and music and new clothes and good things to eat. It is right to do it, even when it spills over into plastic eggs full of jelly beans or becomes conflated with the bulbs pushing green shoots up through soil, because these rites of Spring remind us that weeping was not the end of the story. Mary Magdalene stayed and became the witness to new life.
“I have seen the Lord,” she said. She told the disciples and they told others, and they told others and so on until one day someone told me. One day someone told you. We may not remember the first time we heard the story; it may be simply part of who we are. Or it may have come as a gift when we needed it desperately, a word of hope early on a dark morning.
I believe the world needs the Good News now as much as it ever has. Mary made sure to share it.
Supposing we do the same?