The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
April 21, 2019
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:18)
Friends, we have walked once more the Way of the Cross and come again to Easter--the celebration of our Lord’s Resurrection. On Maundy Thursday Fr Carlos invited us to experience God not merely as an idea but as the one who is, revealed in the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ--to have our feet washed, and to experience the presence of God’s all-encompassing love in the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood.
We watched and prayed in the garden all night long with our Lord, and on Friday we mourned his crucifixion, reflecting both on the historical event itself and on the nature of sin and evil. Mother Kathryn invited us into the experience of our Lady, Mary, the Mother of God--how she mourned her son’s death--but also understood that he would triumph over death. The cross, Mtr Kathryn reflected, is like a black hole--a nexus of collapse--a place into which death and destruction fall--but paradoxically a place, too, where new life springs forth--a promise that Christ has conquered death and sin, even in the midst of death itself.
And last night, at the Vigil, we lit the first fire of Easter, came by candlelight into this space, were reminded of our death and resurrection in the font of our baptism, and celebrated the joy of the first mass of Easter--as time stopped and the ancient mystery of the resurrection unfolded. Fr Patrick placed the historical event of Christ’s resurrection on a cosmic scale, inviting us to see the implications for ourselves--and for the present day--in light of Christ’s triumph over death--to see beyond what the world may call an idle tale--to the deep truth of God’s faithfulness, God’s power, and God’s desire and love for us.
And today, in the new light of day, we pray our Sunday rounds together, celebrate the resurrection, and receive again his presence in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood--we proclaim the Body of Christ. And we hear again the story of his resurrection--today through the person of Mary Magdalene, the first to see the empty tomb. We hear the story of how she came to recognize the risen Lord Jesus in the garden--and how she shared that good news with the world.
Each time I hear this story I’m struck by that image of how the world turns for Mary--how initially she believes Jesus is dead, and she’s looking for his body--but suddenly, when he calls her name, she recognizes him, the man whom she first thought was the gardener, but now knows as the Lord of Life, her friend and teacher, Jesus.
When I hear that story my mind fixes on her confusion. How could she not recognize this person she loved so much--this person who loved her so much?
And it reminds me of another time of mistaken identity--one that was quite understandable.
Before I was ordained, when I was working at a community center in Atlanta, Georgia, I bought a condo. It was the first home I’d owned. The price was right, so naturally renovation was required. The condo was in a pre-war building off Piedmont Park that had seen better days. I spent about a month working with my father and friends and family installing new hardwood floors, molding, bathroom fixtures and tile, and painting everything. It was a wholly new space by the time we were done--and I was glad we were finished. But one of the most interesting things I remember about the renovation was meeting my next door neighbor. One afternoon as I was on a ladder painting he stopped by, walked in the door which had been propped open, and began to talk to me--no introductions, just talk about painting and carpentry. Before I knew it, he was asking me if I could stop by his apartment and give him a bid for renovations. He had assumed I was a professional painter, not just an amateur do-it-yourself sort--and when I introduced myself as his neighbor, we both laughed and were glad to have met one another.
I think of that story--that case of mistaken identity--every time I hear this story in the gospel. Mary Magdalene doesn’t recognize the risen Jesus. She thinks he’s the gardener. Now, this is I suppose an understandable mistake--like my neighbor that thought I was the painter--because I was painting. Jesus was after all not in the tomb where Mary thought he’d be; he was, in fact, in the garden. And surely through her tears, or in her grief, or just through the shock of it all, she can’t be expected to recognize our Lord on first glance. Except that Mary had known Jesus for three years! She’d been with him, with the disciples, everywhere, and financially supported Jesus’s ministry . She’d entered Jerusalem with him, maybe even been at table with him, had been by the cross at the crucifixion, had helped bury him--and she was returning to attend to his body again. How could Mary, who knew Jesus so well, not recognize him?
I suppose it’s not so very surprising, however. For don’t we too fail to recognize the risen Jesus in our own day? In our own lives? Mary knew Jesus for three years, but we’ve known Jesus for two thousand years. How can we failing to recognize Jesus’s face today?
There is something that Mary and we share in this failure to recognize. There’s something more going on here than mistaken identity. There’s a fundamental problem in what we are looking for--what we are expecting.
Listen again to Mary. She believes that Jesus’s body has been taken away--she says this to Peter and John, who then go to the tomb, look in, and seeing the grave clothes, leave--believing, we assume, that Jesus’s dead body has been taken away. She returns to the tomb, weeping, and angels ask her, “Why are you weeping?” And she repeats what she believes--that Jesus’s body has been taken away. Finally she says to the man she believes to be the gardener, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him.” Three times Mary expects that Jesus is dead--and his body has been carried away. She cannot imagine that Jesus is alive. She expects to see death when she comes to the tomb.
This makes sense, doesn’t it. We cannot fault Mary for having cloudy vision, or being overwhelmed with grief. Mary is sensible--she knows the physical laws of nature, she knows she has seen the dead body of her friend, and she knows his corpse should still be there--but it is not--so surely someone has moved it.
