April 20 , 2014 Easter Sunday
Isaiah 25:1-9, Psalm 93, Colossians 3:1-4, St. John 20:1-10
Tradition has done Mary Magdalene a cruel turn. Worse than that, really, an evil turn. In the Bible she is a fair lady, good and true. It is tradition that has turned her scarlet, has made of her a harlot.
Way back when, an inventive creature merged Mary with the wanton woman who anoints the feet of Jesus and dries them with her hair. The story stuck like gum to a shoe, and she has borne the taint ever since.
If true, it would explain her devotion to her Lord: She who is forgiven much loves much. But no source either among the Bible’s authors or any outside the Holy Writ, orthodox or heterodox, paints her in scarlet. More credible by a long march is this:
Jesus performed in her an exorcism, as Scripture says, and a compound one at that. Not one, not two, but seven demons He cast out of her. Has she not in that cause for a love brimming over?
We meet her today at the tomb of her Lord, and soon the apostles John and Peter will arrive as well. But first comes Mary, she of Magdala, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.
She was there at the cross on the Friday when they crucified her Lord. In the other gospels, she is among a group of women who venture out early on the Sunday to the sepulcher. In St. John’s report, only she is named.
The strain must be well nigh crippling. First the crucifixion, then the endless vigil at home on the Saturday. Jewish custom mandates mourners at the tomb for the first three days because the spirit, it is said, remains with the body for that duration.
But Jewish law forbids travel of more than a brief walk – a Sabbath day’s journey – and she may not come. On the Sunday, she is up and out before dawn. Our text says “early”; the Greek refers specifically to the fourth watch of the night, from 3 to 6 a.m.
By starlight or by the dull gray light of dawn – no matter – Mary sees clearly enough that the stone no longer seals the tomb. These tombs are caverns, fashioned to accommodate numbers of bodies in various chambers.
A square or oblong stone stops the entrance to most, but this one is different. The wealthy afford themselves a disc-shaped stone, a massive thing. It rolls easily enough downward in a groove to block the entry, but moving it upward and away requires several strong men. The aristocrat Joseph of Arimathea has provided the Lord’s final resting place, as he supposes his garden tomb to be.
The stone is gone. A scandal! See Mary tremble to the point of shattering. Perhaps the Jewish authorities have removed the Lord’s body to produce it later, denying Jesus’ disciples the opportunity to spirit Him away and offer some preposterous claim of resurrection.
Or ghouls might have robbed the grave for profit. The spices and linens used in burial will fetch a tidy sum. Not many years later, the Roman Emperor Claudius will declare grave-robbing a capital offense.
All Mary knows to a certainty is that the stone is missing. She seeks not her resurrected Lord but His corpse. Where can He be? What could have happened to Him? Her mind seems to slosh out of her head . . . but her heart remains steadfast. Love propels her.
Henry Kingsley wrote of her arrival at heaven’s gate where the archangel Michael stands guard:
Magdalen at Michael’s gate
Tirled at the pin;
On Joseph’s thorn sang the blackbird,
“Let her in! Let her in!”
“Hast thou seen the wounds?” said Michael,
“Knowest thou thy sin?”
“It is evening, evening,” sang the blackbird,
“Let her in! Let her in!”
“Yes, I have seen the wounds,
“And I know my sin.”
“She knows it well, well, well,” sang the blackbird.
“Let her in! Let her in!”
“Thou bringest no offerings,” said Michael,
“Nought save sin.”
And the blackbird sang, “She is sorry, sorry, sorry,
“Let her in! Let her in!”
When he had sung himself to sleep,
And night did begin,
One came and opened Michael’s gate,
And Magdalen went in.
Frantic, Mary runs back into the city and blurts out to Peter and John, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they laid Him.”
The two startled apostles race off pell-mell to see for themselves. John, much the younger, arrives first . . . but does not enter. Deferentially, he awaits his leader.
A puzzling business. Has Peter not just thrice denied his Lord? Yet he remains the unquestioned leader of the apostolic band. Must he not retire in disgrace . . . or even join Judas in dangling from the end of a rope knotted by his own hand?
Indeed not. For despite his betrayal Peter’s love abides supremely. It overwhelms his denial and binds him even now to his vanquished Lord. Peter dares to love extravagantly. Somehow, even as he fails his love prevails.
