Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter's Empty Tomb

Artists tend to depict Mary Magdalene on that first Easter morning in one of two ways: either she is filled with joy having just encountered the Risen Christ, or she is weeping with her head down, blind to Him standing beside her. The depiction of Mary Magdalene that I find most moving, however, comes from the first part of John 20:11, “But Mary stood without at the sepulcher weeping.” This image of the weeping Mary - no angels, no Jesus, no female companions, no Peter and no John, very much alone at that very empty sepulcher - is the one I return to time after time.

I love Mary for that singular moment. Peter and John had come, found the tomb empty, and returned home. She, on the other hand, chose to stay. Though she must have felt betrayed, disappointed, let down, perhaps not angry but certainly in despair, she stayed. Some kind of deep and profound faith that extended far beyond reason kept her there.

Her eventual surprise and confusion at encountering Christ make it evident that she was not sitting at the empty tomb waiting for a miracle. The faith that kept her there was not that all would be miraculously made right but rather that her encounters with Jesus were too true for her to now walk away. So despite her very real experience that Christ was killed and His body gone, despite her hope having burned up, there she stayed in that emptiest of tombs.

The scriptures don’t afford insight into how long Mary remained in that empty tomb. In the next sentence she sees angels and within a few verses Christ has appeared and her liminal faith has been transformed into a practical if not empirical kind of faith. But the type of faith that Mary demonstrated in the empty tomb on that first Easter morning - the faith to stay that takes a particularly hopeless yet resolute form - has become a kind of touchstone for me.

I write this merely to say that again and again and again I find myself standing, like Mary, in the empty tomb. It is a space, however, where I have discovered not so much bitterness or hopelessness, but a new kind of resilience.

Last April, I stood on the shores of Galilee thinking about storm-tossed ships and the words of Terry Tempest Williams, discussing her childhood experiences at the seashore, came to mind:

“I learned … that what I love can kill me, knock me down, and threaten to drown me with its unexpected waves… I learned I can survive what hurts. I believe in my capacity to stand back up and run into the waves again and again, no matter the risk.”

If there are lessons to be learned from the empty tomb (and I obviously believe there are), I think one of them is this: faith can be a bitter teacher that demands we fall down and stand up over and over, knowing that each time we stand, we put ourselves at risk of being knocked over, while also knowing we somehow become stronger because of it.

Today I went to Easter Mass and, while considering the Bishop’s invitation to “share Easter,” was reminded of something my mother has always said about the time after the accident, "it was the worst of times, because the pain was so great, but it was the best of times, because of the intensity and strength of the Spirit that attended all of us." Part of the grace of Easter, of the meaning of the Atonement, is the ability to transfigure the worst, most painful experiences of this life into the most treasured ones. Perhaps part of the power of Easter's redemption is the power to redeem from all the shit that happens in this world people that are beautiful and meaningful and worthwhile.

This, I suppose, is today’s Easter testimony: grace, I believe, is the power that transforms the empty tomb into a sacred place of learning and growth, even while it remains empty a little while longer.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, they are beautiful and something for me to ponder more.