Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

In the Hours Before Dawn

Two Marys arrive at the tomb in the hour before dawn.  They carry spices and other supplies, perhaps unsure that the men who entombed Jesus in the short moments before the start of the Sabbath had time to do a thorough job.  Perhaps they wanted to add their own touch, or needed to be with Jesus one last time.  We don’t know.  We do know that they didn’t come expecting to find anything other than the body of their teacher, their master, and their friend.  Whatever they wanted to do, they wanted to do early, before people were up and about, probably before they would be seen.

The Marys were sensible women.  They knew the way things are in this world.  Yes they’d seen the Teacher perform amazing signs, including the raising of their brother and friend Lazarus.  But now Lazarus had a price on his head, and besides, if the one who called him back from the grave was dead himself, how would he call himself back?  No, he was gone, and it was possible that anyone associated with him was in danger.  That’s why the men were in hiding.  Their hopes and dreams were blasted, and they were in despair.  So, this morning it would be just this last courtesy, this final parting and goodbye.

We may find it difficult to fully empathize with the Marys, because we know how the story turns out.  No immersion in the scripture readings and the liturgies of Holy Week can make us unknow what happens next.  The closest we can come is to recall our own experiences of loss, particularly unexpected traumatic loss.  Remember that, and then multiply it several times over, because even in our own losses, we as persons of faith find hope in the experience that came next for the Marys.

Busy with the work and duties of grieving, they are shocked and alarmed to find the tomb empty.  Who has taken him?  Where is his body?  What are they going to do with it?  And then, beyond all expectation, come the answers.  Angelic figures speak of him as “risen,” and charge the women to inform the men.  Women, to inform the men?  Oh, but women aren’t accepted as valid witnesses – no, but then it wasn’t proper to heal people on the Sabbath either.  So the women become the first evangelists, apostles to the Apostles.  Ponder that bit of scripture if you want to keep women from preaching.  Later, they encounter him in person: not a hallucination, not a dream or vision, not a ghost, but himself.  Himself, but with something different: he appears to dwell in two worlds at once. Locked doors are no obstacle, but he enjoys some grilled fish.  At first he mustn’t be touched, but a week later he invites skeptical Thomas to do just that.
The world is turned inside out, or is it actually set right side up?  Nothing will ever be the same again, and over the next fifty days a bewildering series of encounters makes that point.  “Oh,” say the skeptics, that’s the problem: the story is confusing and even seems to contradict itself in places.”  “Yes,” we may reply, “That’s just the point.  Real events in this world are confusing, and often seem to hold contradictions, but made-up stories are usually quite tidy, and when lots of different witnesses agree on all the details, you can be pretty sure someone handed them a script.”

Our challenge, two millennia later, knowing the whole story, is to retell it in such a way that we convey some of the despair Jesus’ followers felt from Friday through Saturday, some of the confusion that came with Easter morning, and finally the joy of grasping the reality of the resurrection.  God grant us all the gift of glimpsing the fullness of this day that changed history.

Howard MacMullen
© April, 2014

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