In the darkness before dawn a woman is weeping. The darkness underlines the woman’s desolation. A man she loves deeply has just been brutally killed. Worse still, it seems that His tomb has been violated and His body taken. Her despair, fear and disorientation are overwhelming. The bottom has dropped out of her world. In this darkness, Mary returns to the tomb, she goes back to the place of death. As she bends low into the grave, the sun begins to rise.
Of the four Gospel writers, it is only John who uses the word ‘garden’ when describing the place where Jesus was betrayed and the place where He was buried. The garden theme is continued when Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener. The use of this word takes us back to the paradise garden of Eden, and to the beginning of things, which is exactly where St. John begins his Gospel. But the garden has been spoilt by mistrust and betrayal. Then, here, with the early morning risen presence of betrayed and crucified Love, it is as if the garden of burial has become a new Paradise, a new creation, redeemed by the love sacrifice of Christ.
The encounter in the garden between Jesus and Mary Magdalene has become so familiar that it’s easy to miss the most astonishing things about it. For the risen Jesus to have made Himself known first, not to the eleven remaining men who made up His close band of disciples, not even to Peter, perhaps the disciple closest to Him, but to a woman, is striking in itself. But there is something even more astonishing – once Mary has recognised Jesus, He asks her to ‘go to my brothers’ with a message. She is sent out of the garden carrying the news that Jesus is ascending to His Father and our Father, to His God and our God. It is to Mary Magdalene that the resurrection Gospel is entrusted. It is a woman’s voice that makes that first proclamation, after which nothing will ever be the same again. She who, in first century Jewish life, would not have been expected to have any voice beyond her home and family. She, Mary, is the apostle to the apostles, the one who is sent out by Jesus, to tell them the news of His resurrection life.
She can hardly believe it. In the garden that day, when Mary meets Jesus. there is an incredulity that is captured in that famous painting by Titian, ‘Noli me tangere’, ‘Do not touch me’. ‘Rabbouni’, she cries, in that first moment of recognition. But Jesus immediately pulls back. ‘Do not hold on to me’, He says.
Harry Williams begins his book, ‘True Resurrection’, by bemoaning the fact that resurrection has invariably been seen as in the past, belonging to another place and time, or as in the future, as an event that will happen to us after our own death. He makes a plea for resurrection to have its impact on the present. He does his best to re-root resurrection in the here and now. This is what he says –
Resurrection as a present miracle does not deliver us from the turmoil and fragmentedness of being human. The miracle is to be found precisely within the daily routine of our lives. Resurrection occurs to us as we are, and its coming is generally quiet and unobtrusive: we may hardly be aware of its creative power. It is often only later that we realise that in some way or other we have been raised to the newness of life.
Williams goes on to offer several examples of deadness, in creative or artistic powers, in relationships, in lives affected by depression or pain or loss, and of how the miracle of resurrection can be seen as people move through and beyond the dryness and darkness and emptiness into something new and vibrant and creative.
So, where can we see resurrection today? When and where do we see the risen life of Christ at work? I’ll give you an example of where I’ve seen it, and you will be able to think of your own examples. When I was a newly ordained curate, Neil Spencer, my training incumbent, died - it was a very dark and difficult time. In fact it was one of those times when you think things can’t get any worse, and then they just do. Just before Neil’s funeral was due to start, one of our parishioners went into cardiac arrest on the church steps and the funeral cortege waited at the top of the road whilst paramedics tried several times before they managed to revive him. I spent the next few weeks in a blur of hospital visiting, and trying to carry on with the life and work of the benefice as best I could. A short while later a woman I hardly knew stopped me in the village and handed me the most beautiful bunch of tulips. Spring was on its way, but I had barely noticed it. Suddenly, in that moment I could see the risen Christ at work, bringing healing and new life, and it made me realise why I do what I do and believe what I believe.
The resurrection is about embracing new life now. Jesus can be truly encountered in the present, through prayer, through Scripture, through the lives, the love, the acts of kindness and the witness of those around us and those who have gone before us, through the created world, and through the broken bread and wine outpoured, the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. These things are real and can be experienced. If you look closely you can see lives transformed by them. And, perhaps above all, Jesus waits for us in the future too, with the promise of eternal life and eternal joy. Life and joy that will never, ever end. There is no promise better than that. And He calls us to seek Him afresh now, in every generation and in every situation, because He is, quite simply, alive.
Noli me Tangere ~ Titian