In a Garden Outside a Tomb (Easter Day)
Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher).
When we come to Easter worship we typically anticipate a joyous celebration. A service where the music soars like it does when we conclude with the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. And rightly so. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is cause for the best we have to offer in praise of God. Easter doesn’t have quite have the same pressure as Christmas for it to be a happy, happy, happy time—nonetheless we do expect some joy.
1. What we don’t’ expect (or want) is to see someone weeping uncontrollably. It is uncomfortable to be in the presence of someone that we are unable to console. Weeping is not something we want to hear especially on, of all days, Easter. But we do. Easter day happens in a garden outside a tomb. John, in his gospel, wants us to be sure that we hear the weeping. And he doesn’t want us to look away. As if to underline it in particular he tells us four times that Mary Magdalene is weeping.
Almost instinctively we would ask her the question the angels and Jesus ask her, why are you weeping? There is something profoundly helpful when one human genuinely listens to another as they pour out their pain. There is something therapeutic in being able to talk about it with someone else. Because we know the rest of the story we know why she is weeping. We can identify with her sorrow. Death mocks our love for one another. Jesus has died. The one who helped her believe again that God truly loved her had suffered a horrific death by crucifixion. The one who was the light of life for her was dead and buried. Death has no sympathy for her. No matter how we rail against it we are helpless before it. We know her sense of helplessness. She is in a garden outside a tomb grieving a great loss.
And to add insult to injury the tomb has been desecrated—at least that is what Mary believes. ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ The pains of death have been multiplied for her by whatever indignity she now imagines has been visited on her Lord’s body. The pain of this indignity piled on top of the grief of the loss of Jesus in death could crush a person beyond despair. We know why she is weeping. But what are we going to say to her about it? In other words, how would you attempt to console her? What pearl of wisdom have we to offer her? Our world says she needs something called “closure;” do you think that will help her?
It could be that weeping is not far from our own hearts on this Easter morning. The loss of loved ones in death is with us and weeping in never too far below the surface. We can identify with Mary. The heartlessness of death crushes the spirit. We rail against it. We want our love to have meant something. We want our loved one to have counted. The singer Enya expresses our longing in her haunting song “If I could be where you are:” she signs, “Is there a way I can find you, Is there a sign I should know, Is there a road I can follow, To bring you back home to me.” We know why Mary weeps; she is in a garden outside a tomb.
And this is the truth I invite you to take home today. Easter is precisely for this moment. Easter happens where death is, because that is the place it is needed. In a garden outside a tomb. Jesus Christ risen from the dead is vindication that in the death of Jesus on the cross, death has been defeated. In Jesus Christ death has been rendered a doorway from life to life. Death and its errand boys are conquered. As the Apostle Paul wrote in his tome on the resurrection of Christ—“Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:54) And because of the great victory Jesus has won for us it is right that Easter worship be filled with praise and joy.
When Jesus calls Mary by name—as only he enunciates her name—and Mary recognizes that it is Jesus speaking with her she experiences the first instance of what was promised by God through the prophet Isaiah—God will swallow up death for ever, then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.” (Isaiah 25:8) Mary experiences the wiping away of her tears that anticipates that day seen in John’s revelation … and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’
Note that Jesus’ question, why are you weeping, isn’t because he thinks Mary has no reason for crying. Jesus himself knew that he and Mary both needed the tears if the truth of what had just happened was going to come to mean exactly what it still means: we have the hope of new life smack where we need it most: in the midst of a world full of death and dying.
And this is the story we have to share with each other in all our weeping. Jesus Christ, risen from the dead standing in the garden outside the tomb with us calling us by name to believe in him—to turn around and see who it is.
2. The second thing I invite note is the magnitude of what is occurring in this first Easter day. In many ways the story is related to us in a rather understated way. But how could it be otherwise? Something as profoundly extraordinary as resurrection could hardly be taken in all at once. It is over time and with reflection with the help of the Spirit of God that we can appreciate something of its grand significance.
I think it can still be said, even among those who do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead, that they have at least heard of the idea of someone rising from the dead; they have some knowledge of the Easter story. Mary had no such story in her mind. She—and no one else in her world—was anticipating that Jesus would rise from the dead. Now the Jewish people believed that at the end of time, there would be a general resurrection of the dead, as people rose from their graves and as God judged everyone. But no one in her world was anticipating that someone would rise from the dead as a single individual, in the middle of history: any more than we would anticipate waking up tomorrow morning and expecting the sky to be green.
She looks at this man in the garden, whom she assumes is the gardener, and he looks at her and—perhaps with a twinkle in his eye—he simply says, "Mary." And as he speaks her name, her eyes are opened. She realizes it is Jesus. She's overcome with joy, and she embraces him.
How long do you think it would have taken for Mary to have turned from looking at the tomb to look at Jesus? Maybe a second? Maybe two? Dale Bruner, a respected commentator, says that as Mary turned and saw Jesus, it was as if the world was also turning on its axis. As she turned one second into her turn, it was as though the world had shifted from B.C. to A.D., from "before Christ" to “anno Domini: "in the year of our Lord." One second before, Mary had been this woman agonizing in the depths of sadness, in the face of unconquerable death. A second later, Mary is experiencing the highest possible human joy in the presence of the one who has conquered death. Mary was the first person in history to see Christ risen from the dead, and the joy and the elation she must have felt is unimaginable.
I remind you of a truth that is in this story with Mary Magdalene and also with all the resurrection appearance stories in the gospels. The reason these first followers of Jesus came to believe that this Jesus who was crucified and died is risen from the dead is because Jesus made himself known to them alive. The same is true for believers throughout history and for us today. We come to believe that he is risen because he makes himself known to us by his presence in our lives. He is among us today inviting us to believe. We may not be able to explain how but we know it by the knowing of faith.
Here's the thing: as people meet the risen Christ today, they experience this profound and unexpected joy that the first believers experienced. C.S. Lewis titled his book about his conversion to faith in Christ, Surprised by Joy. There is the joy of knowing ourselves loved by God; the joy of knowing that our life matters to God and is therefore full of meaning; the joy of knowing that nothing can separate us from this love—not even death. Again, it is fitting that Easter worship should elicit our best efforts for praise of God.
That Easter day the world looked entirely different for Mary. Jesus Christ risen from the dead changes everything. The world is no longer under the dominion of death and dying; rather it is theatre of God’s redeeming love. Or as the voices from heaven declare in John’s vision. “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” You will hear that text sung in the Hallelujah Chorus and the chorus fittingly builds to that great declaration. I thrill every time I hear it sung.
3. As thrilling as this Easter day is life is more than thrilling moments. As world-altering as this first Easter day is, world history isn’t over just yet. Mary’s first instinct is to take hold of Jesus and never let go. But there is more to come. “Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.”
Jesus gives Mary a commission—“go to my brothers and say to them.” She is to be a witness of this encounter with Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead needs to be announced. Mary’s witness wasn’t just for the disciples who at first didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t believe her. They did eventually come to believe her after Jesus presented himself alive to them; we know they came to believe her because her witness is preserved in scripture. Her witness is for us too. When Jesus tells her to go and tell he can foresee that we too will hear Mary’s witness. Will we believe her? I for one am grateful for the witness of Mary Magdalene. Her witness has been a blessing to me and my faith.
And now, like Mary, we have a story to tell. Easter gives us a commission. The risen Jesus calls us to go and tell of our encounter with Jesus. I hear many people recommend to one another a movie they have seen or a book they have read. Encounter with the risen Jesus is a better recommendation than any move or book.
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’