April 8, 2012
Resurrection has taken on a new face for me during the past few months—the face of my first-born child. As pastors, Steve and I have accompanied parishioners and their families through many deaths. All of our parents and grandparents have passed away, as well as several aunts and uncles, and even a couple young cousins.
Yet, there is nothing in my experience to date that begins to compare to the amount of time I have spent contemplating death, resurrection, and the afterlife since Sarah’s passing on Thanksgiving Day.
There are times in our lives when “the rubber meets the road,” so to speak. Our lived experience crashes into our theology. Will we re-frame what we thought we knew? Will we face what has exposed itself as poverty-stricken in our former way of seeing? Will we grab God’s hand and walk the extra miles along unfamiliar paths? Will we build new alliances with faith, mystery, and paradox; with unanswered questions and questionable answers? Or shall we cower in a corner, clutching the familiar, when all is said and done?
These sound to me like some of the same questions that Jesus’ disciples faced as they encountered the empty tomb that Easter morning so long ago.
I always wonder how it was for the women, waiting and weeping through that agonizing Sabbath day of rest until they could touch, handle, and care for the dead body of Jesus. It was their job, after all, a job that rendered them ritually unclean according to their faith, but a job women have done so lovingly and well over countless centuries and millenia.
Wednesday marked the fifth anniversary since my mother’s death. How much I needed to caress her face and feel the warmth of her flesh shortly after the nursing home notified my sister and me in the middle of the night that she had passed! How much I needed to stroke Sarah’s hair, kiss her forehead, and caress her cheek when Steve and I made the long trek to the Funeral Home in Williamsburg! How much the women around Jesus surely yearned to touch him throughout that long sabbath day.
It is no surprise that Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb early Sunday morning as the sun is still rising. She is laden with spices and ointments for the body of her beloved friend, teacher, and healer. A colleague of mine worked for years as a suicide counselor. She explained to me the distinctions between “instrumental grievers” and “intuitive grievers.” Instrumental grievers need tasks, plans, ‘things to do’ to process their grief. Intuitive grievers need ways to sit, reflect, hold, touch, remember. We are often a blend of both, to greater or lesser degrees.
Mary Magdalene is ready, even yearning, to “do something” that helps her feel closer to her dead friend. Some days I just need to pull out something in Sarah’s hand-writing and read it, just to feel connected to her authentic voice. Fortunately, she left us a treasure trove of writing, and she was also a pack-rat! Caring for Jesus’ body must have been like that for Mary, I think.
But Mary isn’t prepared for what comes next. She arrives at the tomb, and the stone is rolled away. “Oh, no!” she fears. “They have taken his body!”
This is not an unrealistic reaction. Jesus was executed by the collusion of both Roman and religious authorities. Influential people wanted him out of the picture. Couldn’t they want his body out of the picture, as well? Wouldn’t it be prudent for the Romans to hide the evidence of his execution, especially when–a mere week before–crowds formed on the streets in Jerusalem and hailed him as king? Who knows what kind of backlash there could be, after his death?
Mary runs off to tell Simon Peter and “the other disciple whom Jesus loved,” known as the Gospel writer, John. The two men come to the tomb and look. Seeing only linens inside, they leave. John hints that he “believes,” but he doesn’t say what kind of “believing” that is. He qualifies this statement by asserting that the disciples do not yet know that Jesus is risen.
It is not surprising to me that they leave. Their leader has been executed; are they next? Could they be identified and rounded up by the authorities? Is there nothing else to see, with an empty tomb before them? Who knows what is running through their minds? The political risks the male disciples face seem to be greater than those of the women, given the culture and times they live in.
Mary Magdalene lingers. I get that. Frankly, I wouldn’t have been able to leave, either. Our daughters, who chose not to accompany us to the Funeral Home, asked us how it was to view their sister’s body. I told them that it was hard–of course it was hard. But far harder was leaving that room, which was ultimately something we had to do.
So Mary lingers. Soon she encounters two angels sitting in the tomb. They speak to her. She is weeping the whole time. Her vision is probably kind of blurry and clouded by her tears. Her face might be buried in her hands. With a heart utterly bereft, her head might be bowed.
Mary hears a voice of one she assumes to be the Gardener, until a point in the conversation when the visitor calls her by name, “Mary…”
Instantly, she Knows, with a capital “K” on the word “Knows.” A cosmic “K,” if you will. The voice she hears belongs to Jesus–not a gardener, not an angel, not a figment of her imagination, not a projection of her own grief.
He speaks with her. She came to the tomb to touch him, anoint him, prepare his body for a proper Jewish burial. She still longs to touch him. She wants to grab him, hold him, cling to him, never let go. But he desists. ‘No, Mary, go tell the others…’
And Mary becomes the first witness to the resurrection. In spite of the fact that a woman’s witness at the time is disallowed in a Jewish court of law, Jesus sends Mary. It’s just like him–an upstart even after rising from the dead!
Other Gospels tell us that no one believes her—it seems to them an idle tale. I’m not surprised. Some of the connections I have experienced between this world and the next since Sarah’s death could easily solicit the exact same reaction. At times, I’ve doubted like Thomas. I’ve thought I was hearing a Gardener, a stranger, the figments of my own imagination, the projections of my own grief. Who would ever believe me? Who would believe Mary Magdalene? I profoundly ‘get that’ in ways I never got that before.
But while he was still alive, Jesus kept saying these things would happen. The light overcomes the darkness. The seed that falls to the ground and dies is the one that bears fruit. In three days this temple will be destroyed and rise to new life.
Mary Magdalene converses with a risen Christ. She doesn’t recognize him until Jesus calls her by name. Thomas has to see the marks from the nails in Jesus’ hands to believe (John 20:24-28). The two disciples traveling the Emmaus Road have to sit down to a meal with Jesus and watch him breaking the bread before their eyes are opened (Luke 24:13-32). In the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke reports this: “After Jesus’ death, he presented himself alive to them in many different settings over a period of forty days” (see Acts 1:1-5).
The disciples face a head-on collision between their learned theology and a risen savior. They have before them two choices–denial and entrenchment, or faith and transformation.
In my last sermon, I mentioned my recent sunrise walks. Everything is parable and metaphor to me on those early morning excursions. Once the trees are covered with springtime leaves, their arching cathedrals of green obscure the intensity of the colorful fireworks on the horizon. Paradoxically, spindly, barren trees of winter more fully reveal the glory of the Light. It’s already happening as winter slowly births spring.
Yet, if I peer closely at nature’s rhythm, I notice how the darkness itself invites the dawning. The barrenness fertilizes the ground of both earth and heart. The cold, stark simplicity of winter unveils the explosive beauty of the heavens. So it is with Easter morning.
“Come, sweet Easter morning. Come, sweet happy day!”