John’s Easter story begins at night. “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb…” In the other Gospels, Easter happens in the morning. Luke says “At early dawn.” Matthew agrees: “As the first day of the week was dawning.” And Mark offers: “When the sun had risen.” But in John’s Gospel, Mary discovered the stone rolled away in that most disorienting part of the night: the darkness that comes before the dawn. Barbara Brown Taylor writes this:
“Though Christians speak of ‘witnesses to the resurrection,’ there were no witnesses. Everyone who saw Jesus alive again saw him after.… Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But it did not happen that way. Whatever happened to Jesus between Saturday and Sunday, it happened in the dark, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air. It happened where no one but him could talk about it later, and he did not talk about it – at least not so anyone could explain it to anyone else.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/barbara-brown-taylor/learning-to-wait-in-the-dark_b_5175191.html)
Resurrection happens while it is still dark. It happens to us, as it did to Jesus, and Mary, as we wander in the desolate graveyards of our lives. I doubt that Mary came to the tomb with any hope or expectation. But she came, and that is what matters. She came into that space of grief, terror and disorientation when it would have been easier, and safer, to run away and hide. Mary came, and she stayed, even as she realized the tomb was empty, even as she processed the possibility that someone had desecrated her loved one’s grave and stolen his body. Mary knew what to do with death. She knew how to grieve, how to lose. But she, like us, had no idea what to make of resurrection.
Last Sunday afternoon, our family collapsed on the couch to munch on a dinner of popcorn and enjoy a classic movie of my childhood: “E.T.” The young boy, Eliot, quickly realizes that the strange-looking alien he encounters in a dark cornfield is friendly and intelligent. The two grow to be best friends, soul mates, telepathically linked. They feel each other’s feelings and share the same experiences, which is sometimes hilarious and sometimes tragic. Meanwhile, the adults in the story assume that E.T. is dangerous. They search for him with big trucks, guns, and high-powered flashlights. They quarantine him to assure he won’t spread diseases. They imprison him and turn him into an object of study. With the help of Eliot’s big brother, his teenage friends, and their flying bikes, E.T. escapes from those who are hunting him. In the shadows of the forest on a deep, dark night, E.T.’s space ship touches down to pick him up. Boy and alien must say goodbye. E.T. invites Eliot to accompany him, “Come.” But Eliot replies, “Stay.” Neither friend can live in the home of the other, they realize. In the moment of parting that is both a death and a resurrection, the end of one kind of life and the beginning of another, E.T. touches Eliot’s forehead and says, “I’ll be right here.”
Showing our almost 5 year-old-daughter, Eliza, this film right before bedtime wasn’t our best parenting decision ever. It really did haunt her. It took her hours to get to sleep and she could only sleep when Momma Jen crawled into bed with her. There are some scary moments in the movie, but I don’t think it was fear that kept Eliza awake. It seemed to be the story itself that gripped her and would not let her go. In the dark quiet of that long night, she had to wrestle with big feelings and questions, with the grief and the shock and the loss of a death and resurrection story, as well as it joy and blessing.
Resurrection happens while it is still dark, in the shadowy hours, when it is difficult to see anything at all, let alone recognize another person. When Jesus appeared to Mary, she did not know him until he named her, until he called out “Mary!” Historian and theologian Marcus Borg writes, “I am sometimes accused of not believing in Easter because it does not matter to me whether Jesus’s tomb was actually empty and whether something utterly miraculous happened to his corpse – what is commonly called a ‘physical bodily resurrection.’”
“I regard it as a fact of history that Jesus was experienced after his death as a living figure of the present and not just as a dearly-remembered figure of the past. That is the unanimous testimony of early Christianity as we know it from the New Testament. It begins with the earliest documents, the genuine letters of Paul…. Paul’s testimony is especially striking because he had been a strident opponent of the Jesus movement in the first few years after Jesus’s execution. In his first letter to his Christ-community in Corinth, written about 20 years before the first gospel, Paul tells us that Jesus ‘appeared’ to him and radically changed his life (15.3-8). (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/marcusborg/2014/04/easter-again/)
Resurrection is a mysterious change that God works in us and for us in the deepest, darkest hours of the night. Resurrection is a world-altering event but it also makes itself known to us in small daily ways. Resurrection is finding peace at the deathbed of a dear friend. It is a continuing relationship with a loved one who has died. It is the act of re-membering—tending the memories—of those who live with dementia. It is a decision to leave an abusive relationship, to seek treatment for an addiction or eating disorder, to forgive someone who has harmed us. Resurrection is the bird-song, the green, and the wet, fresh smell of Spring.
A friend and colleague spoke up at a meeting recently. The group was discussing racial equity and the systems that knowingly and unknowingly hold people back. When this friend gets excited she’s not afraid to show it. “You know,” she said, “I’m finally figuring this out: I teeter between hope and despair… But despair is the easy way out, it gets us off the hook. Hope calls us to be accountable to do something.” Resurrection overcomes our complacency, it refuses to accept our acquiescence to the world’s evils as “just the way things are.” Resurrection is liberation from fear, from apathy, and from guilt. Resurrection is God’s YES to our NO.
One summer, I guided canoe trips with groups of teenagers in the Boundary Waters. “Let’s get up early tomorrow morning and watch the sunrise,” I suggested to one group of travelers. I was surprised when they agreed. We got up while it was still dark. Very dark. And cold, though it was summer. The moon and stars twinkled over the silent lake. We set our canoes reverently in the water, paddling toward a sheer cliff known as the Palisades. We landed at the footpath and climbed to the tippy top. We sat, and waited a while. Still dark. We waited and waited some more. Still dark. I was getting cold, falling asleep. After a long, long time, I thought the darkness had faded a little. It seemed like the outlines of the rocks and trees were maybe growing a bit clearer.
Though I have always wanted to be a morning person, I have learned that I am not. So I am rarely up before dawn. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never really paid attention to when and how the sun rises. I roused our group from our sleep waaaay earlier than needed. Believe me, that didn’t go over very well with our sleepy group of teens. That morning, I learned firsthand just how long it takes for darkness to fade, and just how gradually the dawn appears.
Resurrection happens in the dark that lingers before the morning. And like the coming of day, it is not generally an instant fix, but a gradual process of change, the slow but sure dawning of a new kind of life. In the dark, we sleep on decisions and pray to wake with some clarity. In the dark, seeds get their start. In the dark, we slowly realize that we can go on after a loss. In the dark, we reach out, however tenuously, to name the pain and begin to heal. Come to the tomb, your tomb, with Jesus, with Mary and Peter, with all the faithful who give us strength and faith. Come while it is still dark. Come, for Christ, the risen one, meets us there, calls us by name, and revives us to live again. Amen.