Spring has come early this year. It is amazing to watch seemingly dead, bare branches spring back to life and to watch delicate leaves and flowers poke through the dead leaves of last year. Every spring, in front of our eyes, the death of winter gives way to the life of spring.
I think Mary felt this way in the garden when she encountered the risen Christ. All her hopes had been dashed on Good Friday, all her dreams had died on the cross. But, now, in her grief and her despair, she found new life and hope.
Think that this story, this central story to the Christian faith, begins at a tomb. Jesus had died, murdered by those in power and Mary had watched him die a horrible death. Taking him to the tomb that night, his disciples must have felt a crushing sense of despair. He was their teacher, their friend, their guide to God. This early group of disciples had lost the most important person in their lives and had witnessed his profound humiliation and suffering. They were lost and despairing.
There are all sorts of traditions about who Mary Magdalene was. We know for sure that she was a woman whose life had been deeply touched by Jesus of Nazareth. Luke mentions her as a woman who had been cured of demon possession, possibly something like epilepsy, and was perhaps one of the women who supported Jesus’ ministry financially. The gospel accounts agree that she was present at his death.
We know she was part of Jesus’ radical mission of inclusion. In a time and culture when women were nobodies, Mary Magdalene was an important member of Jesus’ band of disciples. Marcus Borg points out that women were some of Jesus’ most devoted followers and this certainly seems to be the case in this Easter passage, when Mary is not only present at Jesus’ death when his male followers ran away, but she rushes to his tomb to insure his body is well cared for. It would seem from each of the stories in the gospels that Mary Magdalene was the leader of Jesus’ band of female disciples.
But I doubt that any of that mattered to Mary now. Jesus was dead and as far as she knew, his mission was over. She was left to grieve. I love this poem that says…
You were dead—defeated—pain had won
Suffering had its way
All was dark and uncertain
That dawn of another day
Women, like women ages before and ages since,
Only came to weep…
You know, sometimes I wonder what brings us all back to church Sunday after Sunday, what brings us to church on Easter? What are we looking for?
Perhaps we come because we often find ourselves in the same spot that Mary was in that Easter morning—alone, afraid, at the end of our rope. Mary had just watched the person in whom she had placed all her hope tortured to death and she had been there when he was buried. We too encounter harsh realities in life. How many of us have sat in the waiting room at the hospital or by the bedside of a friend or loved one? How many of us have had to stand by a gravesite? How many of us have felt that all of our hopes and dreams are lost? Perhaps some of us have felt that utter sense of abandonment and aloneness that Mary felt, that Jesus felt on the cross? We are sometimes left with more questions than answers when horrible things happen in our lives.
Mary only went to the garden, to the tomb to grieve and to do the last thing she could do—respect the corpse of her teacher. She was out of hope. Even voices from heaven were not enough for her. When she saw the tomb empty, it only filled her with more grief, one more blow to a heart who felt like she could take no more.
But something happened in that garden, by that tomb, that changed Mary Magdalene forever. She saw Jesus, alive and standing with her. After her initial shock, she recognizes him when he calls her by name. I have this lovely icon that depicts Mary on her knees, gazing up into the face of the risen Christ, her arms reaching for him. He stands, holding out his hand to her. Behind them, yawns the empty tomb. The despair is behind them. I think that this is the loveliest picture in the Bible, when Mary hears her name and recognizes Jesus. Suddenly, she finds life in death, joy in pain. Just like Spring follows Winter, hope came out of her despair.
Perhaps we are all here this Easter morning because this is what we are looking for too. We are looking for what Isaiah was talking about in our first reading, translated in The Message this way;
"Pay close attention now:
I'm creating new heavens and a new earth.
All the earlier troubles, chaos, and pain
are things of the past, to be forgotten.
Look ahead with joy.
Anticipate what I'm creating…”
Sometimes I think that Christianity through the years has been far too focused on the afterlife. “Well, I guess I’ll go to church to cover my bases with God so that I go to heaven when I die.” Or, we hear about how this resurrection story gives us hope of life after death. Maybe we should consider looking a bit differently at this story. Mary doesn’t look at Jesus and say, “Oh, great, here is my ticket to heaven some day.” She didn’t say; “Thanks, Jesus, now that I see you are still around, I know I can have life one day.”
Her life changes right then and there. She finds new hope and new life and is transformed. Her life is changed by a relationship with the risen Christ. Do we, here and now, encounter this Jesus, this Christ? Can we also recognize him with Mary? Perhaps we feel his presence. Perhaps we meet him at the table, in the Eucharist, as we remember him. Perhaps we see him in the love of a friend or the kindness of a stranger. But, however we meet him, the power of his resurrection is for us, here and now. It is new life; it is hope that, in spite of our pain and brokenness, that we just might have access to life and joy and hope.
How does this change Mary? Jesus meets her, but he does not stay. He sends her out, the first person to bear witness to this resurrection life. Again, Jesus disrupts the social order and sends out a woman to tell the story. I like to think that if it were not for Mary Magdalene, we would not have this story. Tradition tells us that Mary Magdalene spent the rest of her life travelling throughout the ancient Middle East preaching the resurrection.
This resurrection life is not just for you and me as individuals, it changes the world. It is for a world that is full of suffering and discrimination and war and pain. It challenges the way things are and lets us imagine new possibilities and new realities. This resurrection life gives us hope that we can leave the tomb and find new life in our lives and in the life of our world.
So, this Spring, as we watch flowers grow from decaying soil and see what looked like dried up wood sprout leaves and grow, let us remember that life can come out of the death in our lives, that hope and joy can come from our pain. Let us remember the words we confess every Sunday, words that were first proclaimed by Mary Magdalene;
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.
May we each experience his coming in our lives and work to realize his coming in our world. Amen.