Jeremiah 31:1-6, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Acts 10:34-43, John 20:1-18
When we were planning the music for this service, Aleeza told me that one possibility for Jeffrey Mandelbaum to sing was the Ebarme dich from the St. Matthew Passion. You just heard how simply beautiful it is—the interplay of violin and voice, the grief sustained in understatement. But how can this aria for Good Friday be appropriate on Easter?
Then I realized that Jeffrey could sing it for Mary Magdalene. Her weeping is central to the Easter story. Twice she gets asked it, “Woman, why are you weeping?” It was through her tears that she was the first person to see Jesus alive again.
I’m imagining the scene like from a movie by Tarkovsky (visually like Nostalgia but with the soundtrack from Sacrifice). You see an open garden in the dim light of early morning, and in the middle distance you notice a tomb. You watch different characters come into view and do different things and then leave again, and then one woman comes back, and she crumples down outside the tomb, and the camera patiently watches her. From the music you can tell that she is weeping, it’s the Erbarme dich by Bach. Woman, why are you weeping?
Woman of Syria, why are you weeping? Woman of South Sudan, why are you weeping? Mother of Trayvon, why are you weeping? Woman of Palestine, why are you weeping? Mother Eve, cast out of the garden, why are you weeping? Jesus, outside the tomb of Lazarus, why are you weeping? It’s usually a Good Friday question, but our gospel makes it an Easter question. Have any of you been weeping much of late?
I have, the last few months. Since October 8, when the Access Hollywood tape came out, and since then the sanctioning of violence all around as good and right and our prerogative, and the national enhancement of selfishness and fear. And not just here, around the world. Last Easter I was more optimistic than I am right now. I know the world is actually not that different than it was a year ago, but the future looks different than it did then, the future looks darker, drier, hotter, more aggressive, more fearful, defensive, divided, and devoid of hope.
So while Mary Magdalene was grieving the loss of her beloved teacher, she was also grieving the loss of the future she had seen in him, the future he said that he would bring. All the hopes and dreams of Israel he had personalized within himself—that he was the resurrection and he was the life and he was the light and with him the kingdom of God had come, and now that he was dead, there was nothing left over, all that was deadness too. Their whole relationship with God had died with him. God had forsaken him upon the cross, God forsook them all, and she was God-forsaken too.
You can weep with her that God is dead. You can weep with her a godless world. A world without God that has no need of God. Where the right is determined by those who take power, and order is the protection of their interests, and justice their enforcement. The world looked worse to Mary Magdalene than it had before he came. The best is resignation, or just go back to her old sins.
When she peers into the tomb, the angels ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Don’t they know why? Do they lack empathy, have angels no imaginations? Why don’t they tell her the good news why she does not have to weep? At least they don’t tell her not to. Maybe she has to, maybe her weeping is the proper welcome for the resurrection. Who needs a resurrection if everything is fine and dandy and you are satisfied and gratified with a lovely bourgeois life? Who needs hope? Do we need to let ourselves weep for ourselves and for the world rightly to welcome the resurrection?
Why does she obsess about the absence of his body? This certainly counters the philosophical interpretation of Easter that his rising again is only a metaphor for the spiritual uplift of the human soul that he inspired in them. But Jesus is not the Buddha, and the gospel was not written by Plato. The Bible is all about embodiment, the soul is for the body, not against it, the promises of God are all embodied promises, and if the body of Jesus is gone, then God does not remember them, God does not care. Then death and violence are more powerful than God, and so is absence, emptiness, deadness, nothingness. She wants his body to hold off the nothingness a little while.
Then she looks behind her at a man of course she wouldn’t recognize because she knows he’s dead. “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” She doesn’t answer him—she assumes he already knows whom she is seeking. “Just tell me where you put him.” Then he calls her by name. And when she hears her name she recognizes him. He was seeking her! He found her in her God-forsakeness. He offers no explanation how he’s alive again. His answer to her abandonment is just to say her name.
Is that not what you want from God, less an analytical demonstration of the doctrines than to have some sense of the presence of God? For most of you the opposite of belief is not unbelief in the sense of logical dispute, but rather despair, discouragement, and existential doubt. It’s less there is no God than God is the great disappointment, the great abandonment, and since we can manage our lives without God anyway, why bother with God at all. Unless God calls you by your name. And that’s why you are here today. You can’t keep yourself away from God.
Jesus never explained how he rose. He never offered reasoning to make it more believable. What actually happened to Jesus between his death and his post-resurrection appearances to his witnesses the New Testament does not profess to know. It is simply called “raising the dead,” and raising the dead has no historical analogy in human experience, it has no verifiability. The only analogy the Bible ever offers to the raising of Jesus is the future resurrection of us all, and that will be verifiable only after the argument is settled! So what you are left with is a choice, and that not without risk!
What he did offer his witnesses was just the evidence of his living body. His real prior physical body, though somehow modified. Because the promises of God are all embodied promises. Your body is that piece of the real world that you are, and for which you are responsible. The corporeality of your body is your solidarity with the whole creation, the biosphere, the soil, the climate. The creation is groaning from all the evil that human sin has let loose in it, and for this we all should weep.
His evidence was also the allowance of her weeping, that weeping instead of stoicism is the right response to loss and death and suffering. That weeping instead of cynicism is the right response to violence and injustice. That you start with weeping before you move to action. You can fight back if you have been weeping first. Weeping acknowledges that things are not what they should be, that the world is good and that it’s not so is a grief. The alternative is to accept the world as cruel and bad, to which we must respond in fear and self-aggrandizement, and take what we want, and force ourselves on other men and force ourselves on women, and force ourselves upon the world. This is your choice, and if you take Easter as the pledge of God, than you can live by hope instead of fear and resignation. Not so much from optimism in humanity, but choosing for hope because of God.
Easter is most certainly a joyful day, a peppermint day, a hopeful day, with its promise of new life, the promise of eternal life, the victory of life over death. Yet Mary is allowed to weep today because this eternal life is hidden beneath its opposite, the eternal life of Jesus is not some ethereal, disembodied bliss, it is rather embodied and therefore hidden under trial, suffering, death, and sorrow.
But this negativity is also its latency, its ground, as with Bach’s Erbarme dich, when the violins rise and rise to heights of beauty upon the sustained plaintiveness of the human voice. Because the Christian hope is not bliss but love within suffering—that love has power to enter into suffering, and right within that suffering to generate greater love. This is the love that is stronger than death. In love he calls her name, Mary, in love she answers Rabbouni. The Easter gospel is a love story.
The witnesses to Our Lord’s resurrection have left for us their testimonies, and their testimonies are an invitation. The invitation is for you once again take the resurrection of Jesus as the pledge of God to you, the pledge that the peace of God is stronger than the violence of men; that generosity has more clout than fear; that though evil is strong, God’s love for the world is stronger than the world, so that your faithful actions are not in vain; and that though death is strong, God’s love for you is stronger than your death. In the words of Jeremiah, I am the Lord, I have loved you with an everlasting love. Take your tambourines. Go forth in the dance of the merrymakers! Christ is risen, Alleluia.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.