John stoops, peering inside. Peter arrives and blunders past him, through the low opening and into the tomb. There lay the linen clothes that had swaddled the pierced and crumpled body of Jesus, the kerchief that had covered His head folded neatly and set apart from the rest.
John follows Peter, and now we have a quorum. Under Jewish law, the word of two men suffices to establish a matter in court. Mary’s account is of no account but these two can offer proof.
Isn’t it just like God? He uses those the world regards as foolish to confound the wisdom of the worldly.
John looks . . . and sees . . . and when he sees he believes. But what does he believe?
“For as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.”
They did not know the Scripture? But of course they did! They are faithful Jews, devoted to their God and to the sacred text He has given them. Whether by reading or hearing, they have learned God’s word.
Did not David write, to cite just one passage: “For You will not leave my soul in Sheol, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption”? (Ps 16:10)
And now we are told, “For as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead”?
John sees, but what does he see? He sees the linen cloths his Lord had worn lying before him. Seeing is believing. John believes, but what does he believe? He believes Jesus has risen and departed His tomb.
So . . . what’s missing? John sees that Jesus has risen from the dead but he does not yet believe in Him as God’s Holy One who would not see corruption. He does not know Him for the Suffering Servant of whom Isaiah wrote, for the One who sits at God’s right hand awaiting the day when God will make His enemies His footstool.
John sees, but in his eyes the resurrected Jesus is not the long-awaited Messiah.
Who is this dull disciple? The selfsame John who writes this gospel, indicting himself for his failure to recognize God. By the time he wrote, the church had long since grasped and spun out the connection, but the apostle will not exonerate himself.
He will have his impaired vision, his backwardness, on the record to deny God’s enemies a path of attack. They cannot say the Lord’s disciples concocted a tale to agree with their Scriptures. On the contrary, they were too thick to know the Messiah of their Scriptures when He appeared among them.
For it must be told that Jesus of Nazareth, a man of flesh and blood, lived and died and rose again. The disciple whom Jesus loved loved Jesus too much to allow any to cast doubt on His divinity. John Updike wrote:
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of other ages:
let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
Our gospel passage concludes: “Then the disciples went away again to their own homes.” And whom would John have found there? Another lover of Jesus, another Mary. For on His cross, the Lord entrusted His mother to this apostle whom He loved.
These three, faith, hope and love, abide, but the greatest of these is love. These three, Mary Magdalene, Peter and John, abide. They are too slow of wit, too faint of heart, too dim of vision . . . and they are we.
But in each of them, when faith and hope flicker, love burns brighter. They filter every sight and sound, lie and promise, fear and failing, dream and vision through their love for their Lord. May we be they.
We are rational creatures – so God made us – living in a rational age . . . too rational to believe, hope, love. Reason stoops and peers into that tomb and sees Darwin, sitting and grinning, spinning a theory that kicks God out. Evolution scoffs at faith. Who needs it when you have a theory?
Anyone, it seems, can trust in a theory. It’s God’s truth that must be proven. Faith? It’s a gauzy thing, made of the stuff of clouds. But not for us, beloved, not for us. For if instead the fabric of faith is truth, then faith is fact, and fact minus faith is fiction.
Some time later, under the factual teaching of the Holy Spirit, Mary and Peter and John will overcome their infirmities and make the connection. The Jesus who is risen today is the promised Christ.
Our God is so very gentle with us. He presents us with facts – an empty tomb, nail holes in our Lord’s hands and feet, eyewitnesses aplenty. And He presents us with faith. The faith He demands of us is the faith He supplies to us.
From faith to faith we go, from lesser to greater, from little to much . . . if our love interprets all. Alleleujah! He is risen! He is risen indeed!
Elizabeth Rooney wrote:
Now is the shining fabric of our day
Torn open, flung apart, rent wide by love.
Never again the tight, enclosing sky,
The blue bowl or the star-illumined tent.
We are laid open to infinity
For Easter love has burst His tomb and ours.
Now nothing shelters us from God’s desire –
Not flesh, not stars, not sky, not even sin.
Now glory waits so He can enter in.
Now does the dance begin.