She is there again, just as she had been at the cross. Mary the mother of James and Joseph, Mary the mother of Jesus. When all the men have fled, when the disaster of her child’s death by torture is sickeningly real, when all the promises about new life, a new world are now shattered, splintered glass – she makes her way to the tomb.
That new world, the one Jesus showed her – she’d believed it. She’d seen it, a life she didn’t know was possible. She knew that Jesus was talking about her on the side of the mountain, when he said women like her were blessed. The ones who weep now, the meek and the hungry.
She’d seen him gather up the little ones, scold the disciples; seen him heal those who everyone else walked by as if they weren’t there. He’d touched the unclean, that woman who had been bleeding, that little girl who died. He brought them back to life. But his eyes burned when he talked about the religious leaders and the tax collectors, those who hurt and exploited the poor. They had believed, believed all it, left everything, followed him. It all seemed so real, just a few days ago. And now it was gone.
In Matthew’s Gospel Mary and Mary Magdalene show up empty-handed to the tomb, nothing to prepare the body, no reason to be there. I suppose they showed up that day because being closer to this place was better than being anywhere else. Besides, where else would they go? What else was left but to draw near to the world that died with him.
And suddenly there is an earthquake! The stone in front of the tomb rolls away, and an angel sits upon it. This is my favorite detail of the Easter story. The angel sits on the stone. I think of all that stone before the tomb must have symbolized to Mary. The stone meant the death of every dream, every hope, every new world she had begun to let herself imagine.
But here the angel sits. Like it’s no big deal, just another day in the life of an angel – causing earthquakes, pushing aside boulders, revealing that dead people have come back to life. This stone has lost all power.
There’s rush of words. He isn’t here; he is risen. Tell everyone, go meet him, he’s gone ahead, he’s waiting for you. And they run.
Mary came for a funeral, to find death, and she instead she discovered that a birth had taken place.
When the 4th century theologian, Ephrem the Syrian, read this story, he heard within it a second unnatural birth. Mary was the first – the unexpected one, the Virgin bears a child. Against nature, against tradition, against all odds, she gives birth to child. Announced by an angel, received with great joy by magi from the East. From the womb of Mary, the unwed teenager, the king of the universe is born.
And here it happens again, repeating itself now on Easter morning. Mary is there to witness it again – a second birth, against nature, against tradition, against all odds. Announced by an angel, received with great joy by women. From the tomb, Mary sees that Jesus has been born. She comes to see a place of death only to discover the remnants of birth.
The angel tells the women not to be afraid. And while we read that as a command, it is an invitation that clarifies everything that has taken place. “You don’t have to be afraid.” None of this – the tomb, the Roman soldiers, the stone – none of it is the story of God’s life, of your future. This isn’t a funeral, it’s a birth, Jesus emerging once again from the unexpected womb.
We don’t have to be afraid because everything happens somewhere else. We are already on the move, already moving in joy and fear, moving in courage someplace else. God’s life isn’t happening here, here at the tomb. Look and see. You belong somewhere else, with Mary, here on the other side of the resurrection, here at the birth of all things.
As Jesus is birthed from the tomb, we find ourselves beside the women, in the unpredictability of the future. And we can start to understand their fear. If this is how it begins, with an earthquake and an angel and dead people coming back to life – what else is out there, down the way, waiting for us with Jesus?
Friends, there is only one way to find out. The truth of this story, the truth of the resurrection, is built into the bones of every person, every community who realized nothing else would happen there at the place of death, the stone cast aside, but instead sprinted down the road to find out what Jesus is up to, to see what will happen next. There’s nothing left to see here. With your fear and your joy you’ll have to go out to see where and how this new world is taking place.
I’ve talked to lots of people about their faith over the years. And a lot of people struggle with belief. Some of us come from painful religious backgrounds where hell was dangled like a threat, and where doubt was a sin. For some of us our churches began to push against an expanding sense of God’s love and justice. Some of us were taught that faith is an intellectual project, a math problem to work out and if you can’t get the equation, all the pieces worked out exactly right, then you are out of luck.
But that’s not what faith looks like here, here in the bodies of two frightened women, sprinting down the road. Instead we come to faith “by the way it works in us through the long story of a whole life and the longer story of the life of a community that believes it” (Rowan Williams). Faith is coming here, week after week, letting the story work in us, to find out together what’s down the road, where Jesus is waiting to meet us.
The pernicious myth about Christianity is that church is here to make you nice or good or kind, that intellectual assent will make you a good rule follower, will help you check off a moral box. The Good News of Jesus Christ is better and more terrible. We’re running down the road to find out where Jesus has got to, and to get ourselves into trouble with him, the risky and joyful adventure of proclaiming with our lives that “he is risen indeed.”
Every day we retell this story, proclaim that Jesus has risen from the dead when we imagine that a new world is possible, that we can put ourselves into this new life. Every day that we fight the despair that says, “this is the way things are, there’s nothing to do,” every day we keep looking for Jesus in unexpected places, we are proclaiming that Jesus is risen from the dead.
We proclaim it when we declare with our sweat and our hammers that communities decimated by flood can be rebuilt,
when we can pray for peace and pardon for the rebels who killed a beloved friend in the Congo,
when we weep beside Egyptian Christians and Syrian Muslims,
when we stand up for health care access, and good schools, and equal protections under the law,
when we show up on Sunday and make time for the messy, joyful, uncomfortable, holy work of being church together.
In many ways, this Sunday is like every other because our lives proclaim that something has happened. Our lives proclaim he has gone ahead of us. Our lives proclaim the news, “he is not here; he has been raised!”
If we pay attention to Mary we’ll see that the fear doesn’t dissipate. It’s always an alchemy, fear and joy. It’s frightening not knowing down the road. In some ways, it’s easier to sit there beside the open tomb, easier to attend the funeral than to run after this Jesus, easier to accept the world as it is than to get involved in this risky chase of a new world being born. Because this is the world of Empire, a world that refuses to receive the Good News of God’s love. It is a world where the Mother of All Bombs is dropped during the holiest week of the Christian year, where war ships speed towards a fractured country and a ruthless dictator. It is an unknown world, a world that refuses to lay down its sword.
And still, the women run, hearts in their throat, off to see where this Jesus is going to meet them. Because something else is out there, something else is happening.
Will you leave this grave and come with us? Will run with us to meet him? He is not here, he is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Hallelujah!