The Great Vigil of Easter, Year C; April 20, 2019
Vigil lessons and John 20:1-18
Mary of Magdala is special. She was a wealthy supporter who traveled with Jesus, sharing in the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven was coming near. She was there, following him to the cross and at his feet when he died. And, as we just heard, she was the first person to see him after he was raised. (Granted, she mistook him for the gardener and may well have been slightly threatening in her tone, but—hey—you can’t get them all right!) Once she figured out that he was in fact her teacher, lord, and friend, she was overcome with joy and ready to go into action. Jesus sent her out to go tell the other disciples that he was alive, and she did—I have seen the Lord! Legend even has it that she went at preached the Gospel to Caesar, using an egg—a sign of the broken tomb and the life that came out of it. And, when she told the disciples the good news, she became the Apostle to the Apostles—the first witness of the Resurrection and the first to preach the Gospel of Jesus’ victory over death in the world! Not bad!
I love how real this story is, and I am not alone. Through the centuries, we have been able to imagine ourselves not recognizing Jesus through our tears of grief and doubt. And we can imagine wanting to reach out and hold on to Jesus, never letting go! But Jesus sends her out, and so he sends us out as well—to tell the story of the good news that Jesus is alive!
But, funny thing—our job is to tell the story that Jesus was raised from the dead; however, none of the Gospel writers actually tell us anything about the moment when Jesus was raised. We have this beautiful window, with a triumphant Jesus stepping out of the stone tomb, holding this banner with the cross, lilies at his feet. This is a victory pose! But this story is not in the Bible. We hear the stone closed over the tomb, and the long wait, and then the tomb is empty, and he is alive. How he came to be alive is hidden from us.
We don’t know how he looked when he was raised. This is just a guess. A very famous guess—based on what lots of others have guessed. For some, this is the image of the Resurrection. But the Gospel writers only hint at the story. Why? Well, for starters, it’s not our story. That is a holy moment between God and Jesus, between heaven and hell, between life and death. It’s not for us to know. God is acting, but we don’t see it.
Sometimes God moments are like that—we don’t know the details, or the reasons, but we know God is at work, somehow. This story reminds us of that truth. God is there, even when we cannot see him. We may have to look back to see that God’s power was at work. It may become clear later, like in this story. But what the Evangelists give us is more of a hint, a whisper, the after-effects, not the Resurrection.
The more common images are those we do have in the Bible—the empty tomb, the stone rolled away, angels on either side—or sitting on it! Or people walking down the road, recognizing him in the breaking of the bread. Or Thomas and the other apostles in that locked room, kneeling before the hands and feet with the marks of the nails. And, of course, tonight’s Gospel story—a garden, an empty tomb off to the side, a man—quite possibly dressed in he garb of a gardener from the period in the painting, and a woman, kneeling, looking up through her tears and reaching out. And Jesus is looking at her with LOVE. He sees her!
Frederick Buechner is a theologian who was influential along my path to ministry, one whom I had the privilege of meeting and eating with during seminary! He preached about how Jesus sees us even when we can’t quite see him. Here’s a bit of his Easter Sunday sermon entitled “The Secret in the Dark” first published in The Longing for Home and again in Secrets in the Dark (edited to match this Gospel story):
“I believe that although Mary did not recognize Jesus beside the empty tomb, Jesus recognized her, that he saw her as if she was the only person in the world. And I believe that, the reason why the resurrection is more than just an extraordinary event that took place some two thousand years ago and then was over and done with is that, even as we hear the story again, he also sees each of us like that. In this dark world where you and I see so little because of our unrecognizing eyes, he sees each one of us. And I believe that, because Jesus sees us, not even in the darkness of death are we lost to him or lost to each other. I believe that whether we recognize him or not, or believe in him or not, or even know his name, again and again he comes and walks a little way with us along whatever road we’re following, patiently answering our questions and revealing himself to us. And I believe that through something that happens to us, or something we see, or somebody we know—who can ever guess how or when or where?—he offers us his very self—the Bread of Life, offers us a new hope, a new vision of light that not even the dark world can overcome. That is the word that on Easter Sunday is sounded forth on silver trumpets…
And that is the story that is alive, even when the trumpets die down to a whisper. Even though the Resurrection is the BIG, HUGE STORY, the Gospel writers barely whispered the actual event to us, and perhaps they, Mary Magdalene, the other apostles, and Jesus call us to spread the Gospel more as a whisper campaign than with a megaphone. Yes, Christ is risen, and yes, that is true even when we can’t see or feel God at work, even when we can’t quite hear or believe. Jesus meets us with the trumpet blasts and in a still small voice. “Do not be afraid, I am with you. I have called you each by name!” God sees YOU, the real you, the true you. Jesus calls us by name and claims us as children of God, forever. And that’s some Good News indeed! Amen.
Reverend Terri Luper Church
Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Warrenton, VA
(Research used more for the children’s sermon than in this one, including this article.)
According to the Orthodox Church in America “Myrrhbearer and Equal of the Apostles Mary Magdalene”
“Holy Tradition testifies that when the Apostles departed from Jerusalem to preach to all the ends of the earth, then Mary Magdalene also went with them. A daring woman, whose heart was full of reminiscence of the Resurrection, she went beyond her native borders and went to preach in pagan Rome. Everywhere she proclaimed to people about Christ and His teaching. When many did not believe that Christ is risen, she repeated to them what she had said to the Apostles on the radiant morning of the Resurrection: “I have seen the Lord!” With this message she went all over Italy.
Tradition relates that in Italy Mary Magdalene visited Emperor Tiberias (14-37 A.D.) and proclaimed to him Christ’s Resurrection. According to Tradition, she brought him a red egg as a symbol of the Resurrection, a symbol of new life with the words: “Christ is Risen!” Then she told the emperor that in his Province of Judea the unjustly condemned Jesus the Galilean, a holy man, a miracleworker, powerful before God and all mankind, had been executed at the instigation of the Jewish High Priests, and the sentence confirmed by the procurator appointed by Tiberias, Pontius Pilate.
Mary repeated the words of the Apostles, that we are redeemed from the vanity of life not with perishable silver or gold, but rather by the precious Blood of Christ.
Thanks to Mary Magdalene the custom to give each other paschal eggs on the day of the Radiant Resurrection of Christ spread among Christians over all the world. In one ancient Greek manuscript, written on parchment, kept in the monastery library of Saint Athanasius near Thessalonica, is a prayer read on the day of Holy Pascha for the blessing of eggs and cheese. In it is indicated that the igumen in passing out the blessed eggs says to the brethren: “Thus have we received from the holy Fathers, who preserved this custom from the very time of the holy Apostles, therefore the holy Equal of the Apostles Mary Magdalene first showed believers the example of this joyful offering.”