Easter Day, Year A, 2014
St. George’s Chapel
“On this day the Lord has acted; * we will rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). Amen.
In the early hours of the morning, before the sun has risen, Mary Magdalene and some other women approach the tomb where Jesus has been buried. They speak distractedly in hushed tones, their breath visible in the chilly night air, their minds heavy with the events of the last few days. Jesus, their teacher, the man whom they followed, has died. A week ago, he had ridden triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey, to waving palms and shouts of “Hosanna! Hosanna to the King of Kings!” But three nights ago the atmosphere had shifted. There was another procession, but this time on foot; with the cross on his back, Jesus had become the beast of burden, carrying the instrument of his death. Instead of palms, whips. Instead of hosannas, jeers. The echoes of these insults still ring in Mary Magdalene’s ears. She had followed along with Jesus’s mother and aunt to the top of the hill. There the three of them had huddled at the foot of the cross, keeping vigil for what seemed like ages. She had heard his last words, she had seen him take his last breath, she had heard Mary’s cries of anguish. He was gone.
Mary Magdalene had promised herself that she would remain faithful to him in his death. She and the women have come as soon as the Sabbath was over to anoint Jesus’ body. After he died, all the preparations for his burial had been rushed, so out of love for him and his mother they want to make sure that he is properly buried.
The women ahead of her round the corner and then stop abruptly, their conversation forgotten. Mary Magdalene snaps out of her grief and peers around their shoulders to see why they aren't walking. The stone in front of Jesus’ tomb has been rolled away.
Horrified, they run stumbling back into town. Mary heads for the homes of Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. “They’ve taken the Lord out of the tomb,” she gasps, “and we don’t know where they’ve laid him” (John 20:2). The three of them take off running. The other disciple is faster than Peter and gets to the tomb first. He peers in, but Peter walks past him into the tomb, panting. All that remains are the linen wrappings his body was wrapped in and the cloth that had covered his face, rolled into a ball in the corner. “Someone has taken his body” Peter thinks. The other disciple comes in and it slowly dawns on him all that Jesus had been trying to tell them about his death and resurrection. Then the two of them go home.
But Mary remains. All that she had left of Jesus had been his body, but now even that has been taken away from her. Overcome with grief she begins to weep. She peers into the tomb, her vision blurred from the tears. But the tomb is no longer empty—two angels dressed in white greet her. She tells them that she’s looking for her Lord, and, beginning to cry again, turns around. A man is standing there. He asks her why she’s crying and whom she’s looking for (v. 15). Not recognizing him, she assumes he is the gardener, asks him if he took Jesus’ body, and if he has, to give it back so she can take it away. She’s broken and mourning, and just wants to know where the body of her beloved teacher is.
In her grief and pain Mary had held on to the only thing she had left of her beloved teacher: his body. She could manage, could cope with his death as long as she had some part of him with her. She may not have had the power to save him from death, but she could take care of him and his grave, make sure everything looked nice and was done to her satisfaction. As long as she was doing something she didn't feel as if she had abandoned him or that her ministry had ended. So when she discovers that his body is gone, her walls come crumbling down. What little control she has over the tragic situation has been taken from her, and she is devastated.
But then she hears her name, “Mary!” (v. 16). She recognizes that voice; she would know it anywhere. She runs into Jesus’ arms. “Do not hold on to me,” he tells her gently, “go to my brothers and sisters…” (v. 17).
“Do not hold on to me.” When Jesus returns he reminds her that she cannot control what happens to him. She should not get stuck at the tomb; the tomb is not where his story ends.
From the vantage point of hindsight, it is difficult for us to grasp how lost and frightened and confused Jesus’ followers were after he was crucified. We know how the story goes, and we’ve been retelling it for thousands of years. But as far as they knew, people were born, they lived, and when they died, that was it until some time way in the future, when everyone would be judged. But Jesus turned everything around. When Christ, a sinless man, died on the cross, he voluntarily took on himself the sins of the world. When we are resurrected, we will no longer have to fear judgement, because the only one with the power to judge chose to sacrifice himself so that we might be free.
In our daily lives we mess up over and over again. We hurt each other. We hurt God. We neglect each other. We neglect God. We fail each other and especially God. We don’t do the things we should and instead do the things we shouldn’t. By all accounts we deserve punishment for our sins, but through the sacrifice of Jesus, our punishment has been removed. This is the Good News: God loves us so much that God became human to reconnect with us when we had gone astray. After teaching and healing and preaching, God volunteered to take our punishment upon himself. God has never abandoned us; God has always been faithful. Throughout the Bible are countless stories of God’s saving work, and most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ.
My sisters and brothers, the tomb is not where our story ends, either. While death is still a part of this life, it no longer has the final word. Because of Jesus, the Word made flesh, we are able even at the grave to make our song, “Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! the Lord is risen!”
The Empty Tomb by He Qi