Each of the four Gospels tells us that Jesus’ empty tomb was first discovered by a woman. 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, the only person attending the tomb of the crucified Jesus 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, the author of the Gospel. 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. (If you watch TV programmes on geological excavations, you will know that this was not an uncommon practice in ancient times.) Mary does not consider that Jesus has been raised from the dead – you could say it is the last thing on her mind.
This particular tomb where Jesus lay belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, a secret follower of Jesus, who had planned it for his own use. However, he 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 [who] has nowhere of his head’ – was buried in a borrowed tomb.
When Peter arrives and 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 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.
The next section in the story, omitted today, goes on to describehow Mary then met a stranger whom she first thought to be the gardener. It was only when this stranger 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 she, as Jesus asked her, went and told the others that the Lord was risen from the dead.
So now what began for Mary and the others as a tragedy – the death of Jesus – ends in joy; their darkness is taken away by the emerging light of the Risen Jesus. And this is the important Easter message for us – whatever darkness engulfs us in personal sadness or even tragedy, there is a Light we can call on to pierce the darkness and give us strength to forge a way ahead.
There has been a powerful and frightening darkness over our land and the whole world this past year, brought on by the terrible sickness, suffering and death caused the coronavirus. For much of the year it every day felt like Good Friday.
But in the midst of all this darkness, there was and continues to be light. What we hoped for, thanks to the efforts of so many people, is being fulfilled as vaccine after vaccine is being distributed and administered.
So let us not forget these people through whom the Risen Christ is reaching out to us every day bringing light and hope into our lives – the scientists and laboratory technicians who have brought us the vaccines; those thousands up and down the country who have selflessly volunteering to help the NHS in a range of roles from administering the vaccine to those stewarding those receiving it; the doctors, nurses, healthcare personnel and carers in nursing homes who have been knowingly risking their lives to tend to the sick; the truck drivers up and down the country who have kept us going with deliveries to our homes and shops; the supermarket workers who kept us fed; all the men and women who provided emergency and essential services; the experts working together to advise our government on how best to deal with the crisis; and, not least, neighbours reaching out to each other, in many cases relating to each other for the first time, offering help and support with shopping and other things, the people Pope Francis calls the undiscovered saints next door. All of these and countless others we could list have brought light to a time of great national and personal darkness.
In the world of nature this is the time of year for new life and rebirth. Our days are now filled with birdsong, blossom and eaves are emerging on tress, plants and shrubs are coming alive once more and all bringing joy to our senses … if we take the time to reflect on the past year and look around us now, we may see that the new light and life of the Resurrection is everywhere.
Holy Name, Jesmond
4 April 2021