Mary Magdalene's Easter Surprise
We’re not really surprised by Easter anymore. I fear we’re a little jaded. We come to church by rote. We already know the tomb will be empty, we know Christ is risen today, Alleluia, and all that jazz.
In fact, these days, Easter surprises mainly come in candy form.
I like waking up to Easter baskets full of candy on Easter morning (maybe not quite so early as the children want to get up ;) Pez dispensers, peeps, chocolate rabbits, cadbury eggs. Mmm, delicious.
I like egg hunts, too. There’s something so purely fun about stepping out into the yard to spot a bit of bright pink under a bush - is it a flower? No! It’s an egg, full of jellybeans.
Easter candy is fun. Easter eggs are fun, even though they objectively don’t have anything to do with Jesus.
We need fun, sometimes, don’t we? Fun is hopeful, and without hope the world can be a dark place.
We have personal struggles, with health, with family, with finances, with loss.
We have global struggles, with war, with refugees, with shootings, with environmental devastation.
There’s so much darkness everywhere, darkness seems to be taking over everything, sometimes.
Imagine how dark it was for Mary Magdalene, in the Scripture from John, too. Now, today we know where this gospel account is going - we are not surprised that the body is not there. But, remember, Mary Magdalene is the first ever witness to the empty tomb and the events after. She is the first ever to have an Easter surprise.
Mary Magdalene’s life is unimaginably bad at this time. She sets out that Sunday morning in literal and metaphorical darkness. She’s had the darkest couple of days a person can have. Her beloved teacher Jesus got arrested. Then, he was crucified, in front of her. She stood at the foot of the cross until he died.
Then, on the first day of the week, when it’s still dark outside, she goes to Jesus’ tomb, only to find that the stone is rolled away. She assumes someone has taken the Lord’s body out of the tomb.
She’s got company in there this discovery of the empty tomb. Peter and another disciple are there, but they look, see an empty tomb and go home, leaving poor Mary Magdalene weeping alone, without comfort, outside the tomb.
She is grief-stricken, weeping in the dark. For some reason, she - unlike the other two disciples - doesn’t go home.
For some reason, she decides to bend over and check inside the tomb.
Now, as peers inside, the darkness begins to recede. Instead of peering into a pitch black tomb, Mary Magdalene catches a glimmer of white. She sees two messengers from God sitting where the head and feet of Jesus would have been.
They ask her why she’s crying. She shares her grief with them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
Then, she turns around and bumps into the groundskeeper, who asks her what she is looking for. Of course, she doesn’t expect to see Jesus, so she doesn’t see who the groundskeeper really is.
But as he calls her by name, the light dawns on Mary. It’s her teacher, her Rabbi, her Rabbouni. In front of her. How wonderful!
That’s good news for Mary Magdalene. She is the first of all the disciples to encounter the risen Christ.
When she sees him, it’s possible that she throws herself at him and embraces Jesus in her joy, because he says to her, “Do not hold on to me, do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended to the father.” Then he tells her to go out and tell the disciples that he is no longer dead, but risen, and is ascending to the Father.
Mary Magdalene is the first to see, the first to believe, and the first to spread the news that Christ is risen from the dead.
Speaking of rising from the dead, we humans, accustomed to bad news, inclined to doubt, often lean towards dismissing the resurrection as preposterous or impossible. I would guess that there are some of us in the room that think that all resurrection is metaphor, we’re not meant to take it literally. I would guess there are some of us in this room today who think that believing in a literal resurrection is absolutely essential to being a Christian...but that’s probably why it’s sometimes easier to celebrate with chocolate bunnies and plastic eggs. They’re neutral and they take us out of this troublesome theological territory.
Truly, the meaning of the resurrection deserves a lifetime of contemplation. Just as Easter is not really about egg hunts, the Easter story is also not really about proving what happened to a body, thousands of years ago.
Easter is about faith.
Let me say it another way: Easter is about encountering darkness in the world with a faith like Mary Magdalene’s.
Easter is about having faith that the evil of crucifixion and the darkness that the death of the innocent brings - faith that this evil - will not have the last word.
For Mary Magdalene, and for us all, Easter is a call to look boldly into the darkness and allow ourselves to be surprised by the presence of the light.
Easter is about being overwhelmed by a love so deep that overcomes death, just as Mary Magdalene was overwhelmed that dark morning, so long ago.
We should pay attention to Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene here...“do not hold on to me”, “do not cling to me”, “do not touch me” (depending on your translation) Whatever the translation, they all show that Jesus does not intend for Mary Magdalene to remain with him. Neither Jesus nor Mary Magdalene are meant to stay in or anywhere near the tomb that day. They must both leave, they must not cling to the past. They must go their separate ways, for Jesus to ascend, for Mary Magdalene to tell the tale, for each of them to spread the light of hope in the world’s darkness.
Love and hope. Easter baskets and Easter candy, have no meaning when they’re separated from the love of God. But if we remember Mary Magdalene’s first Easter surprise, then when we watch children delight in baskets on Easter morning, and see the purity of joy in finding a hidden egg, we know are watching love and hope in action.
But Easter goodness can not remain with the children and the baskets, and the bunnies.
As Christians we are called to a deeper message. Like Mary Magdalene, we are called to carry the love of God found in the message of a risen Christ forward out of the darkness.
When we preach Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Lord on Easter morning, we counteract worldly forces of death and destruction. We preach radical, expansive hope.
The good news of Easter morning, the good news of the empty tomb and the risen Christ, is that God’s surprising, seemingly impossible love calls us all out of darkness into life. May it be so. Amen.