On the first day of the week, after a day’s Sabbath rest that was surely marked by tear-stained prayers and wailing grief, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb of her Rabbi, Jesus. John doesn’t say why she was there, but Luke and Mark write that women went to the tomb with spices to prepare the body of Jesus for a proper burial, a preparation they didn’t have time for on Friday before the Sabbath started. She walks there in the dark, and finds that the tomb was open, the stone rolled away. Her grief is now magnified by the horrific prospect that vandals desecrated the grave of Jesus. “They have taken the Lord from the tomb!” she tells the other disciples, while still out of breath from running to tell them what she saw.
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Simon Peter and John return with Mary to see the tomb. Did they not believe her? Did she want them to see for themselves, and to help find where their Lord’s body was moved? We don’t know their motivations. When they get to the tomb, Peter and John go in and see that the tomb is empty, except for the linen clothes that were covering Jesus’ body. But they don’t see Jesus, angels, or anything else.
Curiously, John writes that “the other disciple” (ie, himself, whom he also refers to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”) believed. “He saw and believed,” John writes, but doesn’t say anything more. Believed what? Did he believed that Jesus was risen? Why, then, doesn’t John say that he and Peter went home telling the good news? John continues to write that “they didn’t yet understand the Scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead.” They believed yet didn’t understand?
The co-mingling of belief and not-yet-understanding is something that I generally embrace, but in this story something feels off. In my reading, I’m leaning more toward the idea that Peter and John simply did not understand what was going rather than that they confidently believed their Lord was risen. Why? Well, these two male disciples return home with no account of their transformation or joy. Yet the story continues with a dramatic story of another disciple – Mary – seeing the risen Lord and returning to the others transformed.
So Peter and John return home after seeing the empty tomb and “not understanding that Jesus must rise from the dead.” But Mary stays. She stays in that place of grief and horror, still shocked that the body of her Rabbi was not where it was laid just two days earlier. She stays, staring into the tomb and its emptiness, its death, its isolation. She stays, crying. And it is in that place of emptiness and horror, grief and tears, where angels speak to her, and Jesus meets her.
But like any place of horror, it’s a confusing place, a tear-blurred place, a disorienting place. In that place Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus, at first anyway. She sees him in the predawn light, but thinks he is the gardener. “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.” Vandalized tomb. Missing body. She just wants to do right by Jesus. But then he says her name. “Mary.” Jesus calls her by name, and in being called by God she recognizes him. Rabbouni! Jesus then sends her as the first to announce the resurrection, to go and tell the other disciples that Jesus is risen.
Jesus is risen! Alleluia! We’ll announce this on Sunday morning several times throughout the service. But more than simply being risen (as if this is something that is simple!), what’s significant in Sunday’s reading is how he reveals his resurrected self to his followers. It is in the place of darkness and grief where Jesus comes to Mary, left alone at the tomb by disciples who did not yet understand. And next week, as we hear the story of “Doubting Thomas,” we’ll see that Jesus shows up in our fear and doubt. This is far from the certainty of faith of “Super Christians” that too often we lift up as exemplars. But faith is less about confidence than it is about openness to God’s presence – even and especially in the darkness of our lives.
The Good News for us this day is that our Lord is risen and appears to us in places of darkness and despair, sending us ahead with tears of grief still on our faces to announce that Christ is risen and that death, somehow, is not the end of the story.