Alleluia, Christ is risen!
So we have proclaimed, and so, I imagine, we believe. I wonder what it would have been like to have been there.
I love this story in John’s Gospel. There is so much detail, so many little personal touches. Unlike John, really – so much of his Gospel is a formalised account, and you only get a couple of glimpses of Jesus as a person, unlike in the synoptics. But here is one of the intensely personal stories. You can’t help but get the impression that it is an eyewitness account.
Imagine, then, what it would have been like for Mary Magdalene. The third day after her dear Friend, her dear Teacher, some even say her Husband, had been killed. Yesterday had been the Sabbath; she couldn’t do anything then except sit at home and weep, and when the Sabbath ended, it was night, and there was no way she could go to the tomb after dark – nobody was going to let her go. But now it is morning; dawn hasn’t quite broken yet, but it’ll be light soon. It must have been about five o’clock, I think – dawn in Jerusalem at this time of year is about half-past five, a little earlier than for us. Mary hasn’t slept, or she’s woken up early, and creeps out of the house and makes her way to the tomb where, two days earlier, she had helped lay her Master’s body. Perhaps she’ll feel better if she can just see the body one last time. Some of the other accounts imply that they hadn’t quite finished embalming the body, and wanted to do that before it got too nasty.
And Mary walks up to the tomb – and finds the stone is rolled away from in front of it, and the tomb is empty! There must have been grave-robbers at work! Oh, it’s too bad of them. Couldn’t they have left his body in peace? So Mary rushes off in despair to find Peter and John – although quite what she thought they’d be able to do isn’t clear. Perhaps she hoped they would have more authority to ask awkward questions of the powers-that-be than she had. Anyway, she finds them, and rushes up to them in floods of tears.
“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him!” So Peter and John rush up to have a look, and see what she is talking about. John is the fastest, but when he reaches the tomb he just stops and peers in. Perhaps Mary was wrong – he doesn’t want to trample on his dear Friend’s body Or perhaps he’s a bit overcome by it all. Anyway, whatever, he just stops and peers in. Peter rushes up and rushes in, not stopping to look first – how typically Peter, somehow. And John follows him in, hoping perhaps to try and stop him making yet another gaffe. And then they both see.
The graveclothes are still there. It isn’t that the whole package, graveclothes and all, has been taken away, it’s just that the body has been taken out of the clothes. And the bit that had been round the head, the bit that Mary and John had wrapped round together, that’s still there, too, lying separately. It really looks as though the shroud hasn’t been disturbed at all. How very weird. Almost as though – could it be?
Peter and John look at each other with a wild surmise. Perhaps it’s true? All those heavy hints that he had dropped? Without a word they rush off back to tell the others.
And they forget about poor Mary, who has gone off to have a good cry by herself somewhere.
Typically male, don’t you think? Mary has come to them for help, and they suddenly rush off without even telling her what they think might just possibly have happened.
Mary is too busy crying, just at first, to realise that they’ve gone, but all of a sudden she realises that it’s gone quiet, so she peers into the tomb. And there are these two beings dressed in white. Hang about, that’s not Peter and John, is it? Who are they, and when did they arrive?
“What’s the matter?” they ask her. “Why are you crying?”
She explains, “They’ve taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they’ve put him!”
Then she feels someone behind her.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how Mary needs to be with the body to get her grieving done. The thing she really minds is that she won't know where the memorial, the tomb, is.
That says something to us, I think, about how we grieve for those we love.
Mary can’t see beyond the fact that the beloved body has gone missing: she won’t know where to bring flowers in the future; she won’t be able to finish off the embalming...
And when a man, whom she assumes is the gardener, asks her what’s wrong, she says again, “Where is he? Have you moved him? Where did you put him? Please tell me, please?”
And then the man suddenly says, in that well-known, familiar, much-loved voice: “Mary!”
And Mary takes another look. She blinks. She rubs her eyes. She pinches herself. No, she’s not dreaming. It really, really is! “Oh, my dearest Lord!” she cries, and flings herself into his arms.
We’re not told how long they spent hugging, talking, explaining and weeping in each other’s arms, but eventually Jesus gently explains that, although he’s perfectly alive, and that this is a really real body one can hug, he won’t be around on earth forever, but will ascend to the Father. He can’t stop with Mary for now, but she should go back and tell the others all about it. And so, we are told, she does.
Well, that’s the story. The question is, is it true? Was there really a physical resurrection? Does it matter? Isn’t it true that what really matters is that Jesus is alive today?
Well, that’s quite a point, of course. The one thing that really matters is that Jesus is alive today. But as St Paul said in his Letter to the Corinthians, the whole point is that if the Resurrection didn’t happen, he’s a fraud and our faith is futile. In other words, we might as well go home. For St Paul, if Christ is not raised, our sins are not forgiven, and we have no hope of everlasting life.
Even that begs the question slightly, for Paul might just have been talking about a spiritual resurrection – after all, we know that our own bodies, when we’ve finished with them, will either be buried or burnt, but we will expect the bit of us that matters to go on. Obviously, if we don’t believe even in a spiritual resurrection, what are we doing here?
The question is, does it matter whether or not we believe that Jesus’ body was raised? That he wasn’t a ghost of some sort, but in a genuine body one could hug, that could eat and drink, that could walk, talk, break bread, and, one assumes, eliminate.
People say, oh but the Gospel accounts are contradictory, they are writing what they would have liked to have happened, etc. I, personally, believe that the very fact that the Gospel accounts do tend to be different in the details makes it all the more likely to be true.
If it were just wishful thinking, their accounts would tally far more, and there is absolutely no way in the world they would have had it that the first people to meet the risen Jesus were women! In those days, women’s testimony simply didn’t count. Women were not supposed to be able to tell the truth, or something. If you wanted a witness, he had to be male. So absolutely no way would the stories, if they were made up, or wishful thinking, have had the first witnesses be women.
But does it matter? I believe it’s true; you may or may not. But does it matter? In one sense, yes, it does matter. The Resurrection is, after all, totally central to our whole faith. If it didn’t happen, then we might just as well all go home, as St Paul so rightly says.
But the most important thing of all, of course, is that Jesus is alive today! The Resurrection is important, it’s central, yes. But if it is just an episode in history, no matter how true, no matter how well documented; if it’s just history like the Second World War or the Gunpowder Plot, then it doesn’t really affect us at all. But the fact that Jesus is alive today, the fact that he can, through the Holy Spirit, come and indwell us, you and me, the fact that we can know God’s forgiveness and healing and wholeness – that’s what matters! And for that we say “Alleluia!