The first Easter morning dawned without bells. No one was singing. Jesus’ disciples were holed away, stricken with grief, shocked and terrified by the horrific events of the Friday before. All was lost. They had forsaken their jobs, their reputations, their entire lives to follow Jesus, who they had trusted as their Teacher. They had believed he was the Son of God, the promised Messiah, the long-awaited King who would vanquish the enemies of God’s people.
He had been executed as a blasphemer two days before.
He had asked them to wait and pray with him in the garden before the arrest. They had fallen asleep. When he was taken into custody, they had denied knowing him. He had been mocked and beaten; they’d run away for fear. He had died an agonizing death, likely from suffocation, his hands and feet nailed to a cross, the weight of his own body crushing his windpipe.
“How they must have wept,” the poet Mary Oliver writes. Yes, indeed. And when Mary
Magdalene went to the tomb early Sunday morning when the Sabbath rest had ended, she went not with bells but with tears, her only aim to anoint the corpse of the one who had given her back her life.
But when she arrived, the stone was rolled back from the entrance of the tomb. Mary reacted to the sight of the disturbed grave as I’m sure you or I would react—with distress. She rushed to find Peter and John and, reaching them, broke the news: “They have taken the Lord” (John 20:2). John and Peter ran with her back to the tomb, and they found it as Mary had said. Jesus’ body was gone. The linen cloths he had been wrapped in were still there, as was the cloth that had covered his face. It was folded neatly off to the side.
John’s Gospel tells us that John “saw and believed,” but what he believed we do not know, as the text continues immediately after with a pointed note from the narrator: “for as yet [the disciples] did not understand the Scripture, that [Jesus] must rise from the dead” (John 20:8-9). Regardless of what John and Peter believed or did not believe on beholding the empty tomb, the sight was not enough to move them to any extraordinary action. They turned around and went home, the Scripture tells us, leaving Mary behind to weep.
This is the opening scene that first Easter Sunday: John and Peter waited at home in perplexity; the other disciples sat in mourning (Mark 16:10); and Mary stood alone at the tomb, unable to stop crying. No one was singing. No “alleluias” rung. And yet, at that moment in history, Jesus had already risen from the dead. He had already broken the bonds of death and trampled hell and Satan under his feet.
Perhaps this is the moment in which we find ourselves this Easter Sunday. We are sheltered at home with John and Peter, perplexed and anxious. We are deep in mourning with the other disciples, feeling farther from hope today than we did two days ago. We are standing with Mary before the tomb, tears in our eyes and an unyielding lump in our throats.
And on this Easter Sunday, as on the first, Jesus is alive. He is risen, just as he said. In John’s Gospel, moments after the melancholy stand-still we just described, the Risen Jesus appears to Mary who mistakes him for the gardener until he calls her by name. “Mary,” he says, and she turns toward him and gasps, “Teacher!” Jesus then sends her to tell the good news to rest of the disciples, and with courageous obedience she goes and shares this simple, world-altering announcement: “I have seen the Lord.”
The crucified Jesus is alive, truly alive, and he draws near to us today. He comes to the anxious, sheltered at home; to the bereaved, deep in mourning; to the lonely, choking on tears. He comes as the crucified Jew, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa 53:3), and as the resurrected Lord, who promises—by the scars on his eternally glorified body—that death will not have the final word. We live, therefore, in hope: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:5).
Alleluia! The Lord is risen!