There was nothing joyful about that first Easter morning, as the small band of women made their way through the darkness to the grave of their friend Jesus. They went to perform one final act of friendship – anoint his battered body with ointment and clothe the corpse with fresh linen.
That’s all they came to do, and when they were finished they expected the tomb would be forever sealed up, along with all their hope, all their dreams.
That’s what they expected, but that’s not what happened. What actually did happen is a little unclear. All four gospels tell the story of the resurrection, but each offers a slightly different angle.
Barbara Brown Taylor has compared the accounts of the Resurrection to an incident report from a traffic accident. Not everybody saw the same thing, and the number of witnesses varied. Confusion and fear were the primary emotions of these first witnesses to the Resurrection.
And that is still how many people experience Easter. They’re confused as to what the empty tomb means, and they’re fearful that they are the only ones who feel this way. But take heart; you are in very good company. That’s how most people, including the first disciples, initially experienced Easter.
It took a while for joy to sink in that morning as the disciples realized they’d walked away from the scene of the accident not just with their lives intact, but with their lives made whole for the first time.
The one thing all the gospels agree upon is that Mary Magdalene was the first person to whom our risen Lord appeared. Why this woman? Why not his mother Mary? Why didn’t Jesus go to her and say, “Mama, look, I’m OK.” Or why not appear to those who had crucified him? Why not go to them and say, “You did your best to keep me nailed down. But look at me now!” Wouldn’t that have made more sense if Jesus had wanted to get the word out?
There are so many Jesus could have gone to first, but he chooses Mary Magdalene – chooses her to be the first witness to the Resurrection. Tradition has labeled Mary a prostitute, but the Scriptures never describe her that way. They only say that that Jesus drove seven demons out of her – maybe one for each of the seven deadly sins. The point is the demons were cast out of her, and she wasn’t possessed by her old way of life.
And so it is Mary who lingers at the grave trying to make sense of the empty tomb. And maybe that’s why Jesus goes to her first – she’s just there. She is grief-stricken that the body of Jesus isn’t in the tomb.
As she stumbles out crying, she is asked, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary doesn’t recognize the man in front of her until she hears her name spoken: Mary. And then she sees her Lord. She reaches out to grab him when Jesus says something very peculiar: “Do not hold onto me.” Don’t hold onto me – don’t hold onto the old way of life – let me show you a new way of life and a new way of being present.
All time and space belong to Jesus now. That is why Jesus can be present as a woman gives birth while at the same time wrapping His arms around one consumed by grief and all the circumstances of life between birth and death. Jesus can be present with those who doubt his existence, and with those who’ve never doubted him for a moment.
He can be present with us in this day of celebration, and he can be present with us in our final day when we enter into unending joy and celebration.
John ends this resurrection account with Mary telling the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” After that encounter she never stopped looking for the Lord, never knowing when or where He might turn up. She saw. She heard. She believed.
And what about you? Do you believe? You might believe more than you think.
Carlo Carretto wrote, “When the world seems a defeat for God and you are sick with the disorder, the violence, the terror, the war on the streets; when the earth seems to be chaos, say to yourself, Jesus died and rose again on purpose to save, and his salvation is already with us. Every… newly opened hospital is an act of faith in the resurrection. Every peace treaty is an act of faith in the resurrection. Every… commitment is an act of faith in the resurrection.
“When you forgive your enemy, when you feed the hungry, when you defend the weak – you believe in the resurrection. When you welcome the newly-born child, when you build your home – you believe in the resurrection. When you wake at peace in the morning, when you sing to the rising sun, when you go to work with joy – you believe in the resurrection.”
And when you do all these things in the name of the risen Lord, you are resurrection to a world that needs new life. Alleluia. The Christ is Risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.
(The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Taylor is pastor of Church of the Holy Comforter, Episcopal, in Evans.)