One of my favorite things about living in the South Bay is driving down the Esplanade on a clear morning. I love seeing the impossibly blue ocean and the pure white spray of the breakers. I marvel at the curve of the land, how the Santa Monica Mountains and the Palos Verdes Peninsula stretch to embrace across the bay.
But I think what I love most of all is the chance to observe the people who stand on the Esplanade sidewalk, taking in the grand seascape. As I keep one eye on the road and one eye on the coast, I catch fleeting glimpses of people who are utterly transfixed by the ocean. Something about being in the presence of something so deep, so mysterious, so big, just grasps people. I’ve heard it said that gazing at the ocean actually causes one’s soul to expand. The soul simply grows in response to what it sees.
The gospel lesson for this Easter Sunday is the most gospel of all gospel readings. It is the best of all good news, delivered out of the mouth of a very tear-stained Mary: “I have seen the Lord!” We gather on this Easter Morning because we, too, want to encounter the living Christ. We, too want a holy gardener to transform our tears into joy. We want to see the Lord.
But for the moment, our part in this story is as witnesses to the witnesses. The focus of this story, so to speak, is on the ocean, but also on the people whose souls are expanding in response to its beauty. We stand by as Mary and the Disciples discern the miraculous event that is at the core of the Christian faith: the resurrection of God’s beloved Son.
John’s account of the first Easter morning begins and ends with Mary Magdalene. She alone makes the mournful journey to the grave of her Lord. In the other gospels, other women accompany Mary to the tomb. But in the gospel according to John, she is alone. She has no hand to grasp or shoulder to lean on as she discovers, in horror, that the stone has been rolled from the tomb. Now she doesn’t even have a grave to tend. She can only assume that the body has been stolen by the same people who stole the breath from Jesus. At this point in the text, there is a lot of running around; and it is no surprise, for this is what always happens when Jesus is missing. Mary turns and runs back to the Disciples to proclaim the bad news. They all run back, one outrunning the other, to try to make sense of the strange turn of events. All that is left in the tomb are the linen wrappings that had bound the lifeless body of Jesus. They take in the sight—the utter emptiness of the tomb—and turn to go home, mired in confusion.
Mary remains. All that she knows is that her Lord is dead, and that someone has added salt to the wound by robbing his grave. She stands vigil in front of that empty tomb, weeping the tears of one who has lost more than everything. Her grief is soon interrupted by a pair of angels. “Why are you weeping?” They say. And then the gardener asks the same question. “Why are you weeping?” Mary is so desperate to retrieve the body of her crucified savior that she does not recognize that it is her Risen Savior who stands before her, as alive as anything else in the garden. And then he speaks one word that reveals everything to Mary. One word is all it takes for her to believe and understand: her very own name.
We can only imagine that Mary runs to embrace her teacher at this point, because Jesus has to gently remind her that he cannot be grasped. No matter that Mary wants more than anything else to embrace the body she had been weeping for so mightily; Jesus tells her that she cannot continue to hold on to him. The power of the resurrection is not the thrill of touching flesh that was once dead. The power of the resurrection is the encounter with the living Christ, the savior you might mistake for a humble gardener if not for the fact that he knows you by name.
And so Mary runs off to preach the first Easter sermon: Christ arose, and will keep rising until he is restored to the full presence of God. She knows this not only because of an empty tomb and a cast-off shroud. She knows this because she has experienced the resurrected Jesus, who is on the move even now.
The last hundred years or so have seen a flurry of attention afforded to what happened in the tomb. One of the five doctrines of fundamentalist Christianity is the matter of the bodily resurrection of Christ. While the gospels do certainly testify that Jesus was seen eating and drinking after he had been killed by Roman authorities, the fascination with what happened in the tomb still bewilders me. Standing in opposition to the fundamentalists are the scholars intent on offering believable alternatives to the unbelievable story of the resurrection. Death is death, they say. They prefer grave robbers to the miracle of the Risen Christ.
The gospels do not even begin to imagine the goings-on before the stone was rolled away. Barbara Brown Taylor notes that “the resurrection is the one and only event in Jesus’ life that was entirely between him and God.”
And I have to tell you, I think we might be better off keeping it that way. I recently watched a video marketed to churches for use in Easter worship. It imagined the moment of the resurrection. A man wrapped in linens lay on a table. As an orchestra played dramatically in the background, the man slowly began to stir. The music billowed to a climax as the man sat up. It just didn’t work for me. It reduced a miracle into a cartoon, a holy mystery into a crude farce. And worst of all, it forced the Easter celebration back into the tomb.
Easter does not begin in the tomb; it begins with the encounter of the living Christ. When Mary’s tears of sorrow are wiped away, when the mere sound of her name shakes the grief right out of her, when her very soul trembles and swells in the presence of Jesus— that’s when Easter begins. That’s when the resurrection becomes real.
The gospels bear witness to a handful of appearances of the Risen Lord. They let us watch on as these encounters utterly transform people. And the gospels whisper a promise: the holy gardener is still on the move. He cannot be contained, not by the hateful grip of death, and not even by the loving embrace of a follower. Christ is on the loose, waiting for us to turn our tear-stained faces to his presence. We don’t need the paltry evidence of a cast-off shroud to know that our Redeemer lives, for the one whose Spirit outgrew those linens is present, even now.
Experiencing Easter isn’t about clenching your fists, closing your eyes, and forcing yourself to believe in an event that happened within the intimate circle of the Holy Trinity. Easter begins and the resurrection becomes real when you open yourself to the spirit of the Living God. Encountering the Risen Christ expands your soul and transforms your life so completely that even death cannot claim you. First the encounter— then the belief, the trust, the sheer joy of being in relationship with Jesus.
So have enough courage to show up at the tomb. Have enough tenacity to weather the moments—the days—the years—when it seems like someone has taken your Lord away. And like Mary, have just enough faith to keep weeping until you hear your name.