Peace, hope, and joy are words we like to associate with the Christian faith but I think it more appropriate to consider the words grief, doubt, and despair this morning. Jesus has risen from the dead and that is a joyous occasion; one we celebrate with Easter egg hunts and pretty dresses, chocolate bunnies and fancy lunches. But on that first Easter morning the disciples didn’t rise early to go egg hunting, they didn’t greet one another with Alleluia! If they slept at all, they woke to a world that had been turned upside down; a world in which everything they had put their hopes and dreams in seemed to have crashed down around them. On that first Easter morn, the followers of Jesus were still anxious that they might be arrested as insurrectionists and rebels—that whole day of revelry last week with the palms and the donkey could still come back to haunt them. They were keeping it on the down low, afraid to be too visible.
They hadn’t seen this coming. Looking back, sure, there were a bunch of clues—Jesus had known this movement couldn’t have lasted long. He was poking the imperial and the religious bears, so to speak. They never should have made that fateful decision to turn toward Jerusalem—coming here had been a bad idea. Now in their grief and fear they seem to have forgotten everything Jesus taught them. Their doubts and darkness haven taken control and the future seems bleak and they have no idea what to do next.
Maybe they should just go home. It was good while it lasted—probably too good. Isn’t that how most things are—you finally open up your heart and let someone in and they end up breaking it or you put all your eggs into one basket because someone has convinced you to have total and complete buy in and somehow the basket drops and you have yolk on your face. They should have known better—if something is too good to be true, it probably is. So now they are alone and scared, battling with the feelings of despair and grief and abandonment and maybe even feeling a little foolish. And it is in this state of mind that Mary Magdalene bursts into the room, breathless from running, and saying something about him being gone. Who’s gone? They ask. And the response startles them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Peter and another disciple throw caution to the wind and take off running for the tomb, not sure what they will find: is it a trick? After the execution there had been accusations that his disciples would move the body and claim Jesus had risen from the dead, so a stone had been ordered to block the entrance to the tomb. When they arrived the stone had been moved and they could not only see into the tomb, but actually go in and they still don’t know what they are looking at—a bunch of linen rolled up on the stone he had been laid on. He had talked about rising from the dead in three days, they had witnessed the miracle of resurrection when he brought Lazarus back to life, but they still didn’t understand the scripture or recognize its fulfillment.
Their minds are reeling—was he really dead? They had seen him on the cross, they saw the legs of the other criminals being broken, but not his, they saw the centurion pierce his side—sure they had been standing at a distance—but that looked like blood and water that came out. They had seen him taken off the cross and given to his mother, Mary—surely he had died. Did the religious authorities take him? Was this another betrayal—a way to convince the people to turn against the remaining disciples? Or a double cross—so that they too, might be arrested. Was it not enough that he had abandoned them, now someone has taken him too? They return home, their hearts still filled with doubt but maybe a glimmer of hope as well—could he still be alive? And what about that thing with Lazarus—could that have something to do with all of this?
And then there is Mary. Mary who could not leave. Mary whose grief could not be abated. Mary who is not concerned with doubt but only wants to hold on to this man that she loved. Grief-stricken Mary, whose only fear is that she will forget—forget his face, his voice, his touch. She is not willing for him to be gone and is desperately clinging to whatever vestiges of him that remain. And in her grief, when she thought she could suffer nothing more, she discovered that he has been taken away, that he is gone.. She cannot even be awed by the presence of angels due to her singular focus—where is her Lord? So when she turns around, she cannot recognize Jesus in his resurrected state—because she is still holding on to his earthly, human state. Mary cannot recognize the divine—angelic or godly because her focus is still on that of human affairs. Grief and doubt and despair are not part of the heavenly realm but they are so much a part of the earthly one. When she is able to peer through that darkened veil and light punctures her soul—it is not her eyes that manifest the risen Lord, it is her ears. The sound of his voice as he calls her name, “Mary!” And in that moment, she knows who he is and all the grief and doubt and despair of the last few days will dissipate and her heart will be full of joy and peace and hope once more.
Mary helps us to understand our fears and our faith. It is not the suffering that she despairs of, it is the loss, the feelings of abandonment, being left alone, being left behind. That is what terrifies her. She clings to the Jesus she knows in this world because she has no knowledge of the next. Maybe that is why, upon recognizing him in his resurrected state, she calls him “Teacher” instead of Lord or Savior or Jesus. Jesus will no longer teach her how to walk in this world, but how to live in the next one. And living in the kingdom of God is about releasing fear and embracing a presence that is not always physical—the presence of the divine, Emmanuel, God with us, who is no longer dependent on flesh and bone but love and trust.
We love God and we trust that he will be with us and never abandon us—that is the message of the empty tomb. The cross has taught us that God does not save us from suffering, but through suffering, and the resurrection teaches us that suffering is not the end. Mary has seen Jesus in the garden. She thought he was a gardener and upon recognizing him called him teacher. When she sees the disciples the next time she will tell them she has seen the Lord. Gardener, teacher, Lord these are the ways in which the resurrected Christ—the divine being makes himself known to Mary. They bring the promise of new things, of good things, of things that will bring us hope and peace and joy. Maybe those are the better words to associate with this happy morning—the words of our faith. The light of Christ has vanquished the darkness of grief, doubt, and despair. Jesus has not gone; God has not abandoned us. The divine has known our suffering and invites us into his light.
Easter Year C: Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; I Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20: 1-18
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, April 21, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer