Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…
Ingrained in my mind is this image of Mary Magdalene, alone, walking through the city to go to the borrowed tomb. She was still in shock over the events that had taken place. What about the hope? What about the compassion? What about the possibilities?
As she walks down the street, the vendors are setting up their stalls for another day’s sales. The smell of cardamom and cinnamon mingles with the smell of the oil she carries in her hands.
She pulls her veil around her face as the morning breeze whips around her. As she walks through the gate and onto the road, she sees the small hill into which the tomb is carved. How kind of that man Joseph to let us use his tomb, she thinks to herself. The Roman soldiers are there, of course, holding guard as the crowd entering the city grows larger now that the sun has almost risen.
She steps off the main road and walks a bit farther on the rocky path up to the tomb, making sure not to lose her footing on the loose dirt. She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, and raises her head, preparing herself to see the tomb for the first time since the stone was rolled into place.
I can’t believe he’s gone, she thinks to herself, as, suddenly, with widening eyes, she sees….the stone rolled away.
“He’s gone!” she yells out loud. “How could something like this happen!”
This past Wednesday, I led the chapel service for the kids at the Children of Grace. We’ve been using the windows as the our lessons, making sure the kids know that, even though they can’t all read, our Bible stories can still teach us important things about our life and God’s love for us.
I chose our newest window, (the one, you’ll remember that I forgot to bless that Sunday after the Wilkins family gave it). It’s the Pieta Window, the window that shows the Thirteenth Station of the Cross, my favorite station: the body of Jesus is placed in the arms of his mother.
I asked the kids, “who is this man?” “Jesus!” they all knew.
“Now,” I asked, “who is this lady holding Jesus.” You’ll be happy to know that over half of them yelled, “God!”
“Interesting answer,” I said. “There is definitely something about this window that shows God’s love for us.”
One quiet child on the front row said, “That’s Mary.”
“That’s right,” I said. And I told them how we had designed this window to show Mary holding Jesus after he had died on the cross. And, we put the manger on the bottom of the window, to show how, first, the manger held Jesus when he was born, and now his mother, Mary, holds him when he dies.
I saw a boy on the third row make a really mad face and raise his hand.
“Yes, my friend. What’s your question,” I asked.
“Jesus didn’t die,” he said.
I saw the other teachers’ faces freeze as we all looked at this child, daring to speak out loud and voice what was obviously bothering him.
“What makes you say that,” I asked him.
And this young boy, named Charlie, looked right at me and with sheer determination in his face, said, “Jesus did NOT die, because Jesus always wins.”
After we were finished, I made sure to thank this child in front of his friends, telling him how proud I was of his inviting us all into this teachable moment.
“Jesus did NOT die, because Jesus wins.”
I talked with the kids a bit, asking them if it made any sense at all that a person can win by dying. They were clearly of the mindset that this was impossible. You don’t win by dying.
“But you do with Jesus,” I told them. “You do with Jesus.”
After Mary went to tell Peter and the others, they, too, saw the empty tomb. What does this mean? they thought to themselves. Interestingly, the men went home “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb,” the text says. Two angels appear to her, offering her comfort…and reminding her of hope.
Then, something remarkable happens: “She turned and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know it was Jesus.” She thought this man was the gardener…but no. The impossible had happened, and St. Mary Magdalene was the first to encounter it. The one who went to the tomb early, while it was still dark. The one who went to get the others when she first saw the empty tomb. The one who stayed by the tomb, crying and wondering…riddled with anxiety on top of grief…Sir, if you have carried away the body, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take care of it…this stalwart companion, “the Apostle to the Apostles” as she is known in the Church…
She witnessed hope face to face…but she didn’t recognize it at first.
Isn’t this the reality we live all the time? Isn’t her experience our experience? Mary looked Jesus in the face but didn’t recognize him, because, it was the first time anyone had experienced the reality of resurrection. Think about that…
The reality of resurrection sits at the heart of our Christian faith. The dynamic we grapple with—our questions of what happens after we die and how do we understand hope and what does Jesus’ rising from the dead have to with hope in our lives here and now—these are pivotal questions for us. These ultimate questions, as former Bishop of Durham N. T. Wright describes, “sooner or later they swing round and look us in the eye.”
That morning when Mary Magdalene walked through the streets of Jerusalem to care for the body of her friend, she had only the crushed shards of hope to carry with her. What about all that Jesus had told them? What about the new life he described as possible? What about this image of the Beatitudes he had shown them on the hillside? All gone. All she had was grief and disappointment and shock. How could this happen?
“Jesus can’t die,” she must have thought. “Jesus can’t die because he was supposed to win.” And everyone knows that you don’t win by dying.
So no wonder she doesn’t recognize Jesus. This new reality of resurrected life—of embodied hope—simply did not fit within her conceptual framework in any way. The truth was right in front of her face, but she couldn’t see it.
This is why Mary Magdalene is such a pivotal saint for us—because she embodies our own struggle with how both to understand the resurrection and to live into its reality in our day and time.
The Resurrection of Our Lord isn’t just some past event that we remember and celebrate, like the signing of the Declaration of Independence (makes you think about whether or not all truths really are self-evident). No, the Resurrection is not only a historical event that we mark each year. The Resurrection is a lived reality—the ultimate theological motif through which we understand our very lives. It is the lens through which we view all events in our lives. It is the sacramental grounding that gives our life meaning.
Because hope is real. And, we could really use hope. How often have we gone out on the streets while it was still dark, with nothing but crushed hopes in hand, trying to make sense of something that has happened to us? How many times have we been caught off guard by pain and suffering, disappointment and betrayal, fear and death? All the time…
But, for Christianity to “make sense” today—to “be relevant”—as we hear so often, we can’t continue to treat the Resurrection like some historical event—however significant and pivotal a historical event it may be. It is MORE than a historical event; it is a lived reality—a force—in which we find ourselves in times of deep struggle. It is the constant reminder of why we place our hope in Jesus—because he places his risen life within us. That, as strange as it is, with Christ one can win through dying. Reality turned upside down…
It is why, on Easter and throughout the year, we say “Christ IS risen! The Lord IS risen indeed!” and not “Christ HAS risen.” Have you ever noticed that? The Lord IS risen, indeed… On that day. Even now. Throughout all time. In saecula saeculorum.
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Easter Day 2016 – 11:00 AM
March 27, 2016