I got to have Easter dinner with a seminary classmate that I haven’t seen since graduation (hooray! Hi, Ann!) Not only did Ann recommend an AMAZING documentary about people who raise and show chickens (Chicken People on Amazon Prime–go watch it. I’ll wait.) our host also borrowed for our viewing, an 18th century engraving of Mary Magdalene conversing with Jesus-as-gardener in this passage from John. Unusually, Jesus is actually dressed as a gardener, with hat and shovel, and Mary has a look of shocked grief on her face. I don’t know who did the engraving, but it was really fantastic.
May your Easter be also full of such joy!
Here’s what I said.
Welcome, again, happy morning! Welcome to Easter—the feast of the Resurrection, the celebration of the empty tomb and all the promise it holds for us.
It’s a joyful day—all our hymns say so, all our dresses say so. All those commercials with the Easter bunny hopping around say so. This is a happy holiday—families, chocolate, dyed eggs—the works.
Weird, then, how there’s so much crying in the gospel. Think about it. The gospel story is not precisely full of joy. Mary Magdalene rises at daybreak to go to the tomb, to anoint the body of Jesus. She’s certainly not happy; she’s grieving, and anointing his body is the traditional ritual of grief performed as a last act for loved ones. So she goes to the tomb, but she finds the stone rolled away, and the body missing.
And she’s even more upset. She is convinced this is a catastrophe. Not only has her teacher and Lord been put to death at the hands of the Roman Empire, not only was he crucified as a traitor, but now, the final humiliation—she cannot even mourn at his gravesite. So she runs to find the disciples.
And, true to their nature, Peter and John (let’s go with John) show up, and investigate. They are not so grief-stricken as to not compete with each other on the way to the tomb, but they discern that indeed! It’s empty.
So they leave. They go home. They give up.
And so it is Mary Magdalene, alone, who hears the message of the angel. Mary alone who meets the risen Christ. And Mary, alone, who is the first to recognize the joy of the Resurrection. Because everyone else left.
And not because they were so distraught—clearly, Mary is beside herself—and not because they are going to Do Something Important. I think they leave because they think they know how this story ends. I think Peter and John leave because they have decided that they know what happens next.
Because it would be so easy to look at this story and think to yourself “Of course!” “Of course our teacher and beloved friend was killed by the powers that be. Of course! That’s how the world works—nothing that good can last for long. Of course the good and the peaceful are trampled down into the dirt. Of course the powerful and the violent triumph. Isn’t that what always happens? And now this, the final degradation—we can’t even bury him properly. Of course. We should have known. The world will never change.” It would be so easy to have seen all this, and think you know how the story goes. To fully expect the powers of death and destruction to win, because for all intents and purposes, they had. And Peter and John had been around long enough to feel the weight of their reign. They knew better than to hope for more.
But somehow, Mary held on to something. Mary remained, clinging onto hope—though it probably felt more in the moment like a broken heart. But Mary, in that moment, had enough hope and faith in the God of justice to believe that this couldn’t possibly how the story ended, and so she stayed, crying in grief and frustration, and pestering every random stranger who might help her.
And that hope-against-hope is how Mary catches sight of the miraculous resurrection. Of life where it has no reason to be, of God changing the story on us.
It takes faith, after all, to remain in our gardens. It takes faith in the ability of God to somehow, some way, bring new life from certain death. It takes a whole lot of faith to keep us going, to keep on fighting what is wrong in the world when it seems like we don’t make any progress. And there are times when it surely would be easier on our hearts to give into cyncism and just go home. Consign ourselves to the same old story of a world lost to the darkness.
But my friends, to choose the easy path would be to miss the joy of the resurrection. Resurrection is never easy—the resurrection sneaks up on us when we don’t expect it—it comes up behind us when the story seems over, and when all seems lost. Resurrection comes to us when all we have left is that thin shred of hope that God will somehow bring life out of death.
But if we learn one thing from the glory of Easter morning, it is that this is precisely what God does. God transforms the way the world has always been, the way we expect and know the world to be. God transforms our injustices, our hatreds, our suffering and, in the brilliance of the Easter dawn, shows us what a world would be like with these things removed.
The resurrection is when God imposes God’s logic upon our logic, that has long since ceased working, and reminds us that this world is not yet perfected—but God is getting there.
And in the meantime, hope is what we cling to. Until that blessed day when Christ has finally redeemed all creation, and all the whole universe has been transformed by resurrection light, we struggle on with God, holding to hope. That even when things look their bleakest, even when the story seems over, even when the mighty seem to have won, and the powerful seem to be trampling the weak, and evil again seems to be in charge—despite EVERYTHING—God will still have the last word.
Because there is nothing—no power in this creation—greater than God’s love for us, and every creature under heaven. So our hope, our Easter hope, rests in that love. That love that moves mountains, shakes the earth, and conquered death.