The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Easter Day—Year A; Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb…” To understand this, we have to go back to the day before this one, and the day before that, and the week before that. We have to go back to all the miles she had walked, all the way from Galilee. We have to go back to all the conversations, all the experiences, all the encounters, all the teaching, all the questioning, all the learning. And between them, between Jesus and Mary, it never did just flow in one direction, but it was a back-and-forth, a give-and-take; it was a dance. All four traditional gospels testify, as well as gospels more recently discovered, that Mary and Jesus had deep love for one another. Something in each of them recognized the divine in the other and called that forth. In him, she had discovered what it meant to be fully alive. She had awakened to the truth of her deepest being. She tracked with him in ways that the others sometimes didn’t.
It was hard to love so much. It leaves you completely exposed. The heart can be broken. It was hard to watch the others betray him and deny him and desert him. It was hard to watch it all go so wrong, and to know that you could nothing to fix it, to set it back right. It was hard to bear witness to the utter injustice of it all. It was hard to watch his mother cry that cry of grief. It is hard to watch someone you love hurt that much. But, even as much as it hurt, she couldn’t leave. He was the one who had taught her all about Presence; he might be gone, but she couldn’t, she wouldn’t, be thrown out of Presence. Like a homing beacon, her soul was fixed on his. She had tracked him all the way to the cross, she had tracked him to the place of his burial, and, according to the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, she tracked him even beyond that. She tracked him as he traversed the terrain of death, she tracked him through his harrowing of hell, and so while it is still dark, she comes to the tomb, still tracking her Lord.
He might be dead, but she had some intuition that his Presence would still be lingering around that place. If she could just touch a bit of that, it would be enough. Nothing prepared her for what came next. “[She] came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.” Panic set in. How can she sit vigil with his Presence if he’s not there?
“So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.” (Don’t you just love guy-energy, even going to the tomb Peter and the Beloved Disciple have gotta race). “[The other disciple] bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. [Peter] saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first” (in case we missed it, who won that race?), “[then the other disciple] also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.” Huh? That doesn’t make any sense. They saw, and they believed, but they go back home. I can’t square that.
Mary couldn’t either. “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.” And this isn’t just a little bit of soft crying, this is full-on lament, this is wailing, this is raw grief. “As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him. I know I have lost him to death, but now, I have lost the last sense of his Presence, and without it, I am completely and utterly lost.’” In a wonderful image, Cynthia Bourgeault says that “Mary [remained] intent on recovering that last outpost of his physical being.”
“When [Mary] had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’” Did you catch that? The “why” turns into a “whom”—this loss is so devastating because it is attached to a “whom”—it’s the loss of this relationship that has wrecked Mary Magdalene.
“Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’” I imagine her eyes were flashing with the intensity that comes when someone has been ripped away from you before you were ready to let them go. She is out of patience. It doesn’t matter that he is dead; she wants to be near his Presence, and everyone is conspiring against her. As Bourgeault notes, “She was still looking for Jesus as a tangible corpse, not an intangible aliveness.” “Just tell me where to find him, just tell me where to find him, and I will take him away.”
“Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni! Teacher.’” It wasn’t the sound of his voice that made her recognize him—she’d been talking with this stranger/gardener; it was the calling of her name.
He knew her name. He knew her, and her heart, her soul, her being saw him, knew him, recognized him.
His aliveness, his Presence, overwhelmed her. And as fierce as she was with the gardener, with equal intensity, she embraced her Lord. “Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
“Do not hold on to me, Mary, do not hold on to me.” She had tracked him so faithfully as she had known him, but resurrection life is a different terrain. His Presence was no longer confined to his physicality, his Presence had gone to the depths of hell and back again, and like that earthquake when he breathed his last, the tremors of his resurrected life would now be felt throughout all of time and space. “Do not hold on to me…if you look for my Presence in only one place, be that in my body, be that in this church, be that in the Bible, be that in this sacred ritual, you will miss me in all the other places that I now dwell. Do not hold on to me as you have known me, but come, come away my love, and discover me in this new life that is mine and yours and all of creation’s.”
The question today isn’t whether the resurrection is true. The question today is do we recognize resurrection life when it stands before us, or do we miss it because we are so focused on what we have lost? Do we miss it because we want things to go on as they were before? Do we miss this Resurrection Presence because we want to hold onto it with our small embrace instead of letting it throw our arms wide open to see that resurrection is everywhere?
And so, the One who had called her back into life those many years before called her once again, and her heart, her soul, her deepest being knew that she would have to trust him yet again. She released him knowing, trusting, that the real journey with her Lord had just begun, and she couldn’t contain the good news of that truth. “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.”
Throughout this week, we have been so many people. We have been Peter. We have been the disciples. But today, we are Mary. We might still be looking for Jesus among the dead, but he meets us on the path nonetheless. Even in our distraction, even in our grief, even in our misguided longings, he has been tracking us, and something deep in our being has been tracking him. He has called us by name, and in that calling, we recognize our Beloved Lord.
Don’t settle for holding on to the Jesus you have always known.
Leap into resurrection and discover life with the One who has made all things new.
Leap into resurrection and discover the Presence that now knows no bounds.
Leap into resurrection and discover the Love that cannot be held but only lived.
Leap into resurrection and “let your alleluia’s rise.” Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
April 20, 2014