11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
John 20: 11-18 – NRSV
What are we celebrating, on Easter Day? If we think about the seasons and study our Easter hymns, it’s easy to think that the one over-riding message of Easter Day is that of triumph over death ‘Thine be the glory, risen conqu’ring Son, endless is the vict’ry thou o’er death hast won’. And that seems to suit our worries and our mood, particularly at this time. But is this the only message, and if it is, what difference does it really make to us at this moment, when so many people are scared of a premature death? I want to suggest that there’s another message that’s even more important.
St John’s version of the story of Easter morning is too long to include in its entirety above, but if I’d started the reading at the beginning of Chapter 20, rather than at verse 11, you’d have been able to follow Mary Magdalene as she came to the tomb, entirely on her own and whilst it was still dark, to find the stone rolled away from the entrance. What does she do? Well, curiously, she doesn’t enter the tomb, taking advantage of the stone being rolled away uniquely for her own benefit. Instead, she runs to find the disciples. Why do I say that the stone is rolled away uniquely for her own benefit? Well, we know from the rest of the gospel resurrection stories that the risen Christ doesn’t find it hard to pass through closed doors and walls. So we must assume that the stone’s not removed for Christ’s benefit to allow him to come out, but instead to allow Mary to go in and witness the empty tomb, but she doesn’t do that. It’s Peter and ‘the other disciple’, normally associated with St John himself who, after Mary’s alerted them, race each other to the tomb, enter it and find it empty and, in the words of John’s gospel, see and believe. They then go home, leaving Mary once again on her own at the empty tomb. This time, however, she does at least ‘look into’ the tomb, even though she still hasn’t the courage to enter. We then hear that she’s addressed by two angels in white. When she turns round from talking to them, she sees Jesus but doesn’t recognise him. It’s only when he addresses her by name that she recognises him, and as with other resurrection stories he then rapidly disappears from sight again.
To see what I’m driving at, what the story of Easter Day additionally means, we need to know a bit about Mary Magdalene. Women, as we know, had an incredibly lowly status in Jesus’s world and were not even allowed to be witnesses in legal cases. Secondly, Jesus had driven seven demons out of Mary (see Luke 8:1-2). In first century Palestine, if you were demon-possessed, you’d brought that misery on yourself through your own sinfulness. She’d been rehabilitated by Jesus, yes, but for most of society she was still tainted; still an outcast; still on the edges of acceptability (and that’s without the old chestnut of her being a prostitute; a calumny on her name that was only finally quashed by the Vatican in the 1960s). And yet Mary is the one to whom Christ chooses to reveal himself, not to the two blokes, who’ve raced off to the next thing, with no pause for reflection, which is maybe something we men should think about! No, through the story we’ve just heard, it’s Mary the unreliable, untrustworthy, sinful woman, who becomes the unique pillar on which Christianity is founded. As others have said, including St Paul, if there’s no resurrection, there’s no Christianity; and without Mary, there’s no resurrection. God chooses as the first and crucial witness, someone who’s on the outside of respectable society, excluded, oppressed, downtrodden and completely untrustworthy. This cannot possibly be insignificant! Why do I think that it was that Mary was chosen, uniquely and on her own, for this incredible responsibility? Because Easter is a sign to us of God’s justice breaking into a world that’s bleeding from injustice. Christ is crucified by ignorance, selfishness, injustice, inequality, hatred, intolerance, envy and greed.
Christ’s resurrection, and what Easter Day represents, is not just Christ’s triumph over death, but also Christ’s victory over the unjust powers of the world. Through Easter Day, we’re given a thrilling vision of God’s Kingdom coming to earth. The new life that we celebrate on Easter Day is actually a new hope, a hope for a better, more just and compassionate world. Easter’s a clarion call to us to join in, to become part of this breath-taking hope of a completely new beginning. And it speaks loudly to us at this time, with a life-renewing and much needed message of hope, of new beginnings and of care for those who are suffering and those who feel they are insignificant.
May I take this opportunity of wishing all who read these pages, and their friends and loved ones, a blessed and joyful Easter!
Gracious Lord and Father, thank you for your unmistakable message for those for whom society cares nothing. May those of us who are lucky not to be in this group, never forget this crucial foundation of all Christian belief. Amen