That first Easter certainly did not start out as a joyous occasion. As we walk along with Mary on her way to the garden tomb, we can feel her heavy heart—heavy from the loss she had suffered and the events she had witnessed. These are expected and, in some ways, ordinary emotions which many of us have felt when we have lost someone we loved or witnessed—up close or through the media—events that leave us saddened, discouraged, and afraid.
But this wasn’t an ordinary morning. It followed a week of extraordinary events. After following Jesus for weeks, months, years, watching him perform miraculous healings and listening to him teach about the kingdom of God coming near, Mary had entered Jerusalem with him amidst cheers and waving palm branches. Then there had been the upset in the temple, and the overheard threats against Jesus. And then there had been the dinner with Jesus, that had started out as an ordinary holiday celebration but ended with Jesus’ strange and frightening words over the bread and wine and his washing of the disciples’ feet. Then there were the arrest, and the trial, and the beatings, and finally the crucifixion.
Jesus, the one she loved, the one in whom she had put all her hope, was dead. How full of sadness and grief her heart must have been. And how fearful she must have felt. After seeing what had happened to Jesus, what would become of those who had followed him? Would they be next? Perhaps Mary had wakened up that morning, terrified that going out alone to the tomb of this executed man would put her own life in jeopardy. But she gathered all her courage, and she went.
She arrives at the tomb and new feelings flood in: astonishment that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb. This fills her with a sense of urgency; she runs to Simon Peter and the other disciple to tell them what she has seen. Her urgency is contagious; they ran to the tomb to see for themselves. The two look inside, see the now-useless wrappings laying where Jesus’ body had been, and they leave.
John tells us nothing about Peter’s reaction. Although he tells us that the other disciple saw and believed, John doesn’t say what the disciple believed. But we can guess that their hearts were puzzled and maybe worried. They didn’t understand that Jesus would rise from the dead, John tells us. So, perhaps they were in a “What now? What next?” frame of mind—worried that the disappearance of Jesus’ body could only be bad news. They leave the garden and go their separate ways, each perhaps dealing with the burden of what they had witnessed and plagued by questions.
We know how Mary reacted, though. The sadness in her heart poured out through her tears. Her heart-felt devotion poured out in her words to the stranger who appeared and asked her why she was crying. And then, in hearing Jesus speak her name, everything changes. The sadness and discouragement drain away, and her heart is flooded with joy—a joy so great that her first impulse is to throw her arms around Jesus.
We’ve been talking all through Lent about how the ancient people understood the heart to be more than just part of their bodies. It was the home of knowledge and thinking and memory, feelings and passions, conscience and decision-making. Action was made possible by what was happening in the heart. We learn from John’s gospel that what was happening in Mary’s joyous heart propelled her to action. She heeded Jesus’ instructions and went to the disciples. But before she gave them his message, she announced “I have seen the Lord!” Imagine the joy in her heart. Imagine her radiant face as she announced the good news that Jesus was alive.
How would we have responded if we had been there, hearing Jesus speak our names? How do we respond now, as we stand before the empty tomb? What fills our hearts? Is it amazement—that God would do something so wonderful for us? Is it relief—that the burden of the sin we carry has been lifted from our shoulders? Is it hope—that in our living Savior, we can have a relationship with God the way it was always intended to be? Are our hearts filled with that great joy that comes from knowing that death does not have the final say, and that in Christ’s resurrection we have the promise of eternal life?
Throughout Lent, we have examined our hearts—our teachable and tempted, obedient and healed, tattooed and divided, hungry and desolate hearts. Today, as the light of the rising sun pours into the morning sky, the light of the Risen Son floods our hearts with joy. With joyous hearts we can announce with Mary, “I have seen the Lord!” With joyous hearts, we can proclaim, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young