“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb” (Jn. 20:1). This morning as you come to the tomb, what do you see? Is it an empty tomb? What does an empty tomb say to you? As I read this passage, I noticed that the word “saw” kept appearing and wondered what this word says to us about the meaning of Easter morning?
When Mary came to the tomb, she saw that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. That’s not what she expected. When Peter and the Beloved Disciple, heard Mary’s report, they ran to the tomb, and looked inside. They saw the linens that had wrapped the body of Jesus neatly folded and lying on the bench where his body should be, along with the cloth that had covered his face. While, the Beloved Disciple let Peter enter the tomb first, when he finally went into the tomb “he saw and believed.” While we know what he saw, we don’t know what he believed, because the disciples still didn’t “understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”
It’s said that “seeing is believing.” If that is true, then what might we see so we can believe? When you come to the tomb this morning, do you hear the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume whispering in your ear: “Have you ever seen someone rise from the dead?” If you’re like me, you have to answer: “No, I’ve never seen anyone rise from the dead.” After Hume asks that question, do you hear him whispering: “Then why do you think that Jesus rose from the dead?” Or, something like that.
Despite this voice of doubt whispering in our ears, we’ve gathered this morning to celebrate Easter. We’ve gathered to sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Alleluia!” Perhaps, we want to see what Mary, Peter, and the Beloved Disciple saw. We want to see the one who has conquered death, so that we might have life. Yes, “where O death is your sting?”
Even though Mary Magdalene never read David Hume, when she went to the tomb that Easter morning, she expected to find the stone firmly covering the entrance. She believed that the body should still be lying in the tomb. If it wasn’t there, then someone must have taken it. When Peter and the Beloved Disciple ran to the tomb to check out her story, they were just as bewildered as she was by what they found. Instead of celebrating the resurrection, they wondered why someone would break into the tomb and steal the body. Yes, there was a bit of David Hume in them as they checked out the tomb. They might not have had the benefit of modern science, but they did understand that when you put a dead person in a tomb, and sealed the tomb, then the body should be there. They did believe in a resurrection; they just expected it to come at the end of time, not three days after Jesus died on the cross. When that tomb was sealed, they were to ready pack up and go home. They didn’t expect to sing “crown him with many crowns.”
While Peter and the Beloved Disciple went home after discovering the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene stayed behind to keep a vigil at the tomb. Unlike Peter and the Beloved disciple, she was determined to find out what happened to the body. So, she sat down outside the tomb, and waited until she got her answers. Yes, I think she had some David Hume within her!
As she waited, she wept bitterly at her loss. She had been there at the cross, standing with Jesus’ mother, and two other women. She had watched as he cried out from the cross: “It is Finished!” Then, she watched as he died. Maybe Mary joined Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus in preparing his body for burial. John is silent on that matter, but Mary did seem to know exactly where Jesus’ tomb was.
Although Mary Magdalene makes her first appearance in John’s Gospel standing with the women at the foot of the cross, she must have been an important member of Jesus’ community. John doesn’t tell us very much about their relationship, but it’s clear that Mary was fully invested in Jesus’ ministry, and she wasn’t ready to give up on that investment just yet.
As Mary kept her vigil outside the tomb, she noticed two angels sitting on the bench inside the tomb. The angels asked Mary, “why are you weeping?” Now, that’s an odd question to pose to someone keeping a vigil outside a tomb. Why wouldn’t she be weeping? Wouldn’t you be weeping if someone close to you had died under tragic and unjust circumstances? I don’t know how long it took for Mary to respond to the question, but once she did respond, she told them, “someone took the body, and I don’t know where it is.”
After this conversation ended, Mary looked around and she saw a man standing in front of her. She didn’t recognize him. In fact, she thought he might be the gardener. She thought that if he was the gardener he might know where the body of Jesus had been taken. Before she could ask him a question, the man asked: “Why are you weeping?” Mary responded to his question, with a question of her own: “Do you know where the body is? If you do, I’ll go get it and put it back where it belongs?”
She saw Jesus, but she didn’t recognize him until he called her by name. When Jesus spoke her name, the eyes of her heart were opened, and she cried out: “Teacher!” Just like the sheep in the parable of the Good Shepherd, when she heard him call her name, she knew the voice of the Good Shepherd, and the whisperings of doubt began to fade into belief (Jn 10:1-6). Perhaps instinctively, Mary tried to grab hold of Jesus. He had been lost, but know he was found, and she didn’t want to lose him again. Even if she didn’t fully understand what was happening, all that mattered was that Jesus stood before her, alive!
The eyes of Mary’s heart were opened that day. What about the eyes of your heart, are they open to the mystery that is the resurrection? Are you ready to join with St. John of Damascus and sing?
Now let the heavens be joyful! Let earth its song begin!
The world resound in triumph, and all that is therein;
let all things seen and unseen their notes of gladness blend;
for Christ the Lord has risen, our joy that has no end. (Chalice Hymnal, 28)
While Mary didn’t want to let go of Jesus, he told her that he was still in the process of ascending to the Father. In the meantime, he had a job for her. Jesus commissioned Mary to go and tell the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. She accepted this calling, and went and found the disciples and declared to them: “I have seen the Lord!”
The first letter of John, which draws on the Gospel for its message, begins with these words: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and what we have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—. . . We are writing these things so that our joy may be made complete” (1 Jn 1:1, 4). Mary Magdalene declared what she had seen and heard, and perhaps even touched. In doing this, her joy was made complete.
It’s important to remember that Jesus didn’t appear first to Peter or James or John, or any other of the male disciples. He chose instead, to give that honor to Mary Magdalene. Yes, in the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene is the first evangelist. She is the first witness to the resurrection, which means she’s the first apostle. As Jaime Clark-Soles puts it:
Mary Magdalene is the first to testify that the resurrected Jesus Christ is the central fact of human history—no, cosmic history. In so doing, she herself has become a central fact of that history. Can you hear her voice? [Reading John for Dear Life, p. 140].
As we gather here this morning to worship God in the presence of the Risen Christ, do you hear Mary’s voice? Do you hear her testimony about what she saw with her own eyes? While I don’t know if she got to touch Jesus, Thomas will touch him, and he will have his eyes opened. I believe that John wants us to hear this word: Jesus’ isn’t a ghost. He’s not a figment of someone’s imagination. We may not understand how he is risen, but this Easter testimony to the resurrection invites us to declare with the Psalmist:
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Ps. 118:24).