Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb.”
During the lockdown, I began walking with some regularity in Forest Hills Cemetery. It’s not far from our home and in those months when we were especially concerned about social distancing, I joked that most people I encountered there would remain more than six feet away, safely buried underground. Over the years, I’ve watched as people spent time at the graves of their loved ones, grieving, or tending the plantings. I’ve noticed graves that were unattended, the dead who lay beneath them long forgotten. There are graves with many ritual objects on and around them.
The reality is that for most twenty-first century Americans, whose lives may not be tied to particular places, cemeteries have lost the kind of meanings and associations they held in the past.
We’ve lost most of the rituals and duties surrounding the deaths of loved ones. Few of us have touched the body of loved one, fewer still prepared a body for burial which was, up until a century and a half ago, something taken for granted, a crucial part of what it meant to care for a family member or loved one.
We see that concern expressed, the roles played out in the gospel accounts of the resurrection. While it’s often assumed that such tasks were the responsibility of women, in the Gospel of John, it is two men who prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Joseph of Arimathea asked for Jesus’ body, Nicodemus brought 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes, and together they buried Jesus in Joseph’s tomb.
So why did Mary Magdalene come to the tomb that morning? Knowing the other gospel accounts, we might not even think that was a question, for in all of them, we’re told the women brought spices to anoint Jesus’ body for burial.
Consider it. Mary has come with Jesus to Jerusalem. We don’t know how long she had been following him, whether she had come with him from Galilee or met him along the way. She had heard him teach, amazing the crowds, filling her and the other disciples with hope. She had seen him heal the sick, give sight to the blind, even raise the dead. She had been part of that strange demonstration, waving palms and shouting “Hosanna!” as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, a procession full of royal symbolism.
And then, she had seen it all come crashing down. The betrayal by one their own, the arrest, and finally, the crucifixion. Everything she had hoped for, everything she had believed, crumbled to ashes and dust, her heart empty, overwhelmed by grief and despair.
I wonder whether she came by herself early that morning because she wanted to mourn in the silence and the dark. I wonder whether the feelings that overwhelmed her compelled her to seek solitude, time to be alone with her thoughts, to try to pick up the pieces of her life and figure out what she might do next. She had abandoned her own life, whatever it was, abandoned her family and friends, to follow Jesus, and now, here she was. Alone, with her dashed hopes, her shattered faith, and a meaningless future.
These are feelings we all know well. We have all been on a walk like Mary was that morning two millennia ago. Whether because of a broken relationship, the death of a loved one, a lost job or career, or simply the heavy weight of the world’s violence and suffering, we’ve all been at that spot, a dead-end, where we can’t go back, and where there seems to be no way forward, a spot very much like a tomb or a cemetery.
But the tomb was empty, and in her confusion and worry, she ran to tell the others. Peter, and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, race to see for themselves, they look in, enter, and their curiosity fulfilled, go back home. But Mary stays behind. Instead of reassuring her, allaying her fears, answering her questions, the empty tomb only added to them, raised more questions.
And then, in an instant, all those questions were answered. In an instant, Mary’s life changed; the world changed. The tomb was not the end of the story; her hopes were not dashed; her faith was not in vain. When Jesus called her by name, she knew her Lord.
For us though, it may not be so simple. In the last two thousand years, in spite of Christians claiming through all the centuries that Christ has been raised from the dead, that he has conquered evil and the grave, things look very much the same. There is still hatred, and violence, and suffering. We still have doubts and uncertainty. We still mourn the loss of loved ones. We still know the anguish of the painful chasm between the way things are and the way things ought to be.
But in the midst of our tears and grief, as we cast our eyes on the tomb, Jesus calls us, and if we turn to him, everything changes: sadness into joy, despair into hope, doubt into faith. The tomb is there, but it is empty. Christ is alive! There is no reason to linger there, for he is risen and goes before us.
We come to this place today, carrying the weight of the world and our lives. There are the private disappointments, doubt, despair, the pain inflicted on us by a cruel word; fears for family, for the future. There is all that is going on in the world, war, injustice, a broken political system. There is, yes, pandemic, with a continuing toll both in lives lost and lives changed. But in the midst of that whirlwind of evil and suffering, in the still, center point, there is Christ, calling to us, calling us by name.
Easter changes everything and nothing. Tomorrow will come and with it, all of the problems that were here yesterday and the day before and last week. The scent of the lilies will dissipate; the memories of a full church and with choir and hymns and brass will slowly fade. Life will go on.
But Jesus calls us by our name and he goes out before us, beckoning us to follow him into the future, away from the empty tomb. He calls us into relationship with him. He calls us into new life and into hope. With Mary, may we turn away from the empty tomb and toward the one who calls us by name, who wipes away our tears and embraces us with his love.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!