John 20: 1-18
There is a delightful children story called ‘Can’t you sleep little bear’ it is about Little Bear who is afraid of the dark. Big bear brings night lights and lanterns but nothing helps as Little Bear knows that outside the cave there is that scary darkness. Eventually Big Bear takes Little Bear outside the cave to look up to the sky and face his fears. When Little Bear sees the moon and the stars, shining far above dispelling the darkness, he is at last able to go to sleep never again to be afraid of the dark.
The disciples and Jesus’ close friends had lived through a roller coaster of emotion during the first Holy Week. They had been carried along by the cheering crowds on Palm Sunday. They had experienced the intimacy of sharing the Passover Supper with Jesus; and then the fear, the shame, the despair and the grief of his arrest, trial and horrific death. Under those circumstances the deadness of grief almost seems welcome and there is a comfort in the dark but in the background there is that lurking fear. It is natural to be afraid of the dark, but this story is also about being afraid of the light.
Peter and John had left Mary alone by the tomb weeping, she was no longer afraid of the darkness but now she is frightened of the light. As she looks into the tomb there is light shining from two figures who ought not to be there. Angels who should not exist in the real world in a garden in Jerusalem. There is another light that morning. This one is from someone who should be dead. Both break into the darkness of grief and despair with a searing white light of hope and joy and Mary is afraid. Grief she understands, but this new thing, this unexpected joy, this painful bright light, this is terrifying. We are so familiar with the Easter Story that we forget just how extraordinary it was. Mary had never seen an angel in her life, let alone two of them.
The two angels appear to her as a sort of advance guard to the appearance of Jesus himself: preparing the ground, so to speak. They offer no explanation about what has happened, and their function here seems to be to ask just one vital question: “Woman, why are you weeping?” Lost in her grief, Mary answers their question in the only way she can: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Immediately the angels are forgotten as Jesus appears behind her, although she does not know that it is him. Jesus repeats the angels’ question “Woman, why are you weeping?” before grabbing Mary’s attention even more closely: “For whom are you looking?”
Mary answers this helpful stranger, thinking him to be the gardener. It may seem strange to us that she is face to face with Jesus but completely fails to recognise him; it is only when Jesus calls her by name that joyful recognition dawns. But this failure to recognise is a common feature in the Gospel accounts of the disciples’ early meetings with the resurrected Christ. In John 21, Jesus appears to the disciples on the beach just after daybreak, but the disciples do not know that it is him. Similarly, in Luke’ account when Jesus accompanies two unnamed disciples on the road to Emmaus, it is only when Jesus breaks bread for them that they recognise their travelling companion.
There is a wealth of teaching to be drawn from this passage, but two points will have to suffice this morning. The first concerns the virtue of patience. Peter and John ran to the tomb and, having seen the discarded grave clothes, ran home again. Would they have seen more if they had, like Mary, remained at the tomb? Obviously we can never know for certain, but what we do know is that by staying there with her pain and confusion, rather than running away, Mary was shown a reality beyond her wildest imaginings. Jesus was alive! When we experience fear and despair our natural instinct is usually to try and run away. But this passage encourages us to resist that temptation and stay with the thing that is causing our distress, because only then will we be able to see the deeper purposes of God working through it.
And secondly, there is the question of non-recognition. It simply didn’t occur to Mary that the man standing behind her could possibly be Jesus, so she failed to see what was right in front of her eyes. Our faith teaches us that Jesus is everywhere – but how frequently do we fail to see the Jesus who is reaching out to us? We are challenged to seek him continually, even in the most unlikely of places, and especially the dark places. How often do we fail to recognise him in the people and the situations we meet day by day, even when – as he was with Mary, hidden in plain sight?
Mary had every right to be afraid, a bright light had pieced the darkness of the world and nothing would ever be the same again. Dark death had been overcome. The world had been turned upside down, which meant there would be consequences. There would be no return to the safety of domesticity for Mary – now she had a commission to fulfil ‘ Go and tell.’ There is no safety for us either, if the glorious light of the truth of Easter shines into our hearts today then the words of Jesus are the same for us. ‘Do not be afraid, go and tell.’
May the enfolding love of God, who calls each of us by name,
keep you safe from all that would harm your soul.
May you be strengthened each moment of your daily life,
so that you may discern God’s presence in all things.