Easter Sunday: John 20:1-18

Reflection by Josh Olds.

A while ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine who drives past a hospital every day on his way to work. He was telling me about how up until recently every time he drove by the hospital he would get a shiver up his spine and a feeling of uneasiness. Of course, it’s not uncommon to hear people react negatively to hospitals. But he told me about the day his perspective shifted a little. He was stopped at a traffic light with his wife in the car and they happened to be right outside the hospital. He made an off-hand remark – “I hate hospitals…” His wife curiously asked why? He told her that to him hospitals represented sickness, death, and grief. “Interesting…” his wife said, “to me they’ve always represented healing, and care, and the birth of new life.” Of course, both are true, aren’t they? I wonder if that’s a helpful perspective to have of Easter – that the darkness of Good Friday, and the glory of Easter Sunday are BOTH true. It’s because of the brokenness of Good Friday, a brokenness we still know and see around us, that the hope of Easter Sunday is such a cause for celebration. The events of Easter shape how we make sense, and how the church for the last 2000 years has made sense, of the world, of ourselves, of God – that things are broken, and that God, in his love and grace, is bringing about wholeness and restoration. Easter is our annual reminder of the profound love of God which blooms through the concrete cracks of grief and