The woman at the tomb

Sermon for Easter Sunday

Of the four gospel accounts of the resurrection, Matthew’s is easily the most dramatic.

And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.

Where Mark writes that the women were met by “a young man, dressed in white”, and Luke records that it was “two men in dazzling clothes” at the tomb, Matthew unflinchingly says it is “an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven,” accompanied by the very earth itself shaking. Matthew, too, writes of soldiers having been placed by the tomb to prevent the body from being stolen; soldiers who, in this angelic light, shake and become “like dead men.”

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There are other variations in the telling of the story. Matthew says that it is Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” who go to the tomb that morning, to which Mark adds the figure of Salome, and Luke has it as “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women.” In John’s telling, Mary Magdalene goes alone to the tomb, but as soon as she discovers it empty she rushes to get Peter and John, who then race back with her.

We should not be particularly troubled by the presence of such differences amongst the gospel accounts. For one thing, these writers don’t take up their pens to write their gospel accounts until thirty or forty years after the events took place. Even within a sturdy and dependable oral tradition, details can begin to shift, and memories do what memories do; “I’m sure Salome was there,” you can hear Mark saying to himself. “I’m sure Peter told me she was.”

And of course, these gospel writers never imagined themselves to be journalists, investigators, or historians in any modern sense. They were all about proclaiming the good news, not creating the most accurate update to a Wikipedia entry. As the most Jewish of the gospel writers—the one most attuned to the textures and tones of the Hebrew scriptures—Matthew would have expected nothing less than earthquakes and angels. Had you asked any one of the four whose account was most “true”, he might have given you a puzzled look, and then answered that quite clearly Jesus is true.

There is, though, fundamental agreement on two key points. First of all, the tomb was empty, which for them means not a resuscitated corpse but resurrection. Those are different things, of course. There are stories of resuscitated corpses in the gospels; the young daughter of a synagogue leader, the adult son of the widow of Nain, and of course Lazarus. The dead brought back to life, as if it simply wasn’t possible for Jesus to encounter a corpse who didn’t sit up and take notice. But these are all stories of people brought back from death, who would all grow old and eventually die again. As proclaimed by all four gospels, what Jesus’ empty tomb signifies is resurrection life—Kingdom of Heaven life, new creation life—which is more alive than anyone had ever before been. So alive, in fact, that this world of ours could only barely contain him for the forty days he shared with his people. What the empty tomb signifies to all four gospel writers is that a new world has begun, and that what has happened to Jesus at this specific moment in time and history shows us something of the promise held out for all of humanity. Though it can often be hard to discern in our own halting lives, death no longer has the final word; “For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:21)

And secondly, the four gospels all agree that Mary Magdalene was there. Perhaps on her own, perhaps in the company of other women. But she was there as a first witness to the resurrection of her beloved teacher. There is an ancient tradition, dating back at least to St Augustine, of calling her the “apostle to the apostles” because she heard the news first, and then carried it back to the disciples, who were still in hiding. As far as honorific titles go, it is not a bad one: apostle to the apostles, meaning that Augustine recognized something of the significance of Mary’s role. It is also a kind of recognition of her fairly prominent place in the gospel narratives, where more mention is made of her than of most of the twelve disciples. I suspect, though, that Magdalene herself would have not been much impressed by such a title. What was important to her was that her rabbi—her teacher and healer—was alive. That’s news worth telling.

Do you know why Mary was there? In part because she could be. Whoever those guards were, when Mary Magdalene arrived, they’d hardly have even noticed. They were watching for the likes of Peter, not for some woman… She could walk from the place the men were hiding—through the streets of Jerusalem, past Roman soldiers and temple leaders, and right to the tomb—and barely even be seen. Women simply didn’t figure much in that world.

Yet Mary Magdalene was probably also there because nothing in the world could have kept her away. Quite early in the gospel narratives, Jesus frees her from a spiritual sickness or possession (Luke 8:2), and it would seem that after that she was never that far from him. As Jesus did with others who had been pushed to that society’s edges, he recognized Mary’s full personhood and treated her with dignity and respect—something not often extended to women in that religious world—and so when the time came for him to journey to Jerusalem, there she was with him. When he went to his death, she’s there as well, in the company of those other women for whom this Jesus had been so transformational.

And when that Sabbath day had passed, she had to go to visit his tomb. What will the world be without him? What will my world be? It is pure poetry—the truest of poetry—that it is to her that Jesus first appears. It is a confirmation of everything he had ever taught her about herself and about the way God’s version of the world really works. As Matthew tells it, Magdalene and the other Mary “took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’” I imagine a smile creasing his face as he speaks these words to them; whatever will Peter and the others make of it, when the women arrive carrying the most important news the world has ever heard?

There is a lovely little detail tucked in John’s telling of the story. Having now discovered that the tomb is empty, Mary is standing alone in the garden, weeping. Jesus comes to her, and asks, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” Maybe because her eyes are brimming with tears, she at first mistakes him for the gardener. But that’s a bit of poetry too, isn’t it? The resurrected Christ, who St Paul will call “the last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45-47), as a gardener. Unlike the first Adam, this one is not cast out of the garden but instead will move freely from that place, summoning his scared followers to become the disciples he always meant them to be, and in his name to claim the whole of creation as his garden.

And it is still happening. As Stanley Hauerwas writes in his commentary on this resurrection text, “The truth that is Jesus is a truth that requires discipleship, for it is only by being transformed by what he has taught and by what he has done that we”—notice Hauerwas is not saying them way back then, but we; present tense—“it is only by being transformed by what he has taught and by what he has done that we can come to know the way the world is. The world is not what it appears to be, because sin has scarred the world’s appearance. The world has been redeemed—but to see the world’s redemption, to see Jesus, requires that we be caught up in the joy that comes from serving him.”

We are the next in the long line of disciples, that started not just with the original twelve, but with Magdalene and the other women as well. And that’s our resurrection calling; to seek to become disciples caught up in the joy that comes from serving him; to follow this One on the greatest of adventures that begins yet again today… and tomorrow, and next week and next year. Always new beginning, always new creation, always new life.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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