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Music used for this service is licensed under OneLicense A-727478 and CCLI 20776078.
Text: John 20:1 – 17
The morning, before sunrise, even in the arid climate, is still cold. The sun is still below the horizon; only the barest flicker of dawn, a slight brightening of the sky, lets one know that the cold will not last forever, but it will be hot and dry again. For now, there is dew on the spring grass. Breath condenses in the air before her and sprays her own face as she walks through it.
The world seems bleak. She can see, but everything is still a shadow, just silhouetted against the lightening sky. Buildings, animals wandering the street, the sleeping forms of beggars who have found places to curl up with the animals to keep warm. Behind her, to the east, the looming hill, the wall, and the temple stand over her. She is walking away from them, toward the darkest part of the sky.
She is nervous. She is carrying something expensive and precious. Perfume. The last little bit of it that she had saved. She is a lone woman carrying something expensive. Ahead, she sees a flicker of firelight and hears voices talking in a language she does not understand. Probably soldiers, around a fire, on watch. She turns down another street.
Fortunately, not another soul seems to be up. This morning is quiet unlike any other morning. She hears some sounds from some of the houses. The women always have to be up before the men, to prepare everything. She has to be back soon, to help the other women, but she has a task to do first.
She has not dressed warm enough. She pulls in her single shawl, trying to keep out the cold. Her panting and shivering sound so loud, so very loud. The voices of the soldiers grow louder for a moment, but then quiet.
Above her, there is starlight. The stars in their course continue on; it will be a clear day. She thinks for a moment that the brightest one is almost directly overhead. That doesn’t make sense; the brightest one should be the morning star in the east. Her eyes are still cloudy; it is too early.
When she arrives at the gate, it’s open. No guards are posted; they don’t have to be. Soon, farmers will be going out, shepherds will be coming in. Almost soon. An hour until daybreak, maybe.
And there, silhouetted against the black sky of the west, is a low hill.
She stops and gazes into the darkness. Her mind is blank as she does so. No thoughts, no feelings. Not even really the memories of what happened. All of those have been spent by now. All she can do is look. Everything is still. No noise, no movement. No wind shakes the dry grass. Even the sound of her breathing seems muted.
She was the last to leave on Friday. At the end of the day, it was just her, his mother, and his beloved. When they had taken him down, and placed the cloth over him, and the three of them had pushed the stone into place, his mother, unable to stand anymore, had collapsed into the arms of his beloved, and he carried her back. But she stayed, did what work she had to, and watched the sun set ahead of her, and then she could do no more.
Finally, she comes to the tomb. The first thing she notices is that there is no one there; she had heard that they wanted to post a guard, but guards always abandoned their posts if they wanted to get drunk or find a woman. No one was going to rob the tomb of a penniless criminal.
The air is not getting warmer, but light is starting to creep over the horizon behind her as she rounds the path. She can just barely start to see colours now. Desert flowers, white and yellow, grow along the path, gently tended to by gardeners, still closed until the warm sunlight finally hits them. The only sound is the crushing of dirt beneath her sandals.
And then she sees it, and the clay jar breaks as she drops it, shattering the silence of the morning. The rest of the expensive perfume anoints the rocks and earth at her feet.
The stone has been rolled away. It is there, to the side.
She stands for half a minute, then turns and runs back to the east.
Five minutes later, Peter awakes to banging on the door and a cry of grief. His head is cloudy; the past two days he has kept his feelings and grief down with wine. The one he was sharing a room with, the beloved, also stirs. Peter grabs a sword, ready to fight, if the guards have found them. He was done with this; there was no hope any more. Might as well go down fighting.
She bursts through the doorway. Her hair is dishevelled, her eyes red; snot drips from her nose down her face as she struggles to breathe through her tears. He glances behind her, expecting any minute to see soldiers chasing her. He moves to pull her into the room, to guard her, but she pushes his hand aside and grabs at his shoulders.
“They have taken him!”
“What? Taken who?”
“They have taken the Lord!”
Peter can only be dumbfounded at hearing this. Who? and Why?
“They have taken him out of the tomb and I do not know where they have laid him!”
In seconds, Peter and John have thrown on their shirts and run out of the house, barefoot. They disappear down the street. She worries that they are going to alert the soldiers she had passed earlier. She does not run after them, only walks, as hesitantly as when she was first going out. The sky is still lighter, the soft glowing blue of morning just before daybreak, the horizon behind her, just framing the outline of the temple, is a band of pink. She can hear movement as people are awakening.
A rooster crows.
When she arrives again at the tomb, the beloved disciple is sitting against the rolled-away stone, weeping. Peter is inside, and she can barely see with the light from the unrisen sun. The clothes were folded neatly in the centre of the tomb, but Peter has kicked them. The shroud that was put over his head is lying on the ground next to the entrance. Peter picks it up and with a scream of rage tears it in two. The linen rips right through the centre.
He throws it to the ground and begins sobbing. She says nothing, only stares at its emptiness.
For minutes, the three of them are locked into the tableau. Peter stands, wipes his eyes with his shirt. The beloved is curled into a ball, his head between his knees, wrapping his arms around himself. The tomb is filled with the sound of their weeping—it is an ugly, raw, heartfelt weeping, full of disgusting sniffs and drips and fully-felt pain and grief, all the leftover grief of the past three days finally landing in their chests—and her stunned silence.
And then, finally, she can bear no more. She was still standing on Friday, when even his mother collapsed. She was standing on Saturday, when she should have been resting. Now, finally, she can take no more and falls to the ground, weeping as well.
Peter stumbles out past her, not even looking at her. The beloved stands up and follows, places a hand on her shoulder, but she doesn’t get up. He follows Peter back into the city.
As she kneels on the ground, the first breeze of morning picks up and swirls around her. She had forgotten how cold she was, and there now is the first breath of desert warmth.
In a still and small voice, she hears, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
She looks up, first to her side. Has John come back? No, it is not his voice. Instead, she looks into the tomb and sees two figures. Through her tears, she can’t make them out. Are they men or women? Soldiers? Other disciples? Strangers? She pushes herself to her feet, hobbling in exhaustion, and stumbles forward into the tomb.
They are two figures, androgynous, and robed in white. She has never seen anyone like them. They look at her with kind eyes.
She tries, through her phlegm-blocked throat, to say anything. Who are you? Why are you here?
All she can get out is what she has already said. “They have taken him, and I do not know where they have laid him!” She says it so fast, just trying to get it out. She says it again, and again.
“Woman, why are you weeping?” A different voice says this, one from behind her.
The tomb faces the east. Sunlight breaks forth as she turns around. It shines directly into the tomb and pierces her eyes. She squints, puts her hand in front of her, trying to see, and sees only a silhouette.
She forces herself to slow down. Every word is agony through a grieving chest, through blocked airways, through eyes made raw by the salt of her tears.
“If . . . you . . . have . . . taken . . . him . . . tell . . . me . . . where . . .”
And then, in a moment, her breath stops. Her eyes instantly clear. A blast of warm desert air fills the tomb and freezes her where she stands, as the silhouette steps into the tomb.
* * *
I wanted to write the sermon like this to try and express something. We can talk about what Easter means and the theological meaning of Resurrection, but the reality is that Easter is an experience we feel, deep in our souls. Good Friday is something far too many of us have experienced, but when we experience Easter as well, we know it. It is what God feels like. It is something we have to share with others. We can only really know what it was like by being with Mary there as she sees Jesus for the first time, and hears him call her by name.
Mary was the last to leave the cross; Mary was the first to see the risen Christ. In all your Crucifixions, may you remain near the cross. In all your Resurrections, may you feel the light of Easter morning and see the stone rolled away. At the end of it, no sermon is ever going to replace those experiences; you are going to have to live them.
He is risen indeed. Hallelujah. Amen.