I Have Seen the Lord!
Easter, 2013, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, John 20:1-18
I saw Mary Magdalene in a new light this year. The events on Easter morning begin with Mary going to the tomb where Jesus’ body was laid--very, very early in the morning, before sunrise. I thought of her as one of those people who camp out on Thanksgiving so they can be the first in line to snap up all the fabulous sales that retailers have planned because the day after Thanksgiving is the traditional start of the Christmas shopping season. I am not one of these people, but they fascinate me. I don’t especially like camping, I never go camping in the winter and I really, really hate to shop. I know people who shop for fun, as recreation. I don’t get that, but as I said it fascinates me. [By the way, I heard on the news last year, that most of these shoppers are buying things...for themselves]]
In the case of the passage from John’s gospel this morning, Mary is not trying to be the first in line to get a terrific price on a piece of audio equipment, she is getting the earliest possible start to do one final kindness to her dear friend. She’s standing there with her toes on the threshold of the mall, so she can be the first one to tend to her friend’s corpse.
Jesus died on Friday about 3:00 in the afternoon. We heard the story on Friday of how Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea hurried to get Jesus’ body off the cross and into a tomb nearby because it was the day of Preparation before the Sabbath. At sundown Friday the Sabbath began and work was forbidden. That means even washing a body and preparing it for burial was against the law. Jesus died more quickly than anyone expected. They did not have to break his legs, though in some cases that’s a merciful thing to do because it would hasten death.
According to Jewish law Mary could not do anything to care for the body from sun down Friday until sun down Saturday. By then it would be too dark to go to the tomb until sunrise on Sunday.
So Mary really was determined to be there for Jesus at the earliest possible moment. Like a Black Friday shopper. There was a time when Christians referred to Good Friday as Black Friday. Is there a worse day in the year for us? We’ve journeyed with Christ to cross and recognize that we also have abandoned him. The hope and exuberant joy we felt on Palm Sunday was soon replaced by stories of betrayal, arrest and horrible physical suffering. Even after death, there wasn’t time for a proper burial, but a quick, provisional placement of the body because of the impending Sabbath.
Mary Magdalene was ready at the earliest possible moment to tend to her dear friend’s body. Someone pointed this out to me last week: caring for a dead body is a kindness that can never be repaid. There is no possible way that one can ever hope to have this favor returned. What Mary was so eager to do, may be the most truly altruistic act anyone can do for someone else. I had never thought of it that way before. Our customs around death are so different from first century Palestine’s. Joseph and Nicodemus also acted altruistically right after Jesus died. And they were prominent members of the Jewish leadership. They brought myrrh and aloes, to preserve the body at least until the Sabbath ended and someone could come along and do things properly.
And Joseph and Nicodemus took a chance in caring for Jesus who had died in such disgrace.
I wonder what that Saturday was like for Mary. The only words in the gospels about that day are “They rested on the Sabbath in keeping with the commandment.” [Luke 23:56b] I am confident that Mary & the others obeyed the commandment not to work, but I’m sure they were very emotional throughout that day, feeling deep grief, shock, sadness—and being unable to show a final, selfless bit of kindness to their friend. Maybe Mary didn’t sleep all night. Maybe she didn’t even try to sleep and just paced throughout the night until finally, she went to the tomb even when it was too dark to see, so she could do something at last.
And what she saw was quite upsetting, the stone that had sealed the tomb had been rolled away! Someone had gotten to the tomb first, someone, maybe, had violated the Sabbath and, she was certain, gone into the tomb and taken the body away. Her chance to care for her friend, her chance to truly begin the grief process—we might imagine in modern terms—had been taken away from her. She came to the obvious conclusion—someone had taken the body!
Now to us, on this side of the resurrection, to Christians who know the story so well, the empty tomb is the first sign of the greatest possible news. But the first ones to see this sign and symbol, did not take it that way. Mary was holding onto the notion that Jesus had died and she was there at the first possible moment to do what she could…and she couldn’t do it! At one level she might have felt cheated, I know that sounds odd, but think about it—she’d planned to take care of her friend’s body, she was ready for that. Eager even, getting to the tomb before there was enough light to see—and someone was keeping her from doing that! Have you ever planned a pleasant surprise for someone in your family—and it just didn’t work out as you’d planned? Mary’s going through that, along with grief and confusion.
There’s another sign in this story that points to the resurrection that I had never noticed before. There’s verse 7 that reads this way in the Common English Bible, “[Simon Peter] saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place.” That has always seemed like an odd and insignificant detail to me. The big pieces of fabric that Jesus’ body had been wrapped in were in a heap on the tomb floor, but the other bit was folded up. So?
An alert member sent me this explanation for the folded up napkin last year. The explanation is based in the customs of table manners back in the first century. When the servant set the dinner table for the master, things all had their proper place. The servant would stand out of his master’s sight until he had finished eating. When the master finished, he would stand up, wipe his hands and mouth with the napkin and toss it onto the table. That’s the first century equivalent of saying “check please.” When the master stood up and folded his napkin and placed it beside his plate, it meant, “I’m coming back.”
I have to admit I do not know whether this is true. But it does explain why the gospel’s author would add this little detail. The first people who heard this story might have understood immediately the significance of a folded napkin, and seen that as a bit of foreshadowing as the story unfolded. Another sign of the resurrection.
Mary stood at the tomb crying. Angels spoke to her, asking why she was crying. And she tells them the idea that she’s clinging to, that somebody took away Jesus’ body. She’s so fixed on the corpse that she is not even upset that she having a conversation with angels. Next Jesus speaks to her, and she turns from looking into the tomb to facing Jesus, but she assumes that she’s talking to the gardener. Who else would be walking around there before dawn? Oh, and the last person she’d expect to be talking to at this time is Jesus.
Only when he calls her by name, does she turn to him a second time and recognize him. Here is the first witness to the resurrection--did I mention this is the best possible news—and it takes repeated signs before she understands this miracle. There’s the empty tomb, the folded napkin, the first time Jesus speaks and she doesn’t recognize him…finally, he calls her by name and she gets it! She gets this fact: Christ is risen!
She is the first one to hear and understand this world-changing message. And she is there because she is acting out of love to her friend. Acting out of love, doing something for which she can never be repaid. Mary was the first one to know that Christ is risen, and she is the first witness when we tell this story—as we need to do often, because she was putting another person’s well-being ahead of her own. In the midst of her sadness and confusion she saw, touched, heard and felt that Christ is alive. She had a personal experience and then she left the cemetery early in the morning, saying, “I have seen the Lord!”