This Eastertide, we present a series of reflections on the events of Holy Week. Today's reflection is by Mthr Jennifer Strawbridge, taken from a homily at St Bene't's, Cambridge.
“Mary Magdalen went and announced to the disciples, “ I have seen the Lord”.
In a strange way, the events of the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are much easier to wrap our minds around than the events of Easter morning. We can picture the disciples on Maundy Thursday breaking bread with Jesus, we can picture Jesus, a towel wrapped around his waist, washing their feet, we can picture Good Friday with the crown of thorns and the crowds, we can picture the cross and the nails, we can picture the spear, and the dead body, and the tomb.
But Easter is a bit more mysterious. No one was there. Mary Magdalen arrives early in the morning and the tomb is open and the body is gone. And God is the only witness. We can’t picture it. We have no description of what went on behind that rock. All we know is that Peter doesn’t quite get it, the Beloved Disciple believes (but we don’t know what), and that Mary has “seen the Lord.”
In Jerusalem, Golgotha – the place where Jesus was crucified – and the empty tomb are in the same church. In a moment you can go from the image of Jesus on the cross to the imageless empty tomb. And if you go to this place before the sun has risen, the church is almost completely silent as everyone – mostly monks and nuns – waits for the first service of the day. After being packed with tourists and filled with noise and busy-ness into the late evening, the early morning is still and silent; the air heavy with the smells of incense and candles. And there is a sense of awe and silent wonder and even a bit of confusion for those who have come to the church for the first time.
And then it begins. Some mornings it might start with the Coptics, beginning to chant by candlelight; or the Greeks, filling the place with billows of incense; or the Latins, piercing the silence with their large pipe organ. And as they all begin, all 6 Christian traditions that call that space home, to worship each in their own language, the place grows to embrace in sight and sound and smell a cacophony of chanting, incense, light, vestments, worship at the empty tomb.
Can’t you imagine that that’s what it was like? Can’t you imagine that this is what the resurrection is like – bombarding and overwhelming every sense? Can’t you imagine how those two angels in the tomb must have been bursting at the seams, waiting for someone to get it, to come and see, and to go quickly and spread the good news?
And yet, and yet…the reaction of those first disciples who witness the empty tomb isn’t necessarily what we might expect. They don’t break out in a halleluiah chorus. These three have endured a roller coaster of emotions over just a few days within which all the hope they placed in Jesus as Messiah and Lord seemed to be shattered with his death, and now everything has changed, now the tomb is empty, now what he told them about his resurrection might be true. And yet joy is not the dominant tone, yet. Alleluia is not the dominant word, yet. And we understand this response when we stop and think of those times we are offered new life, when we are offered an experience of larger life, a chance for resurrection where this experience of change is marked by rejoicing, yes, but also confusion and loss as well. When we have known, when we do know, what the darkest night is like, sometimes we are reluctant to encounter, to trust, the light of dawn.
Could it really be that fear comes before new life, that it’s okay to be overwhelmed by resurrection? Because it certainly seems that this is what we encounter in those first witnesses to the empty tomb, and this is one of the things that challenges us in our own lives about Easter: the reality that rarely do we see, let alone understand resurrection in the moment because the experience is clouded by our own emotions and preoccupations and, like those first disciples at the tomb, our instinct to set ourselves over one another and to be the first to know.
But part of the good news of the resurrection is that we don’t have to have everything figured out in order to have an active faith. For even Jesus’ disciples, the ones who saw the empty tomb and eventually, the risen Lord, even most of them took awhile to figure it out. In a strange way, the fact that they don’t go immediately to joy but get to joy through their questions and confusion is a comfort to us. For we never know when we will encounter God in our lives, grace in our lives, love in our lives, resurrection in our lives, and we can either walk with great trepidation afraid of all change and new life, or we can walk knowing that someone has gone before us, to show us the way, and to help us engage all the changes and chances of this life.
Resurrection and new life might mean something different to each of us, and yet they lead in the same direction: to God, to living from a place of gratitude and hope rather than from fear and anxiety, to knowing that are not left to negotiate the uncertainties of life alone. At the end of the day, resurrection, new life, knowing and being known by our risen Lord is available to us all.
In Jerusalem almost 10 years ago, I found myself at that Church – where the place of the crucifixion and empty tomb are contained – early one morning. Surrounded by the cacophony of chanting and incense and candles and worship, on that particular morning I made my way to a service on one side of the empty tomb. The service was not in English and as I stood off to the side, leaning against a pillar with closed eyes listening to the interweaving of chants and liturgies, there was a tap on my shoulder. And when I opened my eyes, I was, rather unexpectedly, being embraced by a tiny nun. Without realizing it, I was surrounded by a group of Indian nuns who were also taking in the service. And without realizing it, it was the peace. I was embraced over and over by these tiny women in blue and white, with big smiles, speaking a language I could not understand. And realized that this is the power of the resurrection – the overwhelming, a bit frightening power of new life. Even if we are standing by the side, even if we watch from afar, even if we are overwhelmed and filled with confusion, suddenly it embraces us, suddenly we are flooded by its love and grace. Suddenly we grasp the magnitude of what has happened, he is not here, he is risen, Christ is alive.
Mary Magdalen and Peter and the Beloved Disciple arrived at the tomb and found it empty. And after different responses of fear and confusion, they begin to understand. They understand that Jesus is risen, and after encountering him face to face, Mary goes out to share this news with others. These disciples have been to that place of darkness, they have walked the hard way of the cross, half the time even from a distance, and they, especially Mary, are the ones entrusted with the news of the resurrection. And now, 2000 years later, you and I are called to do the same. We gather here not just to remember; not just to go through the motions of Easter once again, but to begin to grasp once again that Jesus has gone ahead to prepare the way, and that our call is to follow, to love, to allow ourselves to be embraced by all the wonderful cacophony of sights and sounds and smells and words of this day so that we might, in turn, share this great love within our broken world.
For Christ is risen and goes before us to prepare the way. Christ is risen and calls us by name. Christ is risen and light has overcome darkness; life overcome death. Christ is risen and the tomb is empty: to him be glory and power for ever and ever.
Originally a sermon preached Easter morning at St Bene’t’s, Cambridge.