In the liturgy of the church, on Easter Day when we celebrate the resurrection, the preacher proclaims:
“Christ is risen!”
And the gathered body responds:
“Christ is risen, indeed!”
In the Eastern orthodox traditions, this is the way everyone greets one another, passing each other in the street, saying hello at the door of the church. It’s like saying “Merry Christmas” on Christmas Day. Imagine, every time you answered the phone or passed someone in the hallway, or greeted a friend at your door today – and, perhaps for the next few weeks, as we celebrate the Easter season for a while – you started the interaction with this phrase:
Christ is Risen!
And imagine, if every person you encountered – friends and strangers alike – replied in turn:
Christ is risen, indeed!
Mary Magdalene did not expect to be running across town with that greeting on the tip of her tongue. She’d woken up early in the morning, grief-stricken and confused by the events of the week. She’d made her way to the tomb while it was still dark and noticed that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. Concerned that grave robbers had stolen the body of her friend and teacher, she ran all the way back to town to tell her brothers.
Simon Peter and John ran out to the tomb themselves, saw what Mary had seen, and returned, silently, to the place where they were staying. Whatever they were feeling – grief, anger, confusion, relief, fear – whatever they were feeling, they and our gospel writer have kept a mystery to us. These disciples go home. They leave the scene. They keep a safe distance between themselves and death. When they get back home, they gather everyone together in one room and lock the doors behind them, because they are afraid of whatever mysterious thing is about to go down.
Peter and John are terrified. When they see that Jesus’ body is gone, they run home and barricade themselves inside. They flee the scene.
I do not blame them. I’d run home and lock the door, too, after all that. I have run home and locked my door after witnessing scary, confusing situations. I have fled plenty of intense scenes, terrified by the strange unfolding drama over by some tomb or another, driven to the safety and comfort of my own living room. Haven’t you?
Peter and John run home and lock the door, terrified.
But Mary sticks around.
Mary does not run away.
Mary stands at the opening of the empty tomb and weeps.
Mary must be just as terrified as Peter and John. She must be just as confused and grief-stricken and scared as they are. She’s been with them through the whole ordeal of the last week, seen the same things they’ve seen, heard the same proclamations and cries, watched, just as they watched, their friend and teacher be betrayed, accused, sentenced and crucified.
And it’s not like Mary knew anything more than Peter and John did. She was not privy to the super secret Jesus wisdom about who he was or what he promised. She heard the same confusing parables and saw the same unbelievable miracles that the rest of them did.
The only thing that sets Mary apart from her fellow disciples is that on this morning, instead following fear and grief toward the impulse to run and hide, she chooses to stick around, to draw nearer to the tomb, to weep right out there in the open, to make herself vulnerable, to persist in her love for her friend, to refuse to leave the scene.
The only thing that sets Mary part from her fellow disciples is that she chose to draw nearer to the tomb instead of running away.
And that simple choice – to act against instinct and in line with love – meant that Mary saw the Lord and found herself transformed into the first preacher of the gospel.
Because as she is standing there, weeping out in the open, she leans over and peers into the tomb. Two angels – of all things! – are sitting there and ask, “woman, why are you crying?” She explains her grief, and as she finishes, she turns around to see a man standing near her. He, too, sees her tears and asks, again, “woman, why are you crying?” Again, she explains her grief to him.
The man says her name – nothing else – just a simple “Mary,” and immediately she recognizes him as the very friend and teacher that she is weeping over, runs at him and grabs him. But Jesus tells her not to hold on to him. “Instead,” he says, “go and tell the others.” She does. She runs back to the house, where Peter and John have fled in fear, and shouts: “I have seen the Lord!”
Mary becomes the first to share the greeting: Christ is Risen!
Simone Weil, philosopher and theologian, had some things to say about Mary’s choice to draw nearer to the tomb:
Affliction contains the truth about our condition. They alone will see God who prefer to recognize truth and die, instead of living a long and happy existence in a state of illusion. One must want to go towards reality; then, when one thinks one has found a corpse, one meets an angel who says, ‘He is risen.”
Recognizing truth and choosing to go towards reality is not always the easiest choice. In fact, it is probably almost always the harder decision.
Recognizing truth often requires that we act against our instincts. It often means allowing ourselves to feel fear and move closer, anyway. It often means recognizing that there might be danger in a situation but allowing the deeper pull toward truth to carry us into it, anyway. Recognizing truth can mean that we have to let go of our own assumptions, our own attachments, our own certainties.
Recognizing truth might mean admitting that we are wrong.
Recognizing truth might mean saying that we are sorry.
Recognizing truth might mean giving up some of our comforts, some of our privilege, some of our money…some of the things that we wrap around ourselves in order to keep up the illusion that death is very far away from us.
Recognizing truth might mean getting ourselves into a complicated situation that we would SO MUCH rather avoid altogether.
Recognizing truth might be painful.
And yet, and yet, and yet:
when we choose to draw nearer to the painful realities of death, violence, oppression, the deep wounds of the ones we love and the deep wounds of our world;
when we choose to act against our instincts of self-preservation and avoidance;
when we choose to stick around even though we are weeping so hard we cannot see;
when we choose to open our eyes, unlock our doors, walk out into the world and stick around in the places where someone or something has died;
when we choose the way of love over the way of fear;
we just might be completely surprised.
We just might find own, unlikely selves turned into proclaimers of gospel, preachers and witnesses to the remarkable every day resurrections that God is always working in our midst.
During the season of Lent, we spent time dwelling with the Psalmists in all their messy glory. We yelled and screamed, lamented, repented and wept. We celebrated and we anticipated.
I think Mary’s genius, the genius that turned her into the first preacher of the good news, is not unrelated to the genius of the psalmists.
Like the psalmists, Mary was not afraid of the depth of her own emotions. She wept, openly. And, like the psalmists, she brought her fear, grief and pain directly to God. She dwelt at the tomb, where her dead Lord had been laid.
And, like the psalmists, Mary made the choice to face the realities of her life and the realities of the life of the world head-on. She did not run and hide from the events of the day. She did not worry about her own safety. She stood out there, by the tomb, weeping in full view of passerby, angels and Jesus himself. She allowed herself to become vulnerable, like the psalmists, and, in the process, allowed herself to be swept up in the truth of resurrection.
Mary wept, and Mary stayed. And then, having seen the Lord, she ran and told the others:
Christ is Risen!
On this day, may we all find the courage of Mary, the wherewithal grounded in the truth of resurrection to draw nearer to whatever tombs we have been avoiding. May we allow ourselves to weep and to wail, and to be drawn by love instead of fear.
On this day, when we proclaim that death has been defeated and the pain and evil of the world redeemed, may we all share in Mary’s joyful shout:
Christ is Risen!