Our story begins “on the first day of the week while it was still dark.” On the first day, in darkness – is how the world began. Six days later, there was a perfect garden in a world without evil. But a lot of water has gone under the bridge since the original creation; a lot of evil. Mary Magdalene came to a tomb in a garden on that first day of the week in darkness. Eden had no corpses; no need of tombs. Mary’s world is full of them.
Mary Magdalene has seen a lot of evil herself – how could she not, she is a Jewish woman in first century, Roman-occupied Palestine, who is always mentioned in the bible without husband or family. What evil could she possibly have escaped? Poverty, oppression, abuse, grief – no one would trade their life for hers.
And now she has been traumatized by personally witnessing the humiliating, degrading, agonizing slow death by crucifixion – of the one she had hoped would change things. All the powers, whose job it is to order the universe – powers of state, powers of faith, have conspired together to fill up another tomb and roll a huge stone between her and her hopes.
What is seen, and what it means
In that garden, on the first day of the week, it’s about as dark as it gets for Mary. About – but it gets darker yet. She “came to the tomb” to grieve; and for closure. What she found was profoundly worse:
“she saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.”
It can only mean one thing – and grave robbers are not gentle with corpses. There are now not enough tears in the world to fill up the gaping hole in her heart.
So she runs; runs away from what she saw. She gives her gasping report to Peter and John. Now they are running – this whole picture has an ironic urgency about it – urgency is for ambulances and paramedics; it’s for trauma centers, not for cemeteries. And yet this is an urgent story. This is a story on the subject of hope – it does not get more urgent that this.
I wonder how urgent hope feels to you this morning? Whether you are thinking about our world, our country, your family, or simply your own internal state – rarely has hope been so urgent for us. This is a need-to-run, urgent moment.
Now the story picks up speed as these two men arrive. Both of them see what Mary saw – the open tomb. Then they start to see more. John looks in, from the outside, and sees linen grave clothes. Hmm. Peter goes all the way into the tomb and sees grave clothes and the separate head cloth, neatly rolled up. Then, emboldened by Peter’s example, John too goes all the way in, and he now sees what Peter saw.
Can you take hope from seeing this scene? John does; Peter doesn’t. Neither bothers to tell Mary what they have seen – they simply abandon her and go back to their homes. Mary is still standing there in grief and tears, still believing what the two men now know cannot be the explanation for what they saw – there has never been a tomb robber who has bothered to undress the corpse on location – and had there been such one, – that he would have taken the trouble to neatly roll up the cloth head piece…? Believing in such a meticulous grave robber would be harder than believing in a resurrection – at least John concludes as much. Peter is simply baffled. What you have seen and what it means are two different things – still.
Now Mary looks into the tomb that she has been trying not to look into all this time, and God arrives! God comes in the form of a vision of divine messengers (for that is what angels are). Only, they have no message to deliver; we learn nothing from them. They ask her,
13 “Woman, why are you weeping?”
It’s not a psychologist’s question that coaxes the patient to new insight, leading towards healing; it’s just an obvious question that gets a banal answer from her.
“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
That is all that was needed. The “message” has been delivered effectively: it is simply that God is present there, and has been all along. Mary has not been as abandoned as she has felt. This dark garden graveyard scene is horrible for her, but it cannot now be called entirely hopeless.
Now we watch Mary turn back towards the garden outside the tomb, and we see her see, – without “seeing,” the Jesus whom she believes she has no hope of ever seeing again. She looks at him, but without recognizing him.
Jesus now takes the initiative; he speaks to Mary. He asks two questions – both of them, like the angels’- obvious – and for the same purpose: to simply assert his presence.
“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
The Creation story, that began on that dark first day, tells us that Adam and Eve used to meet God, the ultimate Gardner, maker of their perfect corpse-less, tomb-less world, as he walked in his garden. Now Mary Magdalene, in the darkness of the first day of a new week, stands in a garden in front of a body-less tomb, and thinks she sees the gardner. Oh, she does.
The garden she stands in now is not the same one she entered. God is present in this Garden. God famously finished his work of Creation on the sixth day. Now he has returned to revisit his perfect-garden-gone-bad, in a form that most of us did not recognize. We could not believe that hope had come down to live our lives and breathe our air; to eat fish out of our lakes and drink from our wells. We could not conceive that his vision of a world in which every one of us lost sheep – rich or poor, man or woman, slave or free, leper or soldier – would have a name that the Shepherd knew by heart. That world would be a world of hope indeed – but we did not recognize him; we saw him, but no, like Mary, we did not see him.
The way John shows us Jesus, after his sixth miracle, his sixth “sign,” his sixth act of new creation, the powers of evil killed Jesus, and heard him say from the cross words befitting the final day of creation: “it is finished.”
But that was Friday. Now it’s Sunday, the first day of the week. Now, creation has begun again. Again we see a garden with no corpses. Let us return to the story:
15 Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
For Adam and Eve, creation – the world of the garden – was a given; they saw it as it was; and God was there. But that was then; this is now; lots of water has gone under the bridge. Now it is not so easy to see angels in tombs, asserting God’s presence. Now we see a world in which the hope of God’s presence gets all washed out by tears; vision is blurry.
Until: the Gardner of the new creation becomes the Shepherd; until the Shepherd calls his hopeless, suffering sheep by name.
16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
When she knows that she is known, she knows; she sees. What does she see? At first, she sees the Jesus she knew before this new day of creation – the one who taught her to have hope:
She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).
But that Jesus of the past cannot be clung to: he finished his work on the cross, and now he is alive again; now he must be known in a new way; not only as “teacher” but now, as Lord.
17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Early in the morning, this morning, here in Gulf Shores, on the first day of the week, it was dark. We awoke to find ourselves still in a global recession, still at war, still threatened by rogue states, bad allies, terrorists, bombs, drugs, disease, divorce, depression and death. It doesn’t look hopeful. Some garden!
But our hope is not that the old world that Adam and Eve passed down to us will get better. That world was finished on the cross. Now we are living in a new world, a new creation in which death’s power of finality has been finally broken. We are living in an empty-tomb world, a world of grave clothes and neatly folded head cloths, a world in which no natural explanation can account for what we have seen. Now we are living in a world in which we have been called by name by the Shepherd, the Gardner, the Lord of life. We have seen the Lord! Hope is alive! Christ is risen!
I’m indebted to the exegetical work of Francis J. Moloney in The Gospel of John (Sacra Pagina)