Sermon on the text of John 20:1-18 delivered during Holy Week, March 23, 2016 to the Abilene Christian University Graduate School of Theology Chapel.
There are days in hospital chaplaincy that are smooth and easy; days when God’s presence is obvious and abundant, and days when lives are saved, families reunited, and prayers answered. But there are also days where the darkness of pain and death loom heavy over the people with whom you sit. These are the days when, while harder to see, God’s presence provides a light by which one can recognize the goodness of God, even in our darkest moments. Near the end of my pastoral care internship at a hospital, by 2 pm, I had responded to two code blues and walked with one family through a death of a loved one. The third code blue was announced overhead and I took a breath, said a prayer, and wondered silently to God how much I had left to give as I made my way to the ICU.
He was dying, there was no denying it. I came to the room, and after a quick scan of the usual medical staff attempting to stave off the darkness of death for a little while longer, I realized his impending death had not been a slow descend into sickness, but quick and unexpected. Two of his adult daughters stood opposite the room full of anxiety and fear. As the staff continued to work to bring him back, we sat and I held these two women as they cried. Tears pooled in my lap as one doubled over with grief as she sobbed and shook. In my ear came the persistent refrain from her sister as she rocked back and forth beside me, “please don’t let him die, please don’t let him die, please, God, don’t let him die.”
This is darkness.
Death of a loved one draws us into an unknown depth of love and pain, fear and longing, and despite all of our songs about “some glad morning,” darkness. In our passage, Mary finds herself in both the dark of the early morning and in the darkness of grief. In the very early morning darkness that is tinged just the slightest bit with the promise of the coming light of day; it is barely light enough to see the stone rolled away from the tomb, yet Mary is driven through the early hour’s darkness, compelled by her love for Jesus back to his grave. In her grief, Mary leaves behind all fear and inconvenience in order to mourn her friend and her Lord.
Upon arriving at the tomb, seeing through the darkness that the stone had been rolled away, Mary runs in fear that the body of Christ has been stolen. Rushing to Simon Peter and the beloved disciple, they then run back to the tomb to see what Mary had reported. Each looking in separately, they both saw the burial linens rolled up and that this sight at least caused the beloved disciple to believe (though what he believes is unclear). Whatever they saw and believed, though, John paints this scene as satisfactory for Simon Peter and the beloved disciple as they return to their homes, but Mary stood weeping.
Mary stood weeping outside the tomb; brought to the tomb alone in the early hours of the morning by her love and devotion of Jesus, she is left once again alone as Simon Peter and the other disciple leave. Doubled over with weeping and grief, Mary finally looks in the tomb, desperate to find Jesus. John tells us that Mary saw two angels robed in white, a far more glorious vision that the others, one at each end of where Jesus’s body had been laid – a clear indicator to those of us on this side of John’s text not that Christ body has been stolen as Mary fears, but that he has been resurrected. The disparity between the reality of the risen Christ and the depth of Mary’s anguish leads the angels to ask why she is weeping. Mary responds to this question with the obvious: she had been seeking the body of her Lord and cannot find it, so she stands weeping.
It is a moment in the Christian tradition that is short, the three days between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, it is hard to capture the darkness that fell over those early Christians, especially if we only lean on the narratives of those like Simon Peter who saw the linens in the tomb and thought it to be enough. In the darkness and the pain of Mary’s grief we are allowed a window into the definite period of time before Christ’s resurrection is proclaimed. In the Christian calendar, this is Holy Week. The week between Palm Sunday where we celebrate that Jesus is lauded and praised by the people and the eventual turn of the people on Jesus as they hand him over to Pilate. In this week, Christians around the world are commemorating the last week of Jesus’ life. During this week we seek to walk with Christ in preparation for the three days from Crucifixion to Resurrection that define our faith.
It is a week that feels much like the opening scene of this passage. It is dark. Jesus will be crucified, and we in our Christian walks like Mary, will seek him even in the darkness. But there is a promise of light, just as Mary early on the first day of the week has the promise of the coming light of day in the dark hours of the early morning, so we in our Holy Week walks know that Easter is coming. Still though, in the the darkness of Holy Week, we stand weeping. Holy Week helps to remind us that before the glory of the risen king comes the crucifying of a beloved teacher. Holy Week helps to remind us that pain and death are not only a part of our lives, but also that of our Lords. Holy Week reminds us to pay attention to the pain and suffering of this world, and refuses to let us turn it into a happy narrative too quickly.
It is not hard to find the darkness of pain and suffering today. The terrorists attacks in Brussels yesterday, nations that are ravaged with war and famine, the continual and systematic oppression and suppression of minorities in our own country, the even the vitriolic nature of our current political cycle speak to this darkness. Holy Week helps to remind us that the pain and the darkness of our world, while not everlasting, is present, and that as Christians we must walk this walk in the world that is filled with such darkness. Mary’s narrative reminds us that even though we as Christians have the promise of resurrection and that Easter is coming, that we can still stand weeping.
Through her weeping and desperation, Mary turns from the angels in the tomb and is faced unknowingly with Jesus. Longing to see the Jesus that she knew, Mary is unable to see that she is speaking not to the gardener, but to the risen Christ. In our darkest moments, clarity of thought and mind is not often present; here Mary is so focused on finding the body of Jesus that she is unaware that she has already been found by the risen Christ. Slowly, Jesus begins to shift Mary’s focus from death to life by posing a similar question as the angels, “Why are you weeping?” She answers again, desperate to find the body of Jesus, and it is not until Jesus calls her by name that she understands.
In the depth of darkness of the loss of her friend and Lord, Mary was unable to see that the one whom she loved was there with her. The familiarity that is seen between Mary and Jesus earlier in the gospel, remains the same; he calls her by her name and she calls him teacher. Jesus commissions her go and to boldly proclaim to the other disciples what she has seen and what Jesus has told her. This should be noted. not only because in this telling, Mary, a woman, is the first proclaimer of the gospel (though it should be noted), but what is also amazing is that it is out of this deep grief and darkness from which Jesus sends Mary to proclaim the light of the risen Christ.
We find ourselves in the midst of this Holy Week with the darkness around us, and we like Mary, stand weeping for the pain and suffering that plagues our shared life. We weep for the darkness of death and illnesses of those we love. We weep for the seemingly endless occurrences of terrorism or gun violence as we once again grope for words and cry “Lord, have mercy”. We weep for those who have no voice to cry out at all. We weep for those who have been driven from their homeland by war and who now seek refuge in strange lands. And we weep for a our one holy catholic and apostolic church that is divided. But like Mary, we are not weeping alone; Christ is present with us and the truth of the resurrection, though it may be clouded by darkness, remains our constant.
The light of the resurrection gives us hope in the midst of the darkness, even the darkness of Holy Week; in this hope we should not rush to diminish or dismiss the pain or the suffering of those in the darkness, but rather the reality of the resurrection in the midst of our darkness grants the courage to seek and to be found by God and to share the good news as Mary is sent to do. We proclaim that we are a resurrection people, even in the midst of the darkness; the promise of the coming light of the resurrection spreads through everything, and even when we cannot see or understand, the risen Christ is there with us as he was with Mary beside the tomb. It is, then, not only that Christ is our risen Lord and king which we will celebrate on Sunday, but also that Christ is present in the darkness that helps us to proclaim, like Mary, that we have seen the Lord.