It sounds very chaotic – the early morning hours following a long day and night after the harrowing event of the crucifixion. Women going to the tomb in the pre-dawn hours to finish the work of entombing the body, laden with spices to counter the smell of decay only to find the tomb opened – a desecration – and the body gone! We can imagine the anxiety in the dialogue – “Where is he?” “Who are you looking for?” “Just tell me where you put the body?!?” It’s been chaotic since last Sunday, beginning with a triumphal entry that concluded with an angry mob shouting to crucify him. A late night rushed trial for a capital offense; the death sentence delivered and then carried out; his death too near the Sabbath for a proper burial, and so a hastily arranged temporary entombment in a borrowed grave. And now, in the midst of the pre-dawn chaos – while it was still dark – Jesus speaks a single word to his close friend who, in her bereavement, has failed to recognize him. He says simply: “Mary.”
When I close my eyes and think of this morning and how the events that unfold in these hours will change the way we talk about history itself from that day forward, not to mention all the rest that will change, I hear echoes of another dark and chaotic story.
“In the beginning when God was creating the heavens and the earth and the earth had no shape, no structure, and deep darkness hovered over the face of the unbounded deep chaos, God spoke.”
In fact, it seems that one aspect of God’s incarnation into our humanity that I, for one, fail to notice, is that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection unfold in the context of the same chaos that tends to characterize my life. While, on the one hand, I pray to hear the still, small voice of God in the midst of chaos, in a world where so much destruction happens in the name of God, I, for one, look for the nearest exit in a room when someone says “God told me…” This introduction usually precedes some sort of absurdity or worse, and of course, because it’s coming from God, rebuttals are discouraged.
You may be among those whose church attendance is limited to this day and perhaps Christmas Eve, perhaps because you have heard one too many times someone excuse some hateful or dangerous position on the basis that “God said.”
In this morning’s text, however, one accepted around the world as the good news of this day, the word that comes from God, that demands the chaos stop, is simply God speaking to Mary by name.
Then, a curious thing happens. Mary responds to Jesus in Hebrew “Rabbouni”, which strangely is not a Hebrew word but an Aramaic word. The person who composed this text basically says, “then Mary spoke Aramaic in Hebrew.” Which is odd and awkward. Its like saying someone spoke Italian in French. By Jesus’ time, Hebrew wasn’t the language of the people. Aramaic was. The Hebrew would have been “Rabbi.” So, why didn’t the composer just write, “then Mary answered ‘Rabbi.’”? The important point seems to be that, despite the cultural acceptance of Aramaic, Mary defied convention, speaking instead in her native tongue, Hebrew.
There is a Jewish Midrash – a story that gives the backstory to a story we have – about when Moses came down from Mt. Zion and read the Ten Commandments to the people. The midrash says that every person heard him speaking in his or her own native tongue — an interesting parallel, of course, to the story of Pentecost when every foreign person present at the Temple heard the word of God in his or her own language. There seems to be a theme here.
Jesus’ resurrection, overcoming the grave, overcoming the silence of his voice, and opening the way for his continued transformational presence in the world, calls out to each of us in whatever chaotic state we find ourselves, inviting us to answer back in our native language to respond to God, out of the essence of who God made each of us to be. And, in the example of this morning’s gospel, we are invited not only to speak out in our native language, but to speak with new power and authority.
For, what happens next is not to be quickly skimmed past. What happens next is that the first person to proclaim the good news of the resurrection is not St. Paul the great evangelist or St. Peter, the Rock of the Church, or St. James or St. John or…you get the idea. The first evangelist is a woman! From the third century, beginning with Hippolitus, Mary Magdalene has been called the apostle to the apostles.
By the fourth century, however, Pope Gregory the Great had managed to scramble this honorific by announcing that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, whose life changed when she met Jesus. As lovely as this story is, there is in fact absolutely no scriptural basis for this. It is rather an example of what we do to keep certain voices silent. We discredit them or at the very least cripple them by maiming their stories. “Well, you know he used to be in prison.” Or, “You know, she used to be a prostitute.” You get the idea.
In the case of women, the church would systematically continue to silence their voices, refuse to ordain them, and put actual rules in place to prevent them from holding any authoritative roles in the church or the society. When women fought to be heard or to take roles in leadership, they would be accused of all sorts of unflattering motives, or to be possessed by evil spirits or dark powers.
One bishop, in very recent history, was challenged by his own wife for continuing to refer to Mary Magdalene as a prostitute when, in fact, nothing in scripture says she was a prostitute. His response, in defense, was that the Church has given her that role historically and he was only following historical precedence.
Sadly, there is a good deal of so-called historical precedence that excuses a lot of wrongdoing in our world today. In each generation, the good news of the Easter gospel is that it stands to challenge such nonsense. God incarnate calls out our names in the midst of chaos and opens the way for us to answer back in our native tongue. This gospel is an invitation to respond to God’s call to you out of the essence of the person God made you. As with Mary Magdalene, it may mean speaking out of character and to an audience that doesn’t want to hear you. But, the message of hope that you can bring can overshadow whatever reasons your audience has for not wanting to pay attention to you.
The annual observance of the resurrection is about so much more than pretty dresses, Egg Hunts, and family meals. It is the reminder that now death is no longer the ultimate, final event. Rather, death has become the necessary penultimate event that opens up the possibility of new life.
Your voice may have been silenced for decades. You may feel discredited by the persistence of a well-circulated myth about who you are that has nothing to do with who you actually are. As a result, you may feel like no one really wants to hear what you have to say. If that is your story, then this resurrection gospel is a personal invitation to you to answer God’s call to you in the voice that has been your own from birth. It is this authentic voice that can persuade others to believe so that they, too, can hear God speaking their names, inviting them.
It was likely this invitation the hymn writer had in mind when he composed this verse, “Come away to the skies, my beloved, arise and rejoice in the day that you were born; on this festival day, come exulting away, and with singing to Zion return.”
Alleluia! The Lord is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
Easter Sunday 2016 – 9:00 AM