Easter Day (C): The Unlikely Evangelist
By: TJ Tetzlaff
In this passage from John, Mary goes to the tomb looking for comfort. The life of her beloved Jesus has been taken, and so she goes to the tomb to honor the dead. She arrives expecting to pray and find peace but quickly discovers that Jesus’ body is gone, and she does not know where he can be found. She is shocked and tells the other disciples. They share her wonder, but not her tears. Peter and the unnamed disciple race to the tomb and see it empty, and that is where their search for Jesus stops. They return home, perhaps convinced of something, but certainly confused.
Mary realizes the body of her beloved isn’t in the tomb, yet she does not return home with the other disciples. She remains behind, bending down to examine the emptiness, making sure nothing is missed. She becomes so fixated on where Jesus was that she doesn’t notice where he is until she turns around. Even after she sees him face to face, it is not until Jesus calls her by name that she realizes the truth. Her pain and grief are confounded by the living Christ drawing breath before her.
In the same way that it was for Mary, it is jarring when we search for Jesus where we last experienced him, but now can’t seem to find him. Most of us have known moments when we seek comfort and the experience of God through word and sacraments in worship, and yet God doesn’t seem to be there; or when prayer no longer seems to meet our spiritual needs; or when gathering with others does not leave us more aware of God’s presence in our lives. In times like these, perhaps we, like Mary, mourn; perhaps we too ask where to find Jesus and why he has been taken from us. When prayer or church or scripture feel empty, we are left stunned and wondering where to go next. Like Mary, we mourn when our hope of finding God doesn’t match our reality. For some, this loss can be brief and no more than an unsettling period in an otherwise happy and satisfying life of prayer. For others, the emptiness can stretch for years or decades into what St. John of the Cross called the Dark Night of the Soul: when the comfort we find in prayer disappears and we can no longer feel God’s presence.
Mary’s witness at the empty tomb is humankind’s first Easter moment. It is when Christ’s assurances at the Last Supper are fulfilled and the disciples realize their faith in him was not misplaced. Here God utterly overturns ideas of what piety and holiness are by appearing to Mary. As a woman she embodies a group frequently accused of gossip and frivolity. Of all the disciples, it is her voice that would be doubted in a court of law, yet hers is the only name Jesus speaks in this passage. She is the one who sees and speaks with heavenly beings and she is the one chosen to act as a messenger between Christ and the other disciples. Mary becomes Christianity’s first evangelist when Jesus sends her “…to my brothers to say to them ‘I am ascending to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God’” (John 20:17). Mary represents all those who have witnessed a profound truth, and yet still struggle to be heard.
Jesus’ resurrection completes what becomes known later as the Paschal Mystery; his life, death, resurrection and ascension are the zenith of God’s redemptive plan for humanity; a plan that stretches back many long centuries before Mary’s life. Long before Moses and Isaiah, before the prophets and before Samuel and Saul and even before father Abraham, God has been molding humanity towards this moment. Mary, a woman, is the first to witness this grand consummation and the first to proclaim it as she returns to the disciples.
The resurrection is the basis of our faith and we Christians have been trying to comprehend its magnitude for two thousand years while knowing we can never truly understand until we meet our Lord face to face. Each time we read or meditate on the significance of the empty tomb we may come away with a deeper understanding or a new way of seeing it. In this way, it continually unfolds itself throughout our individual lives and the life of the church.
Mary’s experience of the empty tomb is the fulfillment of God’s promise of new life and relationship with humankind. It is a powerful signal to the disciples and us that God is beyond our control and does not appear at our command even when we are hurting. It proclaims that Jesus moves in the world and appears unexpectedly. At times, we must run to keep up and learn how to recognize him anew. Following Christ is not synonymous with comfort and satisfaction and does not mean the constant reassurance of knowing where exactly Jesus can be found. Rather, it means constant rediscovery. Faith is a continuous process of wonder and self-scrutiny. To paraphrase one of my seminary professors, Dr. Christopher Duraisingh, “Following God is like painting a picture of a bird in flight. By the time the brush touches the canvas the bird has moved on and the picture doesn’t represent it anymore.” Once we become complacent and convinced we know where God is found, God moves and we must follow. We are constantly readjusting to God’s ever-changing work in the world.
TJ Tetzlaff serves as Pastoral Leader at the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Madison County, Kentucky. He is a candidate for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Lexington and a board member of the Clark County Homeless Coalition. He received his M.Div from Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge Massachusetts and lives in Winchester, Kentucky with his wife Chana, two dogs, and a hedgehog.