On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.” So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed. For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead. (John 20:1-9)
“…early in the morning, while it was still dark…” With Lent behind us, the events of Holy Week already unfolded, this is when Easter begins. Begins in the place and time when it is hard to see, difficult to be sure what we are seeing, making it harder to be sure what we will later remember. Our own experiences of Easter celebrations have honed our expectation of glorious resurrection, discovery, and Easter acclamations – perhaps so much so that we pass over the beginning: disciples stumbling around in the half-light when the memories of the preceding days loom large. He was captured, tortured, and crucified. He was buried in a tomb hewed out of the side of a hill – a stone covered the entrance. Hope died with him. It is now the third day and these disciples move about in the not-yet-light.
“…early in the morning, while it was still dark…” Easter begins in the half-light, in the midst of fear, bewilderment, pain, and a profound loss of certainty. The certainty of the Creeds we proclaim will come later. On that Easter morn in the beginning what faint glow of hope was present in the midst of loss?
The Resurrection happened sometime in the predawn hours of that Sunday morning, a great mystery unfolding in secret. No sunlight illuminated the event. No human being witnessed it. And even now, two thousand years later, no human narrative can contain it. It is a mystery fully known only to God. Its fullness lies in holy darkness, shielded from our eyes. All we can know is that somehow, in an ancient tomb on a night when hope seemed to have flown from life, God worked in secret to bring life out of death. Somehow, from the heart of loss and desolation, God brought about the conditions for the possibility of our encounter with the depth of the mystery of Love. But first we must pass through the dimly lit morning and face the empty tomb.
I think there is a wisdom in the Church’s selection of this gospel reading, an Easter gospel in which the Risen Christ does not appear. I think there is a wisdom to consider the transition from Good Friday’s silence, the days of waiting, to this morning before we recite the Creed, our Profession of Faith. To consider why we believe before we profess that we indeed believe.
In our gospel account for this Easter morning three people encounter the mystery of the Resurrection. One sees and believes. The one chosen to be the Rock, … he keeps his thoughts to himself. One remains in the darkness – but she stays, remains present even when the others returned home. While our minds race ahead to fill in the story of Mary’s encounter with Jesus in the Garden, Jesus’ appearance in the Upper Room, the encounter on the road to Emmaus, and so many other post-Resurrection appearances, this morning there is but the empty tomb. And like those disciples, on this Easter morning, each one of us comes to the empty tomb. No two of us the same. None of our reactions, hopes, desired, experiences, the same
We come to the empty tomb as ourselves, for good or for ill. We don’t shed the baggage and burdens of our lives ahead of time; it barges in with us and shapes our hopes and thoughts in this moment. In the middle of our lives, when the way ahead is unclear in ordinary and extraordinary ways, when we carry our hopes and disappointments, our struggles and challenges, our victories and losses – here in the middle of the half-light of life we come to the empty tomb. In this moment, we are asked, “Why do you believe?” For whatever profession of faith we proclaim – those universal claims begin here in heart of each one of us.
The ones of us like Peter who have professed and denied Jesus in our lives and remain burdened and unsure.
The ones of us like the beloved disciples whose encounter of the love of Jesus in life, allows us to see Resurrection instead of loss.
The ones of us like Mary Magdalene who will linger in the garden, perhaps hopeful, perhaps unsure, but willing to wait to hear the possibility of the sound of our own name spoken in love. Willing to hang on to Hope when all seems lost amidst the questions of “why is this happening,” “where is God in all this” “this is not what I signed up for” – and all rest of our lives that don’t exactly match our dreams. The ones willing to stay in the half-light until the sun rises fully.
The half-light of our sometimes-messy life awaiting the full daylight of the Risen Christ – when the stone rolls away from our hearts. And then we see our loss, our doubts and disappointments lying folded and in a place by themselves, like grave cloths besides the burial cloths of Love’s risen body.
The ones willing to wait until our name is called. Called to leave our own tombs and encounter the Risen Christ knowing why we believe.
This Easter may the Christ who rose in the darkness lead us into new life, new light, and new hope. May we know him in the half-lit places, the shadowy places, the hard places. May we dare to linger at the tomb until he calls our names and sends us forth to share his good news with the world. And when we are asked, “Why do you believe?” may our answers be witness to hope and struggle, braided together.
He indeed is Risen. Happy Easter.