It is Easter. In the face of everything, it is.
But it is early.
So early, our text tells us, it is still dark.
I am typing this on day 2 of our Coronavirus quarantine. Early.
According to the news, odds are when this is posted weeks from now, it will still be early. Which means Dark.
It is important, as pastors and preachers, we give tools for our people to become aware of their fears, and time and space and relationships to help them process them, even on Easter. We are here to guide and strengthen the entire body, from those paralyzed by anxiety to those who might be acting irresponsibly and dangerously while mislabeling it as “faith over fear.” Yes, we are calling everyone to hope. But not by shortcutting our journey together through the full gospel story. For our people, we do not skip over the detail John gives us: the first Easter began in darkness.
In our age of information and artificial light, we walk in darkness and silence, knowing there is so much out there to fear. So we step slowly and test the ground before we trust our weight to it. Nobody wants to snap an ankle on a stone or wrench a knee in a hole. We extend our hands into the unseen to feel for low branches or walls. We make our way by memory and hope more than by sight. However we are worshipping this Easter, no one can blame us for going slow.
Yet, at times like these, our world blends with Mary’s world. On the first Easter morning, Mary walked with us in the darkness, with deafening questions and confusion cluttering her soul. Across centuries and cultures, we are the church, walking, trusting a way has been made.
And Mary is a good guide through this. To ancient people like Mary, reality was permeated by spiritual forces. Of course, for the Jewish people, they knew there was One good God at the top. They also knew this God by name, YHWH. But under the God who rescued them from the darkness of slavery in Egypt, there were countless lesser forces, smaller gods and spirits and such. Under these Powers were powerful people, like Kings and Governors (Prime Minsters and Presidents). Serving them were Noblemen and Soldiers (Generals and Governors). Then the Merchants (CEOs and Business Owners), down to the Workers and Peasants and Slaves.
Some of the lesser forces were in alignment with YHWH’s – they would be angels, just rulers, beings of Light. Others were dark – demons or false gods or tyrants.
Mary had been particularly oppressed by a number of those rebellious forces. Seven demons had been cast out of her, and seven is a scripturally significant number; it denotes completeness. Mary had her mind and will utterly enslaved by dark, destructive forces. She was not free to recognize things that were good and true and beautiful as such, let alone free to choose them. As the opening of the Gospel of John would have it, the light could shine in the darkness, but because of her darkness, Mary would have been incapable of understanding it.
Then Jesus cast those demons out of Mary as he proclaimed and brought the good news of the kingdom of God. To Mary, this was not just true or good information being mediated through another person’s mouth or some news outlet. This was her life. The kingdom Jesus brought freed her to recognize and live in the light.
Then just like that Mary had also seen Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders crucify her Lord. Pilate, with his Roman forces and their gods, and the Jewish leaders who are supposed to be aligned with the God that Jesus called “Father,” both turning on Jesus, aligning with darkness. Murdering the Light of the World.
Mary is a good guide not because she can see in this darkness, but because she was touched by the light, she can see the darkness. She peers a little deeper into its true nature, and so she walks through it. Mary saw the world was not just one of viruses and pandemics and panic and injustice and economic fallout, it was also a world beset with evil and demons and false gods.
It is also a world entering Easter. It is.
It is just very early.
So it is still dark. But hope: our text tells us Easter begins so early we cannot yet tell the difference between a new day and the dead of night. Resurrection comes behind death and injustice and disease and fear. So which is more true and enduring, the darkness, or Easter?
Along the way with Mary, there are always many very real things that we cannot not see in the early morning darkness, many of them good, true, and beautiful. Mary could not see the budding flowers. The trees waving in time with the wind. Just how green the grass was. It is Easter, but it takes a bit for the dawn to illuminate the signs of life.
Who knows what real things – what courage and sacrifice and hope – are waiting in the darkness for light and the eyes that will recognize them as signs of resurrection? Who yet has really seen how in the midst of a pandemic tombs can be emptied and death robbed?
And remember, as we journey into this story, the tomb that even in the darkness we cannot help but find belongs to Jesus.
The signs of life were not just in the trees and flowers. Another thing Mary cannot see in this moment was the way the effects of Jesus’ work continue so that she herself becomes a sign of Jesus’ victory over death. When the angels ask Mary why she’s crying, Mary says, “They have taken away my Lord.” For all she knows, Jesus is still dead. And she is still calling Jesus “Lord.” Do not miss that.
It is crucial for understanding her. Which means it is crucial if we are to take her as our guide for seeing the darkness and entering Easter.
At this point, Mary does have options for making a way through this dark world. She could choose to align with Empire, and the Empire’s gods. Maybe give them inside information on how the followers of the recently executed revolutionary operate. She could apologize and join the religious leaders who claim to be about God’s order in this world, but are not. In doing such things, she can make a way in a fallen world, but she also recognizes (because of Jesus’ light) she would survive by contributing to disorder, death, and destruction. So she does not. Seems Mary is still free from the forces of darkness, even if it means surrendering her life.
So Mary continues to call Jesus “Lord.” That is a title for a Ruler. One who directs a way of life. Her healing, she understands, was part of Jesus larger mission to reorder the world. To align all reality, all the powers, with the healing and justice of YHWH. Calling Jesus “Lord” means Mary didn’t just see him as a model or teacher, but one who came to disarm the rebellious, enslaving, forces. All of them. Even death, and even if the powers of darkness seem to have won.
For those like Mary, who have truly known Christ as a loving, healing, real presence in their life, these times of darkness and apparent absence are especially troubling. Trying to reconcile the darkness with the goodness they have known before creates a tension in the deepest, most enduring places of their being. This is not bad, though, when lived as part of the ongoing gospel story. Because when they find the tomb and see the stone rolled away and others look and go home, the dissonance created by the earlier healing makes it harder to leave. Like Mary, these folks linger at the tomb. We continue, today, to figure out how to “gather” around Christ’s body and proclaim to the world that Jesus is Lord.
Then Mary turns and sees Jesus. His body is right there, but she does not recognize him. We too might find ourselves in the very presence of Christ and oblivious to that truth while bombarded with all the bad news in the media. Part of the good news, though, is that as the church we are free from the need for merely “good news” understood as information coming in. We are freed to trust the gospel of Christ and his life and kingdom coming to us, even now.
The dawn is breaking, but in the lingering darkness and confusion Mary thinks her Lord is a gardener. She is still not seeing the hope and life for all the pain and uncertainty. She does not see what’s really going on as she stands in that garden that holds Jesus’ tomb. She does not recognize the significance John wants the reader of his gospel to see as he has already let us know Jesus often taught his disciples in a garden, was betrayed in a garden, crucified in a garden, and buried in a garden. In the moment, Mary does not recognize she is living in Eden re-cultivated, herself a sign of Jesus’ ongoing power and healing, participating in the onset of Easter and Resurrection.
But that is okay.
These are challenging and uncertain times. Dark times. But that does not mean it is not Easter. The church has been through them before. The ways Jesus has shown us the light/rescued us from darkness in the past can keep us from making a way through this moment by giving into and aligning with the darkness. Which leaves us no option but to wait on him. Which is participating in the onset of Easter, and becoming ourselves a sign of Resurrection.
Because in spite of herself, in another way, Mary has totally nailed it. She is indeed talking with one whose work seeds and cultivates all reality: The Word of Creation, the Gardner of the Cosmos.
So as the Body of Christ, we reach out with our hands into the darkness, maybe to guard against unseen walls and branches, but also, in spite of it all, to hold his Body and Blood, waiting for him to call us by name and open our eyes yet again to the gift of his presence.