Today we celebrate the dawning of a new day and a new world.
But for Jesus’ followers the day started very much under the shadow of the old: in shock at sudden catastrophe: in under 24 hours Jesus had been arrested, tried and executed. And with it the wider movement appeared shattered, pointless. His followers were in hiding, traumatised, afraid for their own lives.
Yet there was work to be done. In the dark before dawn, Mary Magdalene and a few friends went to the tomb for the ritual, grim yet tender, of packing the body with spices.
When she found the tomb empty she feared some further violation. In an atmosphere of grief and fear, Jesus’ teaching about how he would rise again was far from her thoughts.
So she went and told Peter and John and they came running to see for themselves, also failing to understand what it might mean.
At this point John’s gospel is alone in telling of Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus, in the garden outside the tomb. But in her desperate frame of mind even seeming him, in person, does not at first break-through. “Tell me where you have put him?” she asks. She does not expect the “where” to be here, in front of her. So she does not recognise him, until he calls her name.
In that moment a new reality dawns – he is here, alive! And yet it seems that its full significance does not sink in. There is a bewildered quality to Mary’s reaction, as she experiences this shift in her world, a passing through a door into a changed reality.
I am reminded of the feelings expressed at the end of the Second World War, on VE day. While people leapt in the fountains on Trafalgar Square, the soldiers in the field reacted differently. A British Sargent wrote:
“Is this what peace looks like? Is this what it feels like? Here we sit, a group of men who left their homes and families a long time ago, who freed themselves from the routine of daily life in the past to assure their lives in the future. Here we sit, happy to have got through these years full of danger and horror sound of limb and mind. But where is the joy, the enthusiasm that can be expected of us?
And then a Russian soldier, to his mother:
It might sound funny, Mama, but what I’ve longed for most over the last few months was silence. Silence without the thunder of the machine guns, without the roar of shells. Yesterday my superior gave me a pass. The others went trophy-hunting, looking for sub-machine guns, binoculars and medals. I went to the river and spent two hours staring at the flowing water. And in the evening, for the first time in my life, I heard nightingales singing in the bushes.
This is how I imagine Mary and the other disciples on that first Easter Day. No high fives or their first century equivalent. No breaking open of a bottle to celebrate. It was all too raw, too strange. Perhaps this is why the weeks of reflection from here to Pentecost were needed.
As this strange, new truth sinks in, Mary, I imagine, reflects on her unexpected encounter with the two angels and, outside the tomb, with the risen Jesus.
Firstly, there was a surprising intimacy about their meeting. No shining robes, like those he wore at the Transfiguration on the mountain top: it seems safe to assume that, if Mary mistook him for a gardener, then he was not wearing white.
And her immediate reaction is also revealing: She does not fall to the ground in holy fear. Instead, it seems she moves forward instinctively, to embrace him, as she would have done in easier times.
And then I imagine her going over what he said, about ascending “to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” By these words he includes her, as a sister, in the family of God but also in this experience, this passing through death into life, here and now and then after into Heaven.
And her response is also inclusive. She does not linger, she does as he asks, she goes to tell the others. The same impulse, perhaps, which later will propel his followers into the crowds at Pentecost, and across the Roman world.
So her understanding deepens as she absorbs the changed reality. Can it be true? Can it really be this good? Is failure transformed into victory? Is death really overcome?
And so a conviction grows, discovered afresh by Peter in Caesarea, as we heard in our first reading, that the resurrection of Jesus opens the way to new life for all, that this is a new dawn not just for Mary, not just for the disciples, not just for the Jews, but for the whole of creation.
So I pray that we too, like Mary Magdalene, will reach out to embrace our risen Jesus, our brother – even if we are in the moment also a little bewildered, not quite sure what this risen life means. For in him is hope, an assurance of a life over which death has no lasting purchase, a new dawn, the promise of a new world.
Richard Young (Rector)