Each of the four Gospels tells us that Jesus’ empty tomb was first discovered by women. This is notable because in first-century Jewish society women could not serve as legal witnesses. In the case of John’s Gospel, our text for today and written early in the second century, the only woman attending the tomb is Mary of Magdala.
Mary has gone to the tomb where Christ’s body lay just as we will visit the grave or resting place of a loved one. We do it as part of our mourning, as people did in Mary’s time. When she arrives, she is simply said to have observed that the stone sealing the tomb had been moved, and she runs to alert Simon Peter and a person referred to as ‘the beloved disciple’, possibly St John himself. Her statement to them is telling. She assumes that Jesus’ body has been removed, perhaps stolen. This is because thieves would raid tombs if they thought precious items of jewellery and other valuables were stored with the body. Mary does not consider that Jesus has been raised from the dead.
This particular tomb belonged to Joseph of Arimathea who had planned it for his own use but gave it up as an act of charity for the burial of Jesus. So Jesus – who in life referred to himself as the Son of Man with nowhere of his own to lay his head – was buried in a borrowed tomb.
(Thinking about this I cannot help being aware of the bodies of those killed by the coronavirus having to be stored in temporary morgues, and their families unable to give them a proper burial or resting place.)
When Peter enters the tomb he sees that although the body is missing the burial garments that wrapped it are neatly folded. This suggests that the body of Jesus was not stolen: thieves would not have taken the time to fold the linen shroud and lay the face cloth in a separate place. As with Mary Magdalen, Peter also does not consider that Jesus has been raised from the dead – Jews did not believe in the resurrection. .
The next section in the story, omitted today, goes on to describe how Mary then met a stranger whom she first thought to be the gardener. It was only when he spoke that she realised it was, in fact, Jesus. Thus she became not only the first person to meet the Risen Jesus but went on to become, what Pope Francis calls, the first Apostle of the Resurrection when, at his request, she left to tell the other disciples what had happened.
So now what began for Mary and the others as a tragedy – the death of Jesus and their hopes in him – ends in joy. Their darkness gives way to light.
Here we are today with a heavy darkness over our land and elsewhere, brought on by a plague of terrible sickness, suffering and death. Although it’s Easter Sunday, it feels more like Good Friday.
The Christopher Movement has a saying: Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. And doing so helps us to see that there is light all around us at this grave time.
Think of those hundreds of thousands of people who selflessly have volunteered to help the NHS if called upon; the doctors, nurses and healthcare workers, and carers in nursing homes, not only risking their lives to tend to the sick but some actually dying in the course of their service; the truck drivers up and down the country continuing to work long hours to make deliveries to our homes and shops; the supermarket workers stacking those shelves to keep us fed; all the men and women who continue to provide emergency and essential services; the experts working together to advise our government on how best to deal with the crisis; the researchers and scientists working flat out to find a vaccine for the disease; and, not least, neighbours reaching out to each other, in many cases speaking to one other for the first time, to offer help and support – who Pope Francis calls the undiscovered saints next door. All of them – and countless other example you could list, I am sure – bringing light to this time of darkness.
In the world of nature this is the time of year for new life and rebirth. Our days are filled with birdsong, no longer drowned out by the relentless noise of traffic; the skies and air are clearer with less pollution; leaves and blossom are covering the tress we’ve scarcely noticed before; the grass, plants and shrubs are coming alive once more; and complete strangers smile when passing each other when taking their daily exercise.
Nothing can take away the worry, havoc, loss and grief brought on by the pandemic. However, is it just possible that we are becoming better people and, maybe, a better country because of what is happening to us? In that sense, if we take the time to look around and reflect, many of us will see that the new life of the Resurrection is all around us.
Holy Name, Jesmond
12 April 2020