“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” (The full readings for this morning can be found here.)
In the name of the living God, who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining us. Well, good morning, good morning. And, because we haven’t been able to say it during those long 40 days of Lent: Alleluia!
Don’t you hate it when you lose something? It’s very frustrating, it’s unsettling. Say, you have something very precious, or something terribly dangerous, and you lock it up and put it away where no one can get to it. You hide it, or seal it up, or bury it, and when you go back, it’s not there. You search and search, but it’s just not there anymore. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
I want us to imagine the desperation of these disciples, particularly Mary Magdalene and the women who go to anoint Jesus’ body. They had lost just about everything you could lose. Some had betrayed him, some had denied him, many had run away, and almost none of them could bear to watch this horror show. They had lost their dreams of a life with God, their vision that finally someone was going to do something about the Romans and their brutal occupation. They had lost their hopes for a better world, and many of them lost their self-image, their idea of who they were. And so, these women come to anoint their dead friend, to honor their dead. As Henry Nouwen wrote, “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts…” Now, I don’t think those women went to the grave that morning out of a sense of religious obligation, or some concept of duty. I think they went there out of love for their friend.
Now, we humans have known something for a very long time. We have known it ever since we crawled or loped out of the savannah, ever since those prehistoric people left their handprints on the Cueva de los Manos in Spain. We have known that “dead is dead.” Science teaches it, our experience teaches it, and our feelings of loss teach it. Dead is dead. Our broken hearts have always instructed us about the finality of death. Death is the end of the story. Or, is it?
Today’s gospel calls that assumption into question. As these women go to mourn their losses, they find that the stone has been rolled away and the tomb is empty. Don’t you hate it when you’ve put something away for safekeeping and then it’s missing? And after the other disciples have confirmed that Jesus’ body is gone, Mary remains at the tomb weeping. And she doesn’t recognize Jesus at first. Grief is like that, clouding our vision and consuming our ability to focus on anything but loss. And it’s not until Jesus calls her by name that she recognizes him. My hope, no, my prayer for each of us is that we can hear God calling our names, calling us out of grief and loss and into new life.
Jesus then asks her a very pointed, and very important, question: “Whom are you looking for? In our world of heartache, loss, death, and empire, it takes a good deal of courage to go looking for Jesus. It takes a good deal of hope and strength to entertain the notion that death might not be the end of the story. Love is like that, you see. Love always goes looking for the beloved. Even when it’s scary, even when there are Roman guards there, even when it seems hopeless—love goes looking.
So, I want you to look here at the genius of John’s gospel. If you were with us for the Good Friday service, you’ll remember what John said. “Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.” Our story this morning is also set in that same garden.
If you were with us for the Vigil, you heard that story from Genesis of the very first day, the story of light coming into the world. So, I want us to look carefully at what that masterful poet John is telling us in his gospel this morning. John says these events took place “Early on the first day….” The first day. These events took place in a garden. The story of our creation takes place in a garden. This is no accident. There are no coincidences in John’s gospel. I think John is trying to tell us that the story of Jesus’ resurrection is the story of God recreating the world. It’s the story of Jesus “making all things new again.”
Now, the forces of empire knew exactly where they had put Jesus. He was sealed in a tomb, safely locked away where he could not cause them any trouble. In this story, the might of empire is represented by the soldiers guarding the tomb. Look at the reversal that takes place when they are confronted with the power of resurrection, the power of new life. John says, “For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”
God is in the business of creating life where there was no life before. St. Paul notes that the grave has lost its finality, writing: “O death, where is thy sting?” But I probably prefer the formulation of that fine mystic, the English poet John Donne, who said:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
Death is not the end of the story. It’s not even a period, not even a semicolon. Death is nothing more than a comma, a brief pause. You see, when Jesus walked out of the tomb, he didn’t come out alone. God’s love escaped from the tomb, escaped from the grave where the forces of empire tried to contain it.
So, we come back to these stories, these same stories, year after year at about this same time. The church calls them the stories of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. But in a broader sense, they are something more: they are love stories. In fact, they are our love stories. They are stories of God’s love for you and me, of God’s love for humanity.
This is our theology of hope; this is why we call ourselves an Easter People. Our gospel this morning teaches us that the forces of empire do not win. The powers of fear and intimidation and violence do not prevail. Death and grief do not have the last word. Darkness and the forces of hell do not win. Love always wins. Always. And even though we go down to the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!
James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022