While it was still dark….
There’s just something about that phrase John uses.
He didn’t just say, “Early on the first day of the week,” which might have been enough for most people describing the scene. But not for John.
While it was still dark… You see, it wasn’t “early” that mattered for John. It was the darkness.
While it was still dark…the world—empty of light—and not only the world, but Mary too.
Do you see here there in the darkness—just making her journey to the place where Jesus’ body lay—just trudging along in a world that is…empty…empty of light…and because the one Mary had come to believe in—Jesus—the one in whom Mary had trusted—because that one was sealed in a tomb,the world was also empty of hope…empty of joy…empty of everything Mary had trusted—and everything she had believed.
Do you see her there? Walking through the emptiness that marked the world—that marked her spirit. Just walking. While it was still dark. And she is empty.
She is just—empty.
Maybe you know what that walk is like, and what it’s like to wander through life feeling empty.
Maybe you once had a child who needed you—who depended on you—and you built your life around them—just loving them and caring for them. And then they did exactly what children are supposed to do—they grew up—and now? Well, now they don’t need you like they did before. And you are just empty.
Or perhaps you had a job that you worked every day until you could retire…and then you did retire—and you find yourself looking at your calendar and seeing empty hours stretching into empty days stretching into empty weeks. And you desperately search for some purpose to fill the empty spaces in your calendar to fill the empty space inside of you.
Or maybe you had pinned your hopes on someone to fill your life—someone to love—and someone to love you—and then they left—or you left—or they died—and nothing is certain in your life any longer, save one thing—the way you feel. You just feel empty…
Like Mary…making her way to the tomb… While it was still dark…
But even in the darkness, you can see Mary’s tears.
John wants us to see Mary’s tears—I mean, did you hear them mentioned in the text four times?—and John wants us to know that Mary is not just confused or terrified as she is shown in the other gospels on this morning.
No, John alone paints a picture of Mary as one who grieves.
And Mary’s grief is about more than just Jesus dying, because when Mary gets to the tomb and finds it empty, she understands that the loss of Jesus’ body means that nothing of him remains—no hint that he was ever really present—that there is no place now that is not empty of him.
She had thought it couldn’t get any worse. But now it has. The powers of darkness have not only killed him—they have wiped out all trace of him. And his tomb is gutted.
As someone wrote, “(The tomb’s) horribly open mouth taunts Mary with news not just of death—but of nothingness.” And the evidence suggests that the claims and promises of Jesus were—like his tomb—empty.
And when Mary finds the body missing, she runs to Simon Peter and the other disciple, and her grief is raw. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t where they have laid him.” And they run back to the tomb—finding it still empty—and then, when the two disciples leave Mary alone at that empty tomb, her heart just breaks.
And she weeps. And her tears are a testament to the darkness.
But they are also something more.
Mary’s tears are also the clue to our facing of it, of our facing the darkness that Jesus came to destroy.
John wants us to know that Mary’s grief—and her tears—don’t mean that Easter is not for her. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Mary, who feels so desperately empty after Jesus’ death—and every one of us here or outside of this place who are grieving some loss—we are the ones most eligible for Easter.
But the problem for us who grieve—is that even though we are most eligible for Easter—we are also the ones who may not be able to see it when it comes.
Maybe you noticed the irony in the text. Mary is talking with Jesus himself, but she is looking for his dead body. She wants to find the one who took Jesus away—when it was Jesus himself who walked away on his own. And she even asks the living Jesus with whom she is talking to give back the dead Jesus she came looking for, because she just doesn’t recognize what is going on.
But how could she? To all of it, Mary is oblivious. She cannot see who the strangers are, because there are tears in her eyes. And she cannot recognize the voice of Jesus, because there is a constant roar of injustice ringing in her ears. In the darkness of her grief, in the emptiness of her spirit, Mary is more eligible for Easter than anyone…and yet, and yet she has no idea.
I read a question about this text the other day:
“Is it possible that we in our grief or anger or shame have been missing the risen Christ in our midst, that we have been stumbling over angels announcing the good news?”
