“When Mary had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.”
There are three main characters in the Easter morning account from John’s Gospel. Mary Magdalene; Peter the energetic, who for once is outrun; and the swift-of-foot beloved disciple, probably the author of the Gospel of John, who reached the tomb first and looked in, but put on the brakes and stopped to consider what new reality he might be entering.
Three things they see and know, fully in the frame of reference of your seeing and knowing and mine. This is really Jesus’ tomb and he has really been here. You don’t un-wrap a corpse if you are stealing it; so his body hasn’t been stolen. Though he isn’t here now, he is somewhere.
After this, our human sensing is introduced to a new frame of reference. One in which Jesus is really himself, his voice and his form familiar, but one in which he has begun to participate in eternity: the life he shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Paul calls this a ‘body that is spiritual’: a body that eats and talks and has form as before, but able to walk out of spiced linen cloths into a new realm of fragrance. Nail wounds windows onto heaven itself.
I was watching a film the other day and at a dramatic moment in the plot the camera unexpectedly caught a refraction of light, bouncing off a button or a gemstone of the main character and filling the screen with shimmering rainbow light, just for a second. This isn’t an effect you can create or stage, and the filmmaker must have felt puzzled and then privileged at its timing. It revealed a dimension of beauty and transcendence truly there, that God has built deep down in things, but that we do not see with everyday eyes. Eyes needing to be helped into a new frame of reference, as Jesus helps Mary and Peter and the beloved disciple on Easter morning.
Their first reaction is completely understandable. Puzzlement. Frustration. Maybe a bit of hope against hope that what Jesus had tried to say about his death and rising might be true after all.
John also gives us some hints that we are not talking about the resuscitation of an individual. One that postpones a death later to occur. As with Lazarus.
The tomb–a new one, purchased by Joseph of Arimathea–is in a garden. Mary Magdalen is addressed as woman, the Greek word corresponding to Eve. Mary supposes the Risen Lord to be the gardener, and she is right in a way. For we are indeed now in a Garden of Eden where all things are being made right and new by the obedient Adam. The fear of Adam and Eve, aware of their estrangement from God, is now replaced by love and adoration, as Jesus seeks them out and heals all that had broken our direct and assured communion with God, east of Eden.
Note how all three struggle to come into this new frame of reference. Peter has been outrun, so when he gets there be goes straight into the tomb. That is our Peter. Got to be first. But he is stymied because his eyes look too quickly on a new creation light and he can’t bring things into focus.
Mary is actually the first person at the stone tomb because she is doing her duty, as women did, tending to the body. She is puzzled and worried that this body, the only thing she has to recall her life with this man, who she watched slowly die on a cross, may have been stolen.
And then the beloved disciple. He sees and believes. The clues he is given translate for him into what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God, Eternal Life, the Life with the Father he shared, now being shared with us. Larger Life. The beloved disciple may be unaware how this new life will take form, but he accepts it is breaking in before his very eyes. He knows something new is here. Just as at the cross he could see something breaking in, at the last moments, greater than death.
But of course the most tender moments are reserved for Mary. She sees the man John tells us is Jesus and asks him where Jesus is! She hears his voice say ‘woman’ but does not recognize it. But when he says her name, “Mary,” she knows she is back with her Lord yet in some new kind of relationship.
We must remember too that the point of Easter is that what has happened to this man Jesus is exactly what he is giving us: new life, new creation, and life forever with him. Paul tells the Corinthians in no uncertain terms that the raising of Jesus is not a fact to be honored as greater than all known facts, singular and monumental. If he has been raised from the dead, it is so to defeat death, and to raise us with him. He is first fruit. He shows us what is in store for us. We will be changed. Are being changed. Here and now, because of that Easter morning rising.
On Good Friday I walked to Dannemois to sit in the chapel for a chemin de croix service. As I was leaving a car stopped, rolled down its window, and a couple asked where the cemetery was. I had seen the sign so pointed out the way. On Good Friday they were off to see the grave of Claude Francois.
I had looked him up and discovered he had a fifteen year singing career outselling every known French artist. Travelled the world. Made huge sums. Sang with the Prime Minister who hailed him as great as the Beetles. The French John Lennon. Fame in his lifetime far, far greater than the man from Galilee crucified under Pontius Pilate. His grave is marked by a life-size bronze statue.
But he is as dead as Julius Caesar.
There is no monument marking the grave of Jesus of Nazareth. His body lives. We are that body in him, his body, as we hold not onto him as once he was, but allow him to reign as king now at the right hand of God.
Let me get out of the way now and let Paul have the last word.
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
For in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. Christ the first fruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His final coming in Glory.
Let us live then, as God’s risen and beloved sons and daughters. Let our eyes be opened to his presence, and may we hear him call out our names, just as he addressed Mary that first Easter Sunday.
He is Risen indeed. Alleluia