This is the text of a sermon for Easter morning, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scripture it is based on is John 20:1-18.
Mary Magdalene stood, weeping, outside the tomb. This was the second time she had stood outside the tomb that morning; the first time, she had run straight from the empty tomb to fetch Peter and the other disciple. But as the men ran to investigate the empty tomb, Mary also made her way back – and I wonder why?
We don’t really know much about Mary’s back story. Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing in Scripture to say that she was a prostitute. A couple of brief comments say that Jesus had cast demons out of her. I wonder whether, on that morning, standing in the garden in the dark before sunrise, she felt the cold fingers of fear that now that Jesus was gone, the demons might return?
I wonder if Jesus’ death was not just the loss of a teacher, a healer, a leader, a companion… but whether Mary wept because without Jesus, her past might overtake her again, plunging her back into whatever mental chaos and trauma she had known?
For Mary, it had been in her initial encounter with Jesus – which isn’t described for us anywhere, but just referred to – that Jesus had evicted the demons, and recovered the identity of the woman underneath. A woman with a name, a woman whom Jesus embraced and valued, a woman who thus discovered herself as a whole person. For Mary, the empty tomb must have loomed large as a dark threat, leaving her emotionally naked in her vulnerability and need.
Why does it matter – you might well ask – why the Magdalene wept? It matters because she’s not the only one to weep. Like Mary, each of us comes with a back story. Those stories are rich and complex and diverse, and not one-size-fits-all, so I’m not going to generalize about their meaning. But each of those stories has its times of light and shade. There were the seasons in which we were hopeful and energized and it seemed that God had blessed us such that the world was our oyster, in which we could reasonably expect to find pearls. And there were seasons in which we were despondent and the world seemed more like a bed of quicksand in which we were trapped, and the heavens were shut.
We bring all of this history with us to the drama of Easter. If Friday was a time for remembering our guilts, our shames and our doubts, perhaps the door of the empty tomb is the time for remembering our frailties, our vulnerabilities, our fears of failure and of worthlessness.
But this is all a bit morbid for Easter morning, isn’t it? Well, it would be, if I stopped there. But it didn’t stop there for Mary, and it doesn’t for us. The risen Jesus called Mary by name, allowing her to see that the empty tomb was not just a tomb; not a grave for all her hopes and hard-won sense of self; but it was also the place in which Christ had risen. The darkness which threatened to close again around Mary was not a lasting darkness, not the falling of the curtain, but would give way to the dawning of the new day, the day of resurrection, the day in which Mary would discover that there was so much more than she had yet understood in what she had been given.
And by God’s grace, it is similar for us. When we stand in our own moments of darkness, wander through the memories of fear and the shadows of worthlessness, we too can encounter the risen Lord who calls each of us by name. Who takes the seeds of hope which we have treasured and gives them the light to burst into something new, something more than we knew them to be.
Being willing to accept this, to take this part of the Easter story on board as part of our story, our identity, is – says Rowan Williams – an indispensable part of our relationship with God. He puts it thus: “Like a growing thing beneath the earth, we protest at the darkness and push blindly up in search of light, truth, home – the place, the relation where we are not lost, where we can live from deep roots in assurance. Mary goes blindly back to the tomb, and finds her self, her home, her name… Mary is not dead because Jesus is not dead… and her continuing life will have to do with the daily refusal to accept that loss and oppression can simply be lived with or shrugged off. Growth is in the passionate constancy of returning to what seems a grave… to the dim recollection of a possibility of love, in the hope of hearing one’s name spoken out of the emptiness… If we answer that call, and find our story given back to us, our name and our memory, that story turns the corner into life and promise, and, most importantly, “calling” in the fuller sense. We are given a task to do, given a gift to give. Mary is bidden not to touch or hold or cling to the recovered Lord, but to go to her brothers and tell them that she has seen the Lord.”*
The word of hope is given to be passed on, from Mary to the apostles, from the Ten to Thomas, from Peter to the community, from that community to the whole world. Here is what our encounter with the risen Jesus, fresh from the tomb, calls us to; to be bearers of hope. To bring light into darkness; to release the bonds of oppression into genuine freedom. To seek out the seeds of hope and value and worth in places where people are trapped and lost, and nurture those seeds into bearing fruit.
This is a calling, my brothers and sisters, at which the church has often failed. You know this all too well; I don’t need to tell you. But here we are, in the light of a new morning, the morning of the resurrection, with a chance to begin again. To hear our names and know ourselves as we should be. Let’s not miss the moment.
*The section marked as a quote is taken from a passage in Rowan Williams’ book, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, (which I heartily recommend). I have taken the liberty of changing some of the words to fit better within a spoken delivery without, I hope, doing violence to his meaning.