Easter message

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — The Gospel of John tells us that Mary Magdalene discovers the empty tomb first. This is a rather remarkable given how patriarchal and repressive of women the Christian church will later become. Other men and women followers of Jesus were reported to have gone to Jesus’ grave that early morning. But for some reason, Mary Magdalene is the only person mentioned in each of the four different Gospel versions of this empty tomb story. Why this one piece of consistency in four divergent accounts? Why was she so important to be repeatedly named? Could it be that Dan Brown’s popular mystery-detective story, “The Da Vinci Code,” is true? Jesus and Mary Magdalene were lovers and had a child together? As offensive as this idea may be to some, and as titillating as the idea may be to others, I wonder if the answer for her prominence doesn’t lie somewhere even more challenging. Could it be, as an increasing number of Biblical scholars are suggesting, that she was the follower, the disciple of Jesus, who actually got what he was teaching? Was she the one who didn’t abandon him, when the other disciples did, because she fully understood Jesus’ call to human transformation through self-emptying and sacrificial love?

We follow this grieving and unnerved woman as she stumbles through the early darkness, looking for the body of her beloved Teacher and friend. The Gospel of John has already carefully informed us in previous verses that her visit is not about bringing spices and completing the burial preparations. Nicodemus, the Jewish religious leader sympathetic to Jesus’ cause, had already supplied pounds of myrrh and aloes the night Jesus was buried. The other followers are apparently in hiding; surely the Roman soldiers will be looking for them too. So what is Mary Magdalene up to in the dark? As she approaches, she is stunned to see the closure to the tomb rolled away. Proceeding no further, she runs to get several of the other disciples. Two of them come back with her, and peer into the cave-like enclosure. They note the pile of burial clothes. Curious, as these would probably have been still on Jesus’ body if someone had moved him to another location. The men apparently believe the body is truly gone, but can’t make heads or tails of this. They return to their homes. Note: no one is expecting “resurrection” at this point.

Mary stays rooted to the spot, weeping. Even the cold comfort of seeing and touching Jesus’ body again has been taken from her. Through her tears, she looks into the tomb and encounters angelic beings who question her. She suddenly senses a presence behind her. Turning, she sees someone standing there, who repeats the angels’ question: “Why are you crying?” Not recognizing who this is, she pleads, “Sir, tell me where his body is.” Then this someone calls her by name: Mary. In that moment, she recognizes him. And the unrecognizable all of a sudden becomes incomprehensible – “Oh my God, Teacher, it is you!” And Jesus sees how her love for him is grasping, still looking for a tangible corpse. What she is now confronted with is an intangible aliveness beyond her wildest dreams (Cynthia Bourgeault, “Wisdom Jesus,” p. 130). “Don’t hold on to me, don’t cling to me,” he tells her.

The Gospel writers want us to know that Jesus, despite all evidence of his dying, is now alive. This challenging of the power of death itself is the most paradoxical part of the Easter claim for me. Something dead is now alive. Not a resuscitated body; this man who embodied God’s radically inclusive, unstoppable love was dead…and has now been transformed into a living entity. And for several millennia, Christians have been saying much the same thing: we testify to this ongoing presence of the Risen Jesus Christ in our midst, and it is making new life, transformation, possible in us.

There is something almost ridiculous about this claim, in part because our best thinking can’t quite comprehend it. In our world, death so often seems to have the last word. How can it be that confronting violence, dead hopes and dreams, feeling dead inside, is not the final part of each of our stories? This is the grown-up part of Easter, beyond spring bunnies and chocolate eggs. It is almost the stuff of dreams, not unlike the one the Spanish poet Antonio Machado records in his poem “Last Night As I Lay Sleeping.” The idea of new life busting out of deadness is so fantastical and error-like, it has to come to him under the cover of sleep, when his conscious, linear-thinking brain is no longer in charge. Hear his words:

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.
My mistakes, my failures, my deadness being transformed? This can’t be right. “Marvelous error,” Machado cries, over and over. How can it be that these changes come to me, he wonders. I dreamt I had a fiery sun giving light inside my heart. That’s crazy! “Last night, as I slept I dreamt, marvelous error, that it was God I had here in my heart.” The spirit of the living God, inside of our hearts. “Fear not,” said Jesus at his last meal with his followers, “I will be with you always.”

Can dry hearts be replenished and warmed? Can old failures be transformed? Sometimes we get so caught up in the calculated logic of the world and what our conscious ego analyzes might be possible. “I just can’t let go of that resentment, that disappointment, that mistake.” We miss the possibility of our own inner healing and changing. I often liken Easter morning to a cold glass of water – thrown in my face! Because there has always been something too sudden, too bizarre about Easter. Jesus is killed because he embodied God’s radically inclusive love so totally, that he became a threat to just about everyone. Again and again, he refused to compromise; he would not set limits on God’s unstoppable love, forgiveness and acceptance.

I wonder if in that moment of hearing Jesus calls her name, Mary Magdalene finally recognizes her transformed self. She is not just a woman frantically bereaved, torn from the person who embodied God’s radically inclusive love. She is Mary, beloved disciple and forgiven one, a woman who has come to see her own old failures transformed. One who came to know and accept her own precious self through her relationship with this Teacher and friend. One who has known love and now is called to pour that love out to the world. Jesus is now present in a new and different way; life and God’s love is unstoppable. Mary Magdalene gets it. She will bring the message of resurrection back to the disciples, and she will be called by the early, pre-patriarchal church “the Apostle to the Apostles.”

Our adult lives are full of self-doubts, and often a casual flippancy about what really matters. As we are confronted again by the pain and violence of our world, it sometimes feels more natural to say that death does have the last word. In the midst of all this, we each yearn for a deeper sense of connection with the great Mystery around us. We long for that wellspring of renewal and hope. Water for our dryness, heat for our chill, light for our darkness. For old failures to be changed into sweet honey.

Jesus is standing before us again, as he stood before Mary Magdalene on that garden path. He is addressing each of us by name, recalling us to our own precious selves: “Anne, here I am – I’m alive – my spirit now lives inside of you, it’s changing you in this very moment. Now, what will be transformed in your life?”

Christ has risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia and Amen.