On Sunday mornings, I usually leave the house by 6:15 am. I’ve come to appreciate the way the light changes at that time of day throughout the year. In December and January of course, it is fully dark at that time of the morning but if it’s a clear day, by late February, I can see the beginnings of the sunrise.
Sunday mornings are quiet times in downtown Madison. Most of the traffic lights are flashing. One sees the occasional student walking home after a night out, making what’s come to be known as “the walk of shame.” There are people on their way to work at the hospitals, delivery drivers with newspapers; and the like. I especially enjoy taking note of the traffic counter on the bike path at Monroe St and Regent. It’s usually still in the single digits at that time of the morning. As I drive, I’m usually thinking about the morning ahead, worrying about my sermon, whether I’ve worked myself into a dead-end and have time to write myself out of it before the 8:00 service.
I wonder about Mary Magdalene, as she made her walk to Jesus’ tomb, that early morning nearly 2000 years ago. Why was she going? What was she feeling?
Let’s get clear on something about Mary Magdalene from the outset. She wasn’t a prostitute; she wasn’t Jesus’ wife, no matter what sensational stories in the media might want us to think. We actually know relatively little about Mary Magdalene. This is the first time she appears in John’s gospel. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus casts out seven demons from her. Gospels do agree that she was a witness to the crucifixion, that she was a witness to his burial, and that she was a witness of the empty tomb. More than that is simply speculation, especially the traditions that it was she who anointed Jesus. In John, it is Mary of Bethany, Lazarus’ sister, who performs that act; in the other gospels the woman has no name. That she was a penitent prostitute is nothing more than pious legend, and probably more than a little attributable to the misogyny of Christianity.
Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb full of grief, her heart broken by the events of the past days, the death of her friend, the death of the one she had thought was the Messiah. Her heart was broken, her world shattered. She has come to the tomb, probably thinking about all the things that had happened since she first met Jesus, all the things he had said and done. I’m sure that her eyes were full of tears as she walked, that she stumbled on the unfamiliar roads and paths, unable to see clearly.
And now, she reaches the her goal, the tomb where she had watched as Joseph and Nicodemus buried Jesus. She came to mourn, to be close, for perhaps one last time, to the one she had believed to be the Savior, the one on whom she had pinned her hopes, the one who had showed her the possibilities of new life. Was she going to use her time here at the tomb, in the quiet solitude of an early morning, to try to figure out what next, where to go from here?
But when she arrives, she discovers that the stone has been rolled away. Note what she does next. She doesn’t investigate further; she doesn’t go in and see whether Jesus’ body is still there. No, she turns and runs back to tell the disciples, Peter, and that other one, you know, the disciple that Jesus loved. When they hear her news, they run to see for themselves. Their sprint turns into a race. The other disciple gets there first and sees the linen wrappings, but defers to Peter, letting him go in first.
Now it may be that they didn’t believe Mary and wanted to see for themselves, but it’s also true that she hadn’t investigated fully. When she ran back to them and told them that the tomb was empty, well, did she really know that? Still, Peter and the other disciple satisfied their curiosity and departed, returning to wherever it was they had been.
We can assume that Mary ran with the other two disciples back to the tomb because she’s still there when they leave. And now, she decides to take a closer look, and wow! There’s an angel there (where did he come from, how long had he been there, why didn’t the other disciples see him, or why didn’t he appear to them instead of to Mary?) In any case, he asks, “Why are you weeping?”
And as she answers, she senses something, someone, behind her, turns and sees the gardener. He asks her the same question, “Why are you weeping?” And she replies again, I’m guessing, by now she’s a little exasperated. “Why are you weeping? And adds that pregnant question that is repeated throughout John’s gospel, “What are you looking for?”
“Well, duh! Why would I come to a tomb on a Sunday morning. I’m not here to get a cup of coffee and read the Times.”
And then, her world changes, her life changes. He calls her Mary and she recognizes him, knows him in ways she had never known him before. And suddenly all that she had desired, all that she was looking for, was in front of her. She saw her Lord.
Each of us has traveled here today. The journeys that brought us may have been brief and uneventful. They may also have been long and winding, full of switchbacks, dead ends, and uncharted territory, roads that don’t appear on google maps or GPS. But here we are. We have brought with us our hopes and fears, our lives, all of the baggage that we carry. Like Mary, we are lingering at an empty tomb, waiting, wondering, “what next?”
Like Mary, Jesus calls to us, asking us “What are you looking for, whom do you seek?” Perhaps we are able to put words to our search, but it maybe that we can’t, that our desires too intense, our sighs too deep for words.
But as he calls to us, he names us, for he knows us better than we know ourselves, and we have but to open our hearts to him, to accept his knowing, to welcome his love. He’s there just in front of us. We want to touch him, to grasp him, to hold on to him. But then he says, “Don’t. Don’t hold on to me. I am going to my Father, to your God and my God, and you have work to do.”
To open our hearts to him, to accept his knowing us, his loving us, is wonderful, important, life-changing. But it’s not all, it’s not enough. Jesus told Mary to go and tell the disciples, and she became the Apostle to the Apostles, the first to share the news that Christ is risen.
We know that Christ is raised from the dead. We experience his life and love in our hearts, in the gathered body of Christ, in the bread and wine of the Eucharistic feast. But that is not all. That is not everything. There is more to do. Like Mary we must share the news. We must share the life of Christ with a broken and hurting world. We must make the risen Christ known throughout this city and the world. We must proclaim Alleluia! Christ is Risen!