Sometimes we, like Mary, are witnesses to resurrection. Heidi Neumark, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Manhattan, describes one such experience in her ministry. She writes,
This dad, who came to Wee Worship with three young sons, was one of the most miserable people I’ve encountered at church. Wee Worship is a service that embraces the needs and gifts of very young children. In addition to looking glum and avoiding eye contact, the dad appeared to be overwhelmed and stressed to the max by the three boys. Conversation was forced and difficult.
Neumark admits that she was sort of relieved when this dad and the three boys stopped coming to “Wee Worship.”
One day, however, she unexpectedly encountered the dad as she waited to sign in for a physical therapy appointment. She says:
I was . . . behind a woman who was chatting with the receptionist. As she turned around, I realized that the chatty woman was the dad. Or rather, a beaming, happy version of the person I’d known, who is actually a woman named Larissa. Larissa looks you in the eye, loves to talk, and exudes a kind of buoyant radiance. Larissa has returned to Wee Worship, and the three boys are much calmer and appear happier too. Such dramatic parental transformations can be challenging for children, but in this case, they seem to be doing well—perhaps because Larissa is far more attentive to them than she was before. They still call her “Dad,” a word she says she’s fine with.
In John’s Easter account, as in the story of Larissa, resurrection is personal. The climax of this Gospel text is the moment in which Jesus speaks the name of his beloved friend: “Mary!” Jesus’ recognition of Mary allows her to recognize him in turn. “Rabbouni,” she responds. It is in this moment of meeting that resurrection happens for Mary. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians, Mary no longer sees in a mirror dimly. She sees face-to-face. Having been named by Jesus, she becomes aware that God knows her fully and loves her completely. Often when people go through life changes, such as a gender transition, or another major shift in their self-understanding or identity, they take a new name. It strikes me that in a similar way, Mary’s name—though it stays the same—takes on a new significance, a different sort of weight, when spoken by the risen Jesus.
Friends, have you experienced a moment like this? When you were recognized. When you were called by your true name. When you knew you were loved. When you became visible. When you were able to live more of your whole self. For me, resurrection has happened in friendship and marriage, in learning how to parent, in making photographs, and in something as seemingly minor as a short tidy haircut that makes me feel like myself.
In this morning’s Gospel, unlike in the other accounts, Mary didn’t come to the tomb with friends, with a job to do. She came alone and she came only to grieve. When she found the grave open and summoned the male disciples to investigate, they took stock of the linen wrappings and the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head. And then they simply went home, seeking comfort and familiarity. But Mary stayed. And she wept and wept, and wept and wept. (The passage mentions her tears four times.) It was truly risky for Mary to make so much space for her grief. It was dangerous for her to linger there in the darkness of pre-dawn, alone with the unsettling mystery of a murdered man’s body gone missing. And yet taking this risk to stay in the disorienting, frightening space of grief is what opened Mary to the possibility of new life.
For Mary, resurrection was personal and intimate, particular to who she was. And at the same time, John’s account makes it clear that resurrection is communal and cosmic. “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…” These opening words point us toward the Creation narrative. The first day of Creation also begins in darkness, as the Spirit of God hovers over the chaos of the great deep. And in Judaism, the day does not begin at dawn. It begins at sunset, as darkness falls. This particular “first day of the week” on which Jesus rose followed the Jewish Sabbath, the day of rest. No one saw the stone rolled away. There were no witnesses as Jesus threw off his grave clothes and emerged from the tomb. Resurrection began in the darkness, began as those Jesus loved were at rest, began with God’s work alone. Whatever happened to Jesus in the dark of the new day that followed the Sabbath rest, it was not a simple resuscitation. Jesus was alive in a different way than before. He had changed so much that Mary could no longer recognize him, and could not hold on to him. Note that Jesus did not send Mary forth with news that was alive. He instead instructed her to proclaim that he was ascending “to my God and your God”—implying that resurrection changes the way we are alive, the quality of our relationship with God.
So Easter is not the reversal of death. No, death is a natural, and important, part of life. Instead, Easter is a repudiation of the way Jesus died, on the cross empire, tormented by the fear, greed, violence, and exhaustion that denies humanity, that fragments souls, that splinters community, and destroys the earth. It is in John’s Gospel alone that the Easter story takes place in a garden. So I don’t think it’s an accident that Mary mistook Jesus for the gardener. Another particularity of John is that misunderstanding becomes a vehicle for revelation, a way of getting underneath obvious and conventional meanings in order to unveil deeper truths. In other words, the risen Jesus isa gardener, of sorts. He collaborates with the Creator to renew and restore the world, recognizing and naming, knowing and loving each member of earth’s community until we become completely and joyfully ourselves.
As an African American, Tricia Hersey, founder of the the Nap Ministry and author of Rest as Resistance,seeks to reclaim stolen “dream space.” She understands naps to be a “portal to imagine, invent and heal.” She writes:
As a child, I would watch my grandmother Ora as she sat on her plastic-covered yellow couch and meditated for thirty minutes every single day. She fled her home in Mississippi with thousands of other African-Americans during the great migration of the 1950s. Ora floated up North on a spaceship built from uncertainty and hope as she landed in Chicago. She magically raised eight children, while dodging poverty, racism and the invisibility of being a Black woman in America. Her commitment to “resting her eyes” every day for thirty minutes was radical. Her ability to demand space to “just be” was a form of resistance.
While my grandmother rested her eyes, I would tiptoe around her home trying not to wake her up. I always thought she was sleeping while sitting up. I was curious about her rest practice and thought she was so eccentric. Whenever I would inquire if she was sleeping, her response was always the same: “Every shut eye ain’t sleep. I am resting my eyes and listening for what God wants to tell me.” While all the world around her was attempting to crush her Spirit, she rested and resisted the beast of grind culture. She taught my mother to rest, she taught me to rest. (pp. 5–6)
Hersey concludes: “I believe rest, sleep, naps, daydreaming, and slowing down can help us all wake up and see the truth of ourselves. Rest is a healing portal to our deepest selves.” (p. 7)
John’s account of Easter certainly resonates with Hersey’s notion that rest, and the reclaiming of our dream space, is key to our collective liberation. Mary waited to come to the tomb until after the Sabbath day was over. And on that first day of the week, while it was still dark, she claimed her dream space—space to be still, space to shed tears, and space to listen for the healing, renewing, creative presence of God. Mary trusted that even in in the wake of unimaginable tragedy, God was at work within the sacred rhythms of community and Creation.
Friends, on this Easter day, Jesus is calling us by our true names. Recognizing us. Knowing us fully, loving us completely. In this encounter, we become visible. We can live all of ourselves. And resurrection happens among us as we call each other’s names, summon each other to new life, and incubate each other’s liberation, as we stand against the grind culture, the ways of crucifixion, as we hold space to stay and rest and grieve, as we tend the garden of a restored creation. Amen.