Darkness before Dawn (sermon)

Easter Vigil Homily
John 20:1-18

Grace and peace to you from our resurrected Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Early on that fateful Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the garden tomb where Jesus’ broken body had been laid by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea on Friday afternoon.  They had had to rush to wrap Jesus’ body in the myrrh and aloes that Nicodemus had brought, because Sabbath began at sundown, and Jesus had been crucified sometime after noon.

There had been no time to linger or mourn.  Those who had loved this man had had to somehow force themselves beyond their grief for two days, and go through the motions of Passover, to celebrate the liberation of their people when they felt anything but free, when their hearts and minds were weighed down by chains of grief.

The gospel doesn’t say why Mary came, or why she came while it was still dark, but I imagine that it was because she couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.  The garden tomb was all her mind’s eye had been able to see since Friday, and so maybe it didn’t matter to her that it was still dark.  The landscape of Jesus’ grave would be as familiar to her as the contours of her grief.

But when she arrives, she sees in the dim light a gaping darkness where she should see a heavy rock.  It’s too dark to see anything inside the cave-like tomb, and Mary doesn’t waste time trying.  She runs to Peter and to the disciple whom Jesus loved, and tells them the fear that’s been hammering at her heart since she saw the open mouth of the tomb: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him!”

The two disciples ran towards to tomb, a weird footrace where the winner—the disciple whom Jesus loved—doesn’t seem to want the prize: the first look into the tomb.   Instead he waits for Peter, who stoops to get into the tomb, and sees the strangest sight: the linen strips that had wrapped Jesus’ body lying there, and the handkerchief that had covered his face neatly folded up and lying where Jesus’ head should be.  No grave robber or body snatcher would have taken the time to do that.

The moment he sees it, the disciple whom Jesus loved felt the stirring of a strange hope—could he have risen from the dead?  In that moment, the disciple believed, even though neither he nor Peter yet understood the scriptures that predicted what was before their eyes.

But it seems that Peter doesn’t tell or couldn’t convince Mary that the body couldn’t have been stolen, and the disciple whom Jesus loved neglected to share what it was he believed, because then both of them went home, and left Mary there, sobbing disconsolately, and still believing that Jesus’ body had been stolen.

I find it amazing that there was so much quietness surrounding the moment that the resurrection was witnessed by the disciples.  We talk a lot about how we don’t share the good news of the gospel with others enough, and that’s true, but take comfort from the fact that this has apparently been a problem literally since the dawn of the first Easter morning.

And it means that the soundtrack to the first glimpse of the resurrection is the ugly sound of human weeping, the sound of a woman crying because her teacher, her friend, is dead, and she can’t even come and be near the remains of his body, and she cannot see the hope of the resurrection through her tears.

When this woman, still lost in the night of her grief, bends and looks into the tomb, she does not see the graveclothes that the other two disciples saw.  Instead she sees two angels!

Pause for a moment.  I would here expect the angels to deliver a divine proclamation: “Do not be afraid!” –which is like the angelic motto in the New Testament.  Or something catchy and ironic like, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Instead, the angels ask Mary, “Why are you crying?”

And Mary answers them like she converses with angels all the time.  No, “What are you doing here?”  No, “Is this a sign?”  Not even falling down in fear and adoration.  Just, “They’ve taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve laid him.”  And then she turns around and she sees—

A gardener.  Or at least, she assumes it’s the gardener, because who else is going to be hanging around the garden tomb this early in the morning?  And the gardener asks her the same question the angels did, “Miss, why are you crying?  Who are you looking for?”  And Mary, clearly getting a little hysterical at this point, asks this man to tell her if he moved the body, and offers to carry it away herself.

I have this image of Mary as she might have imagined herself at that moment—this woman with a tear-streaked face bent under the weight of the crucified body of her friend, a doppelganger to the figure that stumbled through the streets of Jerusalem under the heavy weight of a cross just three days ago.  In my mind’s eye, Mary is staggering through the garden, trying to keep a grip on the corpse that’s sticky from the myrrh and slippery from the aloes and far too heavy for her, carrying him who-knows-where.

And then the gardener says, “Mary.”  And Mary turns to him, and recognizes him.  And she calls him, not by the name she uses around everyone else—“Lord”—but the name that is her name for him: “Teacher.”

Albrecht Durer. “Noli Me Tangere.” Wikimedia Commons.

He is here.  He is risen.  He can be touched, and hugged, and held onto, so tangible that he must ask her not to hold onto him, because the story isn’t over yet, he still has to ascend to the Father.  It’s not over.  It’s not over.  Death has not had the final word.  The final word belongs instead to the one who has won the victory over death, and it is that word that he now gives to Mary to share with everyone she meets: she has seen the Lord, and the story isn’t over.

It is the word that we have been given, passed down to us from our ancestors, who have gathered on this most holy night since the earliest times of the church, just so they could wait together to say these words at the breaking of the dawn.  It is the Word that we are charged with sharing, the Word that changes everything, the Word that gives us hope and faith and assurance of God’s love:

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

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