Throughout the Easter Season, we will be preaching on “Easter People.”
Scripture can be found here.
This is the feast of victory for our God! It is Easter Sunday, the most joyful day of our Christian year. It is the day when I say, “Alleluia, the Lord is risen!” And the people reply: “The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!” It is a day of beautiful flowers, and glorious music, and hearts lifted high as we celebrate together.
It is a day when we hear again the marvelous story of Mary Magdalene going to find the tomb where they had placed Jesus, and all the wondrous things that happened after.
But we can’t skip from the cross to the empty tomb without remembering Saturday.
For Mary, Saturday was Shabbat, the Sabbath, and it was the Passover festival. A day that is intended to be filled with joyful celebration, and recreation, and delightful, luxurious rest. A day of recalling God’s great power and love in freeing the children of Israel from slavery. A day on which, during the Passover meal, a child asks, “Why, tonight, do we recline at the table, instead of sitting up? And the people remember, “We recline at the table, because we are free.”
It was supposed to be a day of joy.
Instead, for Mary Magdalene, and all the followers of Jesus, it was a day of desolation. A day on which the commandment to rest, most of the time, meant that you were free to rest. But on the day after Jesus died on a cross, it meant, for those who loved him, they were forced to rest.
The gospel of John names four of the women who stood near the cross, looking on that Friday: his mother, Mary; her sister, who is unnamed; Mary the wife of Clopas; and Mary Magdalene.
Imagine what their Saturday was like.
Or maybe you don’t have to imagine.
They kept the vigil of those who are either waiting for or living through a terrible, heartbreaking loss; during which all they could do was to wait, and to remember, and maybe, to pray.
But finally, finally, that day was over. So, early on Sunday morning, the first day of the week, while it was still dark out, one of the Marys, Mary Magdalene, went to the garden where she knew she would find the tomb.
Upon my bed at night
I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not;
I called him, but he gave no answer.
“I will rise now and go about the city,
in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves.”
I sought him, but found him not. ~Song of Songs 3:1-2
Mary expects to find the newly occupied tomb with the enormous stone that is its door, rolled shut, sealed. She has not come to anoint Jesus’ body. In this gospel, Jesus’ body has already been anointed, prepared for burial by his followers, Joseph of Arimathea (who’d also provided the tomb) and Nicodemus, the Pharisee. After Jesus had been taken down from the cross, Nicodemus had brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes that weighed about a hundred pounds. Together with Joseph, he had taken the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to custom.
So, Mary, who knows all this, has not come to anoint the body.
She has come to continue her vigil in the only place that makes sense to her. Like the young loved in the Song of Songs, she has sought the one whom her soul loves, and this, in her mind, is the closest she can be to him, to continue to pray, and mourn, and somehow remain his faithful follower.
Mary expects to find the tomb sealed. Of course. And so, it is an almost unimaginable shock to find the stone rolled away.
Her immediate response is to run. She knows that there is a strong likelihood that the body has been stolen by those who were so afraid of Jesus they had to kill him. So, she runs to find the disciples, and comes back with Peter and the one they call “the one whom Jesus loved.”
The two men have a kind of footrace to the tomb, and they both eventually go into it, and they see that the linen wrappings have been left behind… Which, of course, kicks the “stolen body” theory right out the window. Why, if you’re stealing a body, do you remove the grave cloths? And the one who Jesus loves, believes, though he doesn’t understand. And then the men leave.
But Mary stays behind. She stands outside the tomb, in the garden, weeping. Whatever belief Peter and the one Jesus loved have found, she doesn’t have access to it yet. She bends over to look into the tomb, and sees two angels—angels!—and she is weeping, she is so distressed, that they don’t even say “Don’t be afraid!” which is pretty much the required greeting used by angels throughout the bible. Instead, they say, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
“They have taken away my Lord,” Mary cries (she doesn’t seem to notice that they’re angels), “and I don’t know where they have laid him.”
The sentinels found me,
as they went about in the city.
“Have you seen him whom my soul loves?” ~ Song of Songs 3:3
In her heart, Mary is still standing at the cross. All of her, heart and soul, mind and strength, is still grieving. And as a Jewish woman, her faith tradition offers her resources to deal with her grief, the chief one of which is time.
