Easter Vigil - April 17, 2022
- John 20:1-18
Tears of Joy
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Alleluia, Christ is Risen. He is Risen indeed, Alleluia! I cannot tell you how happy I am to say this greeting to you. Alleluia, Christ is Risen. He is Risen indeed, Alleluia! For six weeks, we have been on this journey together. Six weeks of fasting from these words. Fasting so that we might focus on our own spiritual well-being. Fasting so that this moment, this holy moment that we have experience on this day/night, can truly be transformative.
I find myself very overwhelmed with emotions this night. I haven’t had a normal Holy Week and Easter since 2019. Last year we were new, vaccines were still hard to find, and while we were together things still felt different. Tonight is beautiful but not because we have return to “normal” — whatever that is. Tonight is beautiful because of this news. He is risen. He is not here. I have read this gospel from John at either at a vigil or on Easter Sunrise for the last 10 years and it always gets me when I get to the line where Jesus calls Mary by her first name, a wave of emotion comes over me.
For the last three days, we have gathered and witnessed our Lord wash the feet of the disciples, we saw him stripped of his glory, betrayed by his friend, handed over to the cross, and then three days later we hear the tomb is empty; that he is not there. Imagine how this experience has transformed you. Now imagine being one who witnessed it all. Someone like Mary who has come early to the tomb to weep over the loss of her teacher.
She comes expecting to find everything as she last seen it three days ago. She comes to the garden alone. And then, she notices that something is different. The stone, which been rolled used to seal the tomb, has been rolled away. It is still dark so she can’t see anything inside the tomb. She runs back to get Peter and John because obviously something is wrong. Dead people don’t just get up and leave. Logic tells Mary that someone must have tampered with the grave. By the time they return, the sun had begun to rise. They can now see inside the tomb. They can now see that Jesus’ body is gone. They can see his linen wrappings folded but the linen wrapping used to cover his face was “not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.”
A fury of thoughts are running through their minds. Grave robbing was a troublesome crime at this time. There was even an imperial edict against it. It would have been natural for the disciples to conclude that someone had stolen the body. John tells us that the two disciples see the cloths lying in the tomb. That the beloved disciple sees and believes. But what exactly does he believe? That Jesus’ body might have been stolen? St. John tells us that Peter apparently doesn't believe. But what doesn’t he believe? Peter is probably thinking that if indeed Jesus’ body had been stolen, why would the grave robbers take the time to fold the linen wrappings--and that doesn't make sense. By the end of this, St. John tells us that they both leave believing something but are not able to comprehend all that has taken place. They leave more confused than when they first came.
And in their confusion, they leave Mary behind at the tomb. She is left behind to mourn the loss of her teacher’s body alone. Not only have they killed him but they have taken his body away to do whatever God knows to it. She is left outside the tomb weeping when she sees two angels in the tomb (v. 12). The same word in Greek is used here that was used for the disciples seeing the linen wrappings. It is very much a physical seeing. Her eyes take in the images and her brain tells her that there are two men at in the tomb. But remember, she still believes that someone has taken the body (v. 13). Are these the grave robbers? Are these the police? Her brain is trying to process all that happening. Then the angels speak but they do offer any explanation as to why they have just appeared, they only point out the obvious. They ask, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
Then Jesus comes on the scene quickly after the angels appear. It is almost too much for Mary to take it all in. John says that Mary sees Jesus (v. 14), but that her eyes deceive here. She believes what she is seeing must be the gardener (v. 15). Jesus asks, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Now, If I would have been Mary, I probably would have given some smart-allelic reply because this the second time this question has been asked. “I can’t find Jesus’ body. We left it right here. Peter and John are completely useless. They left me here in the garden. Then two guys are just hanging out in the tomb and ask my why am I weeping. And now you show up and ask the same thing. I am in a cemetery, what do you think I am doing here? Playing bingo?!?!” Thankfully, Mary is not like me. Mary, unsure of what is happening, says to Jesus, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’” She is trying to process things in terms of human experience. All she wants is her Lord’s body. All She wants to mourn his loss. All she wants one last chance to be alone with him and tell her all the things she wish she had said to him while he was alive.
Then he calls her by her name. He says, Mary. And instantly, she recognizes him. She beholds the man she has been wanting to see this entire time. He is alive, breathing, and not best of all--not dead anymore. She says, “Rabbounni” which means My Rabbi. It is not just, Rabbi but my rabbi. This is a very personal moment and she wants to hold onto Jesus. She wants things to back to normal, back to the way things use to be. But Jesus says, “No. We can’t go back. You, Mary, have task to do.”
Father James Martin wrote, “Between the time Mary Magdalene met the risen Christ at Easter and when she announced his resurrection to the disciples, Mary Magdalene was the church on earth for only to her had been reveled the Paschal Mystery. Any discussion of women in the church begins with this.” At the start of this new week, new day, new beginning, Jesus establishes his church and the first member, the first preacher in Christ’ church is Mary—not Peter or John. He tells her to go and tell the others not only what she has seen, but more importantly—what she has heard. She believes because Jesus has spoken to her. The Word made Flesh has called her by name and her faith has been kindled. She was made ready to burn with the passion and zeal that all Christians are are called this day to burn with.
She goes back to the group and tells them. She tells them that ‘I have seen the Lord’ She does the work of the church. She does the work of the pastor. She started the work of the church with one simple phrase, ‘I have seen the Lord.’ From there, 2000 years of faithful preaching and sacraments have been done by those who gather all because of Mary and her faithfulness to the command of her Lord—to go back and tell the others— ‘I have seen the Lord.’
These five words started a whole new mission for the followers of Jesus. Mary came to the tomb weeping that her Lord had died. Now she is an evangelist, a pastor, a believer. And this work continues today. Easter is when we are reminded why we exist. It is not because Zion is a historic property. It is not because we have clothing closet or food pantry. It is not because we have the oldest Sunday school program in the synod. We exist to tell the others that he is not in the tomb. That Death has lost its sting. That we no longer need to fear the grave. That he is risen. He is risen indeed. We need this yearly reminder to focus our attention, as a congregation, on those things that point us to Christ. We can’t continue to let those things in our church and in our personal lives which have been holding us back knowing resurrection because we follow a God who knows how to bring the dead things back to life and transform them into a new state of being.
We are a people of resurrection. And we can’t remain weeping, wanting to hold onto the ways things use to be. If you are wanting church be like it was in 2019 before the pandemic or the way it was when you were a child, I am here to tell you that the message from our Lord at the tomb to Mary still applies to us to day. We can't hold onto the past. Horrible things have happened, but God has given us a new day, a new week, a new time to be heralds of the good news just Mary was on that first Easter Morning. It is not the task of the church to remain in the garden and weep for what use to be. It is not the task of the church to hold onto the old Jesus; hold onto the way things use to be. Lent is over. Today is a new day. And you are invited to wipe away your tears tonight, and embrace God’s new resurrected reality, and proclaim this good news Mary was first charged with to proclaim: Alleluia, Christ is Risen. He is Risen indeed, Alleluia!
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.