If we move beyond the historical event of Jesus’s body in that space and time, in that place, there with Mary, if we look into our present day, would we not assume the same thing? Would we not also believe that death has the final word? After all, that’s certainly what it looks like to our eyes--to our consciousness. In the midst of life we are in death, the funeral anthem we read at the Holy Saturday liturgy says, and isn’t it true?
When I think of the tapestry of musical sounds here on Easter Day we hear sounds of great beauty--bells, organ voluntaries, plainchant with the richness of organum, anthems and psalms and hymns, all sounds that lift our senses to a place of joy and hope and peace, they seem otherworldly when compared to some of the soundscape of our city.
But part of the sound tapestry of New Haven is something different. What we know about the world is something other than what we might experience in this place. For woven in and amongst the shouts of joy and bubble of convivial conversations amongst her residents is also the sound of sirens wailing all day and night, emergent responses to disaster, illness, peril, and even death. Gunshots, the sound of violence, and screams, deep wailing--these are the sounds for some in our fair city. Across the world, today in Sri Lanka, where almost two hundred have been killed in churches and hotels this morning, the explosion of bombs shatters the stillness of the morning calm. Calling out, begging, the voices of desperation in our streets, even the sounds of addiction weave together the tapestry of need, of loneliness, and anxiety. And the quiet desperation of those who are alone, who are without hope, that silence fills the warp and weft of the tapestry of sound. We might be understanding of those among us -- of ourselves -- if we were to miss the voice of Jesus calling out, “Mary!” If we were to miss, amongst the voices of death, the voice of our Lord calling out our name in love.
But Mary does not hold her expectation of death for long. She hears Jesus’s voice calling out her name--Mary!-- and instantly she recognizes him. Her confusion falls away, and immediately she knows it’s he--and she calls out, Teacher! The one whom she loves, the one who loves her, calls out -- calls her name -- and suddenly the world is changed. She didn’t expect Jesus’s resurrection--she didn’t expect to meet life there in the garden--there at the tomb--but it is real. He is there. And she runs to tell the others, I have seen the Lord!
It’s no surprise we, too, miss seeing the face of Jesus in the world around us, here and now, in our lives, in our city, in our present day. Perhaps we expect to meet despair and death instead. After all, that’s what we hear about constantly--what we witness, isn’t it. But there he is, in the garden, standing outside the empty tomb, waiting for us to turn, waiting for us to look, waiting for us to hear as he calls each of us by name--his beloved friends.
Why are you crying? the angel asks Mary. Where is my Lord? Mary says.
And here he is. Calling out to Mary, calling out to us, even now.
And in that very moment our lives are changed. As Jesus calls out to us, we see him here, just now, and our world is changed. Everything we know is different in the light of his resurrected glory.
There is a chant in the church that I love--the Christus Vincit, or Laudes Regiae--series of acclamations patterned on the acclamations given in ancient Rome to a conquering general or an emperor. The chant itself is complicated; it’s been sung at coronations, and even at the entrance of the King of France into the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Easter. So the collusion of temporal and heavenly authority is, so to speak, complicated with this one. But what I love about it most is the refrain--a simple, powerful chant: Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat! Christ conquers; Christ reigns; Christ commands.
Friends, this is the story of Easter. Christ has conquered death. Not even the worst that death can deal can stand against the love of God revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ. Christ conquers. Christ reigns. Christ commands.
His resurrection is not merely an historical event--something that Mary Magdalene witnesses--but something that is real, here, and now--something that involves us. As he stands at the empty tomb, conquering, victorious, we learn that everything we thought about the world is wrong. That sin and death have no power. That only Christ conquers. Christ reigns. Christ commands.
Let me be clear about the truth of the resurrection: Christ’s death and resurrection do not mean that there is no evil--that there is no suffering--that there is no death. The fabric of what we thought was true doesn’t go away. But there is a greater truth, a seamless garment woven in one piece, from the very love of God--the truth of Love that casts out fear and death. In light of Christ’s resurrection, death no longer has the last word.
My friends, don’t believe the lies that the devil tells us. Death is not the final truth.
Christ is the final truth. Only love is truth. Only life is.
Mary came to the tomb, expecting to find death. And instead she found life--calling her very name.
Where are you today? Where are we today as a community, as a city, as a nation? Will we have the courage to expect something different? Will we have the courage to look inside the tomb, and not turn away when we find it empty, but keep looking? To turn around, to look again, and keep looking and expecting until we see Jesus, standing by us, calling us by name?
If you are searching, if you are looking into the empty tomb today and longing to see his Body, if you are longing to find the love and light of Christ’s truth, come to the altar today and receive him. Let him fill you with his love. Stay here and watch. Look again. Listen for his voice. He is not in the tomb, he is risen. And he stands just beside you, calling your name.
If you’ve already met the risen Lord, if you are filled up with the light of his glorious resurrected presence, will you share it? Will you turn and run to tell your friends, to tell the city, to tell the whole world what you know--that God has conquered even death, and that the world is overflowing with hope and joy?
Jesus said to her, Mary! She turned and said to him in Hebrew, Rabbouni! (which means Teacher.)
Christus vincit. Christus regnat. Christus imperat.
Alleluia, Christ is Risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.