We need time with our grief, time to let it sink in, and have its way with us, and become part of who we are. Experts in this sort of thing tell us that grief is like the ocean: it comes in waves. One moment we are perfectly dry, or maybe, just wading in the water up to our ankles. And in the next, we are swamped, soaked in the salt water of our tears, gasping for breath, the seaweed of trauma and regret in our hair. Eventually, we can hope that the waves of our grief become gentler, until our sorrow is a part of ourselves, and no longer something that knocks us down…. though, the more traumatic our loss, the longer this takes, and sometimes, we don’t or can’t live long enough to outlast its mighty waves.
Mary Magdalene is still grieving.
But then, she turns around.
And there is Jesus! Only, Mary doesn’t recognize him. She thinks he must be the gardener.
This happens. In at least three of the gospel appearances of Jesus after he has been raised, people doesn’t recognize him at first. There is something about dying and rising again that has changed him. In some mysterious way he is both himself, and not himself.
Jesus speaks, and he echoes the angels: “Woman,” he says, “why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
“Woman,” he calls her. “Woman,” the angels call her. This happens four times in the gospel of John. Four times, Jesus addresses a woman this way, “Woman!” And it sounds hard to our ears, harsh. It sounds like it would startle, and it would. It does. It pricks the woman’s ears up for whatever is coming next. Jesus uses this address, “Woman,” when he is about to give her a revelation. When he is about to tell her some important news. When the gospel—the Good News—is about to break through.
Mary thinks this man must be the gardener, and so she pleads with him to help her to find Jesus.
“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
And then Jesus calls her name. He says, “Mary!”
And in that moment, everything changes.
“Have you seen him whom my soul loves?”
Scarcely had I passed [the sentinels],
when I found him… ~ Song of Songs 3:4a
Now, for Mary Magdalene, the moment of Resurrection has come. The moment of life out of death has come. Now, Mary is an Easter person.
Easter people come to be able to trust that what they are seeing, they can believe, whether that is the witness of a community of faith going back century upon century, or whether that is the Risen Lord, standing right in front of them. They may still feel the grief that can define the struggle between life and death, but they learn to trust life anyway.
And a key to that trust is this: They have been called, called by name.
Have you ever had someone in your life who just couldn’t get your name right? After repeated encounters, meetings—and being introduced!—again and again? You know how that feels. It makes you feel invisible.
Being called by name, on the other hand, makes you feel seen. And valued. And as if you matter. We recently introduced nametags here at UPC. The truth is, there’s theology behind this decision. In the writings of the prophet Isaiah, we read,
But now thus says the Lord,
the One who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. ~Isaiah 43:1-3
When we are called by our names, it means someone is taking responsibility for knowing that name, for knowing us. We are important to them. The one who actually names us, the one who calls us by name for the very first time—think, parent, guardian, protector—is the one who claims responsibility for us. The one who loves us unequivocally. When God calls us by name—when Jesus calls us by name—we are being claimed by the one who redeems us.
“Mary,” Jesus says, and Mary breathes, in response, “Rabbouni!” “My teacher!”
“Have you seen him whom my soul loves?”
Scarcely had I passed them,
when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go… ~Song of Songs 3:3b-4a
But of course, she has to let him go. Mary has to let Jesus go because the resurrection is not the end of the story, but only the beginning. She has to let him go, because this mysterious gardener-stranger-beloved Jesus has work to do—more work. The work of bringing resurrection to the rest of his followers. The work of showing them that death no longer has dominion over him, or them. The work of bringing them all, even in the midst of their grief, back to life.
And immediately, Mary Magdalene joins in the work. There’s a meme going around Facebook this week, and it says, “In the interests of Biblical accuracy, this year all Easter sermons are to be preached by women.” Now, of course, that’s a bit tongue-in-cheek. No one is trying to tell our brother pastors they don’t belong in the pulpit. But Mary Magdalene was, indeed, the first preacher of the resurrection. From at least the eighth century C.E., she has been known in the church as apostola apostolorum, Apostle to the Apostles, because as the first witness to the risen Lord, she obeyed Jesus’ command to “Go and tell them…”
The last, breathless words we hear from Mary Magdalene is that first proclamation of the resurrection: “I have seen the Lord!”
And contained in that proclamation is the heart of our faith. Mary was called by name, called into the presence of this story, and this Lord, into the understanding that the God who is our Maker is also our Redeemer; that the God who breathed Holy Spirit into dust is also the God who can and does bring that dust to life—full life, abundant life, Spirit-filled life, life without end.
Alleluia! The Lord is Risen!
The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!
Thanks be to God. Amen.