Easter Sunday, April 9, 2023
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and 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. They 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.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus 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.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus 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.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her. ***
I have always been fascinated by aspects of nature that occur well beyond casual human observation. Today, thanks to PBS Nature and David Attenborough, some of creation’s most interesting natural occurrences are captured for all to see. A couple of them come to mind on this Easter Sunday and they are worth a watch. The first is “The Egg: Life’s Perfect Invention.” Step by step as the egg hatches, Attenborough reveals the wonder behind eggs of every type. The second is “Cicada Secrets” explaining how scientists study cicada exoskeletons to learn engineering secrets.
My brain has never been scientifically gifted, but even today, when I come upon an eggshell in the woods or the exoskeleton of some insect, I ponder the miracle that has occurred. Some living creature has escaped these enclosures, leaving their old clothes behind to go on to live life.
Old clothes. That is all the disciples saw when they got to the tomb on that Easter morning — two piles of old clothes. Mary didn’t see them. She was too distraught. The moment she saw the door to the tomb standing wide open, she ran to tell Simon Peter and the other disciples that Jesus’ body had been stolen. They beat her back to the tomb and found that she was right, at least about his body being gone.
The old clothes remained which begs the question of why grave robbers would have bothered to undress Jesus first? Without even going inside, “the one whom Jesus loved” (John) could see the linen wrappings lying in a pile. When Peter went inside, he saw more. The cloth that had been on Jesus’ head was rolled up in a place by itself. Odd, that someone should go to all the trouble of rolling it up.
None of it was making any sense to them, John says, because no one who was there that morning understood the scripture which said that Jesus must rise from the dead. Still, when the beloved disciple followed Peter inside the tomb and saw the clothes lying there, he believed. Believed what? John does not say. He simply believed, and without another word to each other he and Peter returned to their homes.
The rest of the story belongs to Mary. She is the one who saw the angels. She is the one who saw the risen Lord, who had gotten himself some new clothes. That makes me wonder if there is a naked gardener in this story somewhere. Either that or Jesus found the extra set of work clothes down by the shed. Peter and John saw none of this. They saw nothing but a vacant tomb with two piles of clothes in it. They saw nothing but vacancy an absence, in other words; on that basis at least one of them believed, although neither of them understood.
Any way you look at it, that is a mighty fragile beginning for a religion that has lasted 2000 years now. Yet, that is where many people continue to focus our energy: on that tomb, on that morning, on what did or did not happen there and how to explain it to anyone who does not happen to believe it too. Resurrection does not square with anything else we know about physical human life on earth. No one has ever seen it happen, which is why it helps to remember that no one saw it happen on Easter morning either.
The resurrection is the one and only event in Jesus’ life that was entirely between him and God. There were no witnesses. No one on earth can say what happened inside that tomb because no one was there. They all arrived after the fact. Two of them saw clothes. One of them saw angels. Most of them saw nothing at all because they were still in bed that morning, but as it turned out that did not matter because the empty tomb was not the point.
The tomb was just the cracked and empty shell, the shed exoskeleton. The life had moved on, with action going on somewhere else, which may be why Peter and John did not stay very long. Clearly, Jesus was not there. He could have stayed put, looking rosy cheeked and relieved, waiting for everyone to come in and see him, but that is not what he did.
He had outgrown his tomb, which was too small a focus for the resurrection. The risen one had people to see and things to do. The living one’s business was among the living, to whom he appeared not once but four more times in the Gospel of John. Every time he came to his friends, they became stronger, wiser, kinder, more courageous. Every time he came to them, they became more like him.
Those appearances cinch the resurrection for me, not what happened in the tomb. What happened in the tomb was entirely between Jesus and God. For the rest of us, Easter began the moment the gardener said, “Mary!” and she knew who he was. That is where the miracle happened and goes on happening — not in the tomb but in the encounter with the living Lord.
In the end, that is the only evidence we have to offer those who ask us how we can possibly believe. Because we live, that is why. Because we have found, to our surprise, that we are not alone. Because we never know where he will turn up next. Here is one thing that helps: never get so focused on the empty tomb that you forget to speak to the gardener.