John 20:1-18 (a sermon for the Easter Vigil)
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” While it was still dark. It is a small but significant detail. Matthew, Mark and Luke all note that Mary arrives “when the sun had risen.” It is the reason that Easter sunrise services have become a tradition for many. But we gather here while it is still dark. If we set our clocks according to Jewish custom it is already Easter morning. Then the day does not begin at sunrise or even at midnight but, instead, at sun down. It is the reason that the three day Triduum that begins on Thursday and ends on Sunday is not called the Quadruum. The passover meal begins with sunset which marks the beginning of the new day. So it is that we gather here remembering that Easter begins in the darkness. It should not come as a surprise that John records its discovery “while it was still dark.” Remember how John’s gospel begins: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it" (Jn. 1:5). The awesome discovery that the darkness has not overcome the light of Christ occurs, says John, in the dark.
The story he tells is one of confusion and mystery as Mary Magdalene leads the investigation. This is another interesting detail. In Matthew, Mark and Luke we learn that Mary arrives at the tomb in the company of other women. But in John the church that arrives at the tomb has been reduced to this single solitary representative. Mary slowly uncovers the evidence, struggling to make sense of it. She comes to the tomb to refresh the flowers, to grieve, to be close the body. It is dark. But she sees that the stone has been removed. It had been a new tomb, not yet used. They had been in a rush and were lucky to find a burial place before sundown. Had the tomb’s owners been so crass as to remove the body so soon? In the dark Mary runs to Simon Peter and the beloved disciple, rousing them with the news: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” We? I thought she was alone. She is sure that she knows what has happened. They have taken the Lord out of the tomb. Who ‘they’ are is not clear. But it is clear that the mystery to be solved is where the body has been laid. It is one more indignity, one more humiliation. Resurrection is the last thing on anyone’s mind.
Peter and the beloved disciple investigate for themselves. It is a footrace. The beloved disciple wins. John is, after all, a fan of the beloved disciple - may even be the beloved disciple. Arriving first, the beloved disciple looks in and sees the linen body wrappings lying there but does enter. Simon Peter barges past and without hesitation enters the tomb. He also sees the linen body wrappings and he also sees the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head rolled up in a place by itself. Why would people who were removing a corpse unwrap it and leave the cloths behind? It is a mystery. The beloved disciple enters the tomb and takes note of the evidence at the scene of the crime. He does not say anything apparently. But he does believe. John does not say what it is that he believes. He says that they did not as yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. John says that the beloved disciple believes from the moment that he sees evidence that may only be explained by resurrection. It is an intuitive faith, a gut hunch faith, a nonverbal deep trust that Jesus is “the resurrection and the life” (Jn. 11:25). This is always the seed out of which the church of the resurrection grows. I suspect it is this deep, intuitive, gut-hunch, nonverbal response to the good news of the resurrection that brings you here - brings us here - in this early morning darkness. We, too, grope in the dark for evidence that the mystery of the light overcoming the darkness is true, can be counted on, is cause for confidence in God. And the first inkling of its truth is the seed of belief that silently begins to sprout deep within our being.
“Then the disciples returned to their homes.” It is an odd detail in a story full of odd details. Really? They went home? Don’t they know that they are present at the turning point in history? Well, I guess they don’t know. I guess they don’t expect what is about to happen. Mary doesn’t either. But she stays. She stays weeping. Not only is Jesus dead but now his body has been taken. She bends down to look in. Perhaps they have been mistaken in the dark. Perhaps his body is still there. As she weeps she sees two angels in white. Where have they come from? How did the beloved disciple and Peter miss these heavenly messengers? The angels speak in unison. They do not have a message. They have a pastoral question. “Why are you weeping?” She doesn’t say it is because she has been traumatized by the trial and the torture and the crucifixion. She says she is weeping because they have taken her Lord and she does now know where they have laid him. You would think that seeing a vision of angels would lead Mary to think that something extraordinary is happening. And maybe she does begin to wonder.
But the action moves too quickly. There is no time to stop and think. She turns and, in the dark through tears, sees a man who asks her “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” She immediately thinks she has found the person responsible for removing the body. It must be this gardener. “Sir”, she says, “tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” He says: “Mary.” She turns and says “Rabbi.” It is the moment when the light dawns upon Mary and, through her, upon the church. Concerning this moment Frederick Dale Bruner writes: “In the one or two seconds this turn took, I imagine the world shifting ever so slightly on its axis and at about this turn’s one-second midpoint trajectory, history, too, moved almost imperceptibly from B.C. to A.D. A second before this turn there is a woman in the deepest human despair in the agonizing presence of inconquerable death; a second after the beginning of this turn there is a woman in the deepest possible human elation - in the presence of the death-conquering Central Figure of history” (The Gospel of John, A Commentary, p.1152).
It is such a humble depiction of such an extraordinary event. Jesus appears incognito. He is not recognized. It is like the experience of the two who meet him on the road to Emmaus. Here he is in conversation with Mary. She does not know it is him until he says her name. Such a powerful one word sermon. The reader of John’s gospel remembers an earlier sermon:“He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out ... and the sheep follow him because they know his voice” (Jn. 10:3-4). This is, in the end, the evidence of the resurrection in every generation. It is the sudden awareness that he has been here all along unrecognized and incognito until the moment when he says your name and you hear his voice resonate deep within your heart and soul. It is the moment when you are found by grace, saved by love, redeemed from despair. Then you know that you have found the shepherd who can be trusted with your life, who will lead you even through the valley of the shadow of death.
Then the temptation is always to cling, to hang on, to never want to let go. Mary reacts in the same way that Peter does at the Transfiguration when he offers to build shelters so that Moses and Elijah and Jesus can settle down and stay put. Mary is not about to let Jesus leave again. But it is the nature of life in a biblical world to live in faith - in trust - rather than to cling to certitudes and to grasp after proofs. Mary cannot take Jesus back with her to prove that he is risen. He is free to appear where and when he will. In the meantime, her life will be evidence of the resurrection for others to consider. She knows what she has heard and seen. She knows that her life - that life on earth - will never be the same for time has turned from before crucifixion to after resurrection. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”