She rose on the first day of the week and went to the tomb when it was yet dark.
Barbara Brown Taylor talks about walking in the dark – how it’s a practice we, as Christians, have lost. Speaking about her new book based entirely on this concept, she discusses how our vocabulary often paints darkness as a bad thing, but she says, if we look at the stories in the Bible, and not just the words, darkness is a place of mystery, of wonder and of God’s presence.
When asked what her working definition of darkness was, she answered, “Darkness is everything I do not know, cannot control, and am often afraid of. But that’s just the beginner’s definition. If I am a believer in God, then darkness is also where God dwells. God may also be frightening and uncontrollable and largely unknown to me, yet I decide to trust God anyway.”
Mary walked in the darkness that first Easter morning. Very possibly it was one of those mornings where the fact that the sun would rise felt traitorous – one of those mornings when she thought how could the sun continue to rise, even after such a dear friend was put to death, after everything they had worked towards had come to a complete and grinding halt. How could life continue after something like that?
Still, she chose to go to the tomb, to that dark, mysterious, unknowable place, alone, and I’m reminded of a quote from Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, where Dumbledore tells Harry: “There is nothing to be feared from a body, Harry, any more than there is anything to be feared from the darkness. Lord Voldemort, who of course secretly fears both, disagrees. But once again he reveals his own lack of wisdom. It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more.”
Death is an unknowable, uncontrollable, mysterious place, and Mary was still walking in its shadow that first Easter morning when she visited Jesus’ tomb.
Having lived beside a graveyard, it’s something I’ve seen a lot of people do – visit the place where their loved one is buried. Most often shortly after the person is buried, and then less, and less gradually. I imagine there are any number of reasons for this – coming to terms with the death, still wanting a connection with the deceased, but I think also, looking for hope.
Some might say a graveyard is a strange place to look for hope, but resurrection begins in the dark. It’s only when we come to terms with death that we can truly find hope. It’s in those dark places that God finds us, and surprises us with grace. Whether we’re there because we’ve gone willingly or were forced, God’s grace dwells in those dark places. God’s grace surprises us in those dark places. We are not alone, and the unexpected can happen. The requirement of us? To be present with our minds, bodies and souls.
Mary was willing to be present, and alone – at least until she realized something was different: the stone of the tomb had been removed. No one person could have done that by themselves, it was too heavy. So she went to find Peter and the beloved disciple, they all ran back to try to ascertain what was going on. Could someone really have stooped so low as to remove Jesus’ body? And over Passover? They’d make themselves ritually unclean. The men stooped and walked in, only to find the body really and truly missing, and the grave clothes set aside. John’s gospel tells us that they believed, but didn’t understand that Jesus had risen. They believed then that God was still at work in the darkness of the tomb, and in the mystery of life and death, but they had no clue what that might look like. With that knowledge, and the early dawn, they went back to their homes.
Mary however, stayed. The only possibility she could fathom was that someone took Jesus’ body. She stayed by the tomb and sobbed, but as she grieved in that early dawn, she was greeted by two strangers in brilliant clothing, mysteriously sitting where Jesus’ body had been – two who had not been present a moment before, asking her why she was weeping. Then a voice from behind, someone calling her name. A gardener? It had to be, no one else would be present, but no – not a gardener, Jesus. She was the first to see him alive. In a world where women were undervalued, this woman was the first to see and know that Jesus had risen from the dead, not a ghost, not a zombie, but a real person. She was the first to share the news with her fellow disciples. And this, because she was willing to walk in the darkness, to tend to it as it stayed within her, to question and persevere in her understanding of events. And there, in the darkness, she saw encountered grace and the message of Easter.
Resurrection living means refusing to remain bound by the grave clothes – those things that would keep us in death; it means refusing to let the tombstone seal our fate, and it means refusing the idea that death has the last word.
Resurrection living is trusting that God dwells in the darkness, and there, is willing to meet us in our vulnerability, our uncertainty and our vulnerability, so that death does not have the last word.
Resurrection living starts in the darkness, it requires the darkness and cannot be separated from it. Like a seed, it requires the darkness to germinate, and to grow into something more. It needs the mystery and unknown of the darkness in which to root itself so that it can grow into something strong.
Resurrection living happens slowly – just as the disciples were scared, still filled with grief, didn’t believe, couldn’t recognize, mistook Jesus for a gardener, a stranger, a ghost, it takes us a while to find Christ in our midst. Just as seeds don’t germinate the instant they are put in the ground, and caterpillars don’t turn into butterflies the moment they create a cocoon, it may take us more than one trip to the tomb, more than one good cry in the dark, more than one glance at the people in our lives to recognize that Christ is indeed risen.
So whether we shout alleluia with our hearts, minds, souls and voices; say it with uncertainty; or whisper it with hope, may we be assured that Easter is within us, working in the mysterious darkness to bring about hope, grace and new life. Alleluia, Christ is risen.
**with grateful nods to Barbara Brown Taylor and sicutlocutusest on