Why Are You Weeping?
It is impossible to overstate the importance of this day, the power of this day, the transformation of this day – 2,000 years ago, each year since, and today, April 9th, 2023. We remember the story. We imagine ourselves on the scene. We question and wonder at the telling. And we find ourselves transformed, changed by our own journey to the tomb to find our Lord resurrected.
All of the Gospels tell us it was early in the morning when it was discovered that Jesus’s body was no longer lying where they had laid him. He had died around 3 in the afternoon on Friday, which put them in a bit of a rush to get his body down and properly prepared for burial. Jewish law required that bodies not be left hanging over night. So, the Romans allowed for Jewish criminals to be taken down and buried in a common grave with all the other criminals outside the city gates. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, both members of the Jewish High Council, the Sanhedrin, also were followers of Jesus, and they wanted to give him a proper burial. Joseph went to Pilate, the Roman Governor, and asked for Jesus’ body. He had a new tomb, carved out of the rock in the hillside. It had never been used. Pilate allowed it. Nicodemus came with about 100 pounds of myrrh and aloe. They had to be finished by sundown, the beginning of the Sabbath. So they didn’t have time to observe the proper burial rites of washing and anointing the body with oil, that would have to be done after the Sabbath, on the third day that the body had been lying in the tomb. So, to preserve the body a bit and to combat the smell when they returned, they packed and wrapped his body in the linen cloth and spices. The women were there and saw where he was laid. Joseph rolled a stone across the door, a way to keep animals and vagrants out, to discourage would-be grave robbers.
Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Saturday morning, the chief priests and Pharisees were concerned about Jesus saying while he was alive that he would die and then rise again on the third day. They went to Pilate and asked him to secure the grave so that his disciples wouldn’t steal the body and claim he was alive. Pilate gave them permission to use their own soldiers to secure the grave, so they went and sealed the door and posted a guard.
Each of the Gospel writers records the events of the morning with slight variations. Who came at the crack of dawn? Was it Mary Magdalene and the other Mary like Matthew tells the story, or was that Mary the mother of James, and was Salome there too like Mark records, or was it Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Joanna along with other women like Luke writes? As John recounts the story, it is only Mary Magdalene, there alone. Do the variations in the details matter?
Yes, they do. But not because they make the story that unfolds less believable. In fact, they make it MORE believable. This is a story that everyone who was there has told over and over again, as they experienced it, multiple witnesses lead to seeing different things, hearing different things, remembering different details, finding meaning in different moments. The variations in the accounts of the Gospel writers ring with the truth.
Presbyterian pastor and theologian Frederick Buechner wrote about Easter, “If the Gospel writers had wanted to tell it in a way to convince the world that Jesus indeed rose from the dead, they would presumably have done it with all the skill and fanfare they could muster. Here there is no skill, no fanfare. They seem to be telling it simply the way it was. The narrative is as fragmented, shadowy, incomplete as life itself. When it comes to just what happened, there can be no certainty. That something unimaginable happened, there can be no doubt.”
I was thinking about an example to help illustrate this concept – an event in my life that the way I told it would be different from the way someone else would tell it. Every significant life-changing experience rose to that criteria: births, moves, weddings, health crises. Each person in my family had different concerns, different perspectives on those days. Each of my family members and friends who lived through those days with me would tell you about them from our own perspective, and the fact that the details would be slightly different would not make those less actual days…in fact, they would make your picture of those days more full.
John is focused, as he tells about Jesus’ resurrection, on Mary Magdalene. Even before the sun had begun to cast shadows in the night, she went to the tomb and found that the stone had been disturbed. She ran back to the disciples – afraid to get too close to the tomb for fear the grave robbers might still be close, furious that someone had disturbed his body, panicked that they didn’t know where the body was to offer him the dignity of a proper burial as a final gesture of reverence. The Scripture text can be read calmly, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” But, surely, the words were jumbled and her heart was racing as she tried to catch her breath, “He’s gone! It’s gone…his body. It was open, and empty. The stone…they rolled it away. They took his body. We don’t know where!” The disciples come and see, and go back to their homes. Nothing to do now about it.
