Have you ever noticed that all four gospels make a point of saying that the resurrection happened on the first day of the week, not the third day after his death? Given how clear Jesus’ teaching had been that he must die and on the third day be raised again, why the emphasis on the first day? The point the evangelists are at pains for us to see is that this is the beginning of something new. The day of Jesus’ resurrection, and his victory over the powers of darkness, is the first day of the new creation. Matthew and John’s gospels begin with explicit references to Genesis, highlighting this theme of new creation, and its culmination is here.
Today I want to focus our attention on Mary and her experience of this new day and her encounter with the risen Jesus. What might we learn from it? How might it encourage us in our bubbles, and as we consider the possibility of reduced restrictions under level 2?
Mary’s day begins while it is still dark. She awakes, and before the light of the day has pierced through the darkness, she goes to the tomb. It doesn’t take too much imagination to consider what sort of emotions might have been present. To go to the tomb was to go to the place of death, of loss, and grief. To go to the tomb was to remember the life of Jesus, his teaching, and his way, and to remember the rejection of these things by the powers of the world. To go to the grave was to face the reality that the way of Jesus came up against the way of the sword, the established order, and led ultimately to the cross.
What was Mary’s response? She wept. John can’t emphasise this point enough. In verse 11 he writes, Mary was weeping. In verse 13 the two angels ask, “why are you weeping?”, and then in verse 15, Jesus asks her, “Why are you weeping?” Jesus is the master of the question isn’t he. Never a simple answer, usually a question that reveals the heart of the matter. “Why are you weeping?”. We might initially think, well duh, someone I deeply and truly loved just got murdered. What do you expect me to do? Dance? But a closer look sees that the question actually invites us into deeper reflection on the nature of our loss and grief. The question invites us to name our sorrow, to name our fear, to name the horror of the evil and power of darkness we’ve witnessed. It invites us to name our lost hope, and to name the uncertainty of the future we now face. I don’t think the question is accusative, I think it’s invitational. Why are you weeping?
Have you taken time in this pandemic lockdown to process your experience? Have you stood in the darkness beside the graveside? What has been lost? What is the source of your grief or fear, sorrow or anxiety? What informs your sense of loss?
Jesus then asks Mary a second question. “Whom are you seeking?” It’s interesting that as in the Emmaus road account in Luke’s gospel, where the two disciples are kept from recognising Jesus, Mary also doesn’t recognise him, mistaking him for a gardener. I’ve never noticed this before, but the questions Jesus asks Mary aren’t so different to the ones he asks the Emmaus disciples. There the disciples are desolate and when Jesus asks what they were talking about, they begin with, “we had hoped”. At the heart of both of these encounters is the fact that Mary and the disciples had put their faith in Jesus being God’s promised Messiah who would bring about the reign of God on earth as it was in heaven. This hope had seemingly died on the cross with him as the kingdoms of the world crushed him. People were not expecting a suffering saviour. Their imaginations couldn’t conceive of victory through death, or God’s ultimate power being revealed through weakness, and self-sacrificing, redemptive love. In the world of darkness where money, sex, power, and the dividing walls of race, gender, class and status ruled supreme, it was impossible to imagine another way. When Mary sees a gardener, he’s not the image of the victorious saviour she had in mind.
If the first question invites us to consider the nature of our loss, then the second question invites us to consider the type of salvation and saviour we are looking for. “Whom are you looking for?” As wonderful as Mary’s prior devotion to Jesus had been, her estimation of him was still far too small. The depiction of the risen Jesus presented to us in this gospel is Jesus, the gardener in the new creation garden - the true image of God, tending the garden, bringing about flourishing and peace. To all who receive him he is giving the right to be children of God. Notice how different Jesus looks in this picture to the violent zealot Barabbas (meaning “son of the father”) that the people had demanded over Jesus three days earlier. Barabbas was the picture of the saviour people expected, and the one whom they thought they were looking for.
What we grieve reveals what our hearts are truly longing for.
Alluded to in this text is the image from Song of Songs, a love poem of one who longs to be with the lover of her soul. The setting is a garden filled with spices (John 19:39), alluding to the imagery of Song of Songs 1:3, 12; 3:6; 4:6, 10;5:1, 13. Mary (and all of us) long to be with the one she loves, and to embrace him. It’s a picture of longing, intimacy, union and renewal. Her previous blindness to Jesus’ identity is removed at the sound of her name, and her despair is swallowed up by astonishment and delight. The shepherd calls his sheep by name, and his sheep know his voice.
Augustine of Hippo once wrote, “You have created us for yourself O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” He is right. The deepest cause of human grief and sorrow is the absence of God’s presence and reign. The pain and suffering we experience in life is the consequence of that absence. Our deepest need therefore, is the restoration of this presence and the coming of God’s Kingdom to heal what was fractured.
In recognising Jesus as he speaks her name, Mary immediately seeks to embrace him. Jesus tells Mary not to cling to him, but instead to go and tell the others. It’s here that we return to the theme of the new day. The nature of God’s presence, and the outworking of his salvation, will now be through the Holy Spirit. As Jesus had promised earlier in the gospel, he must return to the Father, but he would send the counsellor, the Holy Spirit, to be with them. It would be through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, the same power that raised Jesus from the grave, that his people would experience communion with God, be renewed, and restored, and participate in the work of new creation. The temptation is to look backwards, and to long for the old thing, but God is doing a new thing. Stunningly, God’s presence isn’t located in a temple of stones, but in his people, a temple made of living stones who will take God’s presence with them to the ends of the earth.
Upon our encounter with the risen Christ, we are not to stay where we were, but to go and tell. What begins in the darkness, at the graveside, and with weeping, turns to new possibilities. Our eyes are to be opened to the new thing, to imagine a new way of ordering creation according to God’s priorities. The way of Jesus creates a movement not a monument to be clung to.
I realise this is now a long post, but I think it’s important to share this encouragement and exhortation to our church family in this time and season. Our country is experiencing a time of grief and loss, and the end of a way of doing things. As Christians we know about this - it’s our story. We are therefore a people called to stand by the grave at dawn pointing others to the light breaking through the darkness, and declaring the day of the Lord. We are a people guided by the Spirit who can already imagine a new world that is different from the old order, and priorities, a world under the reign of the Servant King. As followers of Jesus, we are a people who can imagine an economy where the worker receives a fair share of the labour, where the poor are lifted up, the lonely are placed in homes, the widows and orphans are cared for, the swords are turned into ploughshares, and the peacemakers, the meek, the poor in spirit, and the merciful are declared blessed.
We are seeing signs of this new potential order already as the “lowly” supermarket workers, and cleaners and bus drivers are recognised as essential, where those who work for minimum wage as home helpers for the sick and elderly are applauded and celebrated, not left unnoticed, and our nurses, teachers and farmers are appreciated for their labour. We are seeing a world where the homeless are gathered up and placed into accommodation, where neighbours say hello and deliver food and medication to those who can’t do it for themselves. Now more than ever is the time for the Church to keep speaking into this vision, and to proclaim God’s Kingdom.
As tempting as it may be, now is not the time for us as a parish to simply turn our thoughts to how we can get back to life as it was, or to seek to cling to Jesus in our old ways. It is time to pray fervently, to have our eyes opened to the possibilities of God’s reign breaking in on earth as it is in heaven, and to consider again how, like Mary, we too can go, tell, and be people of God’s new day. What needs to be left behind?