And I had a fresh answer.
This past Tuesday, one of my children had a choir concert at their school—Eastern Mennonite. We found out about it about 4 o’clock that afternoon. Another child was sick, I had a meeting, another child didn’t want to go, so Alayne and I drew straws, and I won—or lost—depending on how you look at it.
I had to go to my meeting for a bit at least. So I rushed my child into the car, caring little about the abruptness of my tone. I rushed to the meeting and struggled to find a place to park…and a place to meet…and my frustration just kept growing. I dashed out and got my child back in the car for the silent drive to the auditorium. And I dropped her off and went to park. And I didn’t want to go in—you know how that is—I didn’t want to see or talk to anybody.
So I went out and just started walking…round and round…step after step…determined not to enter until I was certain that the concern was about to begin.
I enter the auditorium at 7:31 for a 7:30 concert and immediately get even more frustrated. Everyone has done what I hate…sitting on the end and blocking every row…with all of those empty seats in the middle…so then I had to do what they hate…I had to climb over them as the concert was about to begin…and when I found a seat and sat down, I was just seething.
The anger. The frustration. The grief that lies buried within me…it was all there…just simmering. And I began to wonder how long this thing was going to last.
I looked up, and the stage was empty. The risers were there, but no one was on them. And the choir director walked across the stage and invited us to sing…and I didn’t want to sing. And then he announced the hymn—one I didn’t know.
Great. I thought. Now I know you love it when I choose an unfamiliar hymn for you to sing, but I don’t like it. Not one bit.
And I stood to sing, and we sang those first words, the words of a prayer…”Jesus, stand among us….” and as we sang that line, the choir began to walk onstage, and one by one they filled the risers.
And we kept singing:
Jesus, stand among us
In Thy risen power;
Let this time of worship
Be a hallowed hour.
Breathe the Holy Spirit
Into every heart;
Bid the fears and sorrows
From each soul depart.
And I realized as I sang that hymn I did not want to sing that tears were filling my eyes, and when the song ended, I sat down and jotted some thoughts on my program so that I wouldn’t forget.
I wrote something like this: “Jesus stand among us…and then those beautiful children came filing in, and I wondered: Is it possible that the risen Christ is all around me, but I miss it?”
So when I read that question “Is it possible that we in our grief or anger or shame have been missing the risen Christ in our midst, that we have been stumbling over angels announcing the good news?” When I read that question…I knew the answer. In my grief and anger and shame, I was most eligible for Easter. But, like Mary, I almost missed it.
Mary, you see, is walking away, when Jesus calls her name. And the sound of it stops her in her tracks…and the truth breaks through, and she turns, and the risen Christ is all that she sees.
In John’s Gospel, this is the moment when the resurrection is declared. No angels have announced that Jesus is risen. His calling of her name is that announcement. And this announcement is made not by telling her who he is, but by his reminding her of who she is. It was the sound of her name from that voice that she finally recognized, from the voice of one who knows her completely.
For Mary—and perhaps for us—this is the turning point.
You see, Jesus tells Mary not to hold onto him—there will be no clinging to what was. Everything is new. And for Mary—part of that newness is a new calling. And that calling is the exact opposite of holding on to Jesus, as Jesus sends her, commissioning her…crowing her life with purpose, “Go and tell my brothers.”
Her commission is to be—as the early church said of her—the apostle to the apostles. And did you catch her first word to them?
“I have seen the Lord.”
And now it is Easter, because the one who has seen Jesus through the prism of her tears is the first one who can say, “I have seen the Lord.” And she can speak with power and with joy, because the living Christ has overturned her grief.
Thank God she didn’t miss it.
And can’t you just hear her song:
You change my grief to joy-filled dance;
my sorrows you destroy.
In faithfulness you hear my cry
and fill my life with joy.
And so to you my heart shall sing;
my voice your goodness raise.
You are my God, forevermore.
My life shall sing your praise.