Mary stays, though. Weeping. Pulling herself together, and falling apart again. He’s gone. Not just dead, but now even his body…she didn’t get to say goodbye. To quietly, lovingly, have a few final moments – not for him, she knew the body was just a vessel to hold the gift of life breathed by God into us, for her, to look at him, to hold his torn hands in hers, to wash away the agony from his face. Hands shaking, she leans down and holds onto the mouth of the cave as she leans in to look for herself. Through the tears in her eyes, she saw two figures, one where Jesus’ feet had been, the other near his head, emanating light. They must have been angels. “Woman,” they asked, “why are you crying?” Did they not realize? Why were they here, even though he wasn’t? “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” she responds through the pang of heart-wrenching sorrow. As she draws a deep breath, she turns to go. A man blocked her path, standing just behind her at the entrance to the tomb. He, too, asks her “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” He knows about the body, that it is missing! Maybe he didn’t know who he was, maybe he was a servant of Joseph of Arimathea and had removed the body from the tomb not knowing why someone who wasn’t family had been placed there….maybe…dare she hope…his body hadn’t been desecrated, dumped for animals to find and feed on… “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
As soon as her name escaped his lips, she knew – her heart leapt and her arms encircled him “Rabboni!” It was the name all of his disciples called him, the Hebrew title given by students to their spiritual mentors, “Rabboni!”, “My Teacher!”
It was clear she wasn’t letting go. She couldn’t. Emotions suspended, time frozen – Jesus calls her back. “Do not hold me. I have not yet ascended to the Father, but soon I will. Go, tell the others.”
Again, the ring of truth, each of the Gospels records that women are the first to share the Good News of Christ’s Resurrection. If it were not so, no one in the 1st Century, trying to write down the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection to preserve it and pass it on to the next generation, would have inserted a female there.
Another thing about the story strikes me. She never answers why she is crying. She says, “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him.” But that isn’t WHY she is crying. She is crying because all hope is lost. He won’t save them. He won’t be the Messiah they had been waiting for. Rome will stand. Oppression will continue. She is crying because she had hoped. She had believed.
She didn’t recognize him at first, but when he said her name. “Mary.” The flood of joy and hope reverberated through every cell of her being! She could have held him there forever.
Why are you weeping? What hope have you given up on? This morning, you may not recognize his presence with you right now, but Jesus is saying your name, his eyes shimmering with love as he sees you completely.
Go ahead, wrap your arms around him and let him enfold you in his.
There is no way to explain or orchestrate how Jesus comes to us. We sometimes say he lives in our hearts, but that can be confusing if we take it literally.
Ethel Waters, known for singing “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” at Billy Graham Crusades in her autobiography describes that moment for her, a young African-American girl growing up in poverty in Philadelphia. It was the last night of revival, a revival that had been extended 3 extra night just because of her. She describes getting down on her knees again that night. “I told myself, ‘If nothing happens tonight, I’ll not come back again.’ Nobody had come that night to the meeting, nobody but the very old people who were always there. I was praying hard and hopefully, asking God, “What am I seeking here? What do I want of You? Help me! If nothing happens, I can’t come back here anymore!”
And then it happened! The peace of heart and of mind, the peace I had been seeking all my life.”
Jesus nudged Mary Magdalene, “You can’t hold me. Go, tell the others.” Mary Magdalene relaxed her embrace. The same, but different. She returned to the disciples proclaiming, “I have seen the Lord!”
Ethel Waters got back up. The same young girl, but different. She still was given in marriage in 1908 at 12 years old and began working as a chambermaid in a hotel at 13, but she kept singing first in a night club then on Broadway and in movies, her faith remained strong throughout. In the 1960’s she began traveling and singing with Billy Graham.
Why are you weeping? Do you hear Jesus speaking your name?
You can’t hold onto him. You can’t live in that moment of recognizing him and reverberating with joy forever. Everything you face in your life won’t be instantly set right or joyful or transformed. But you will be, that is what is happening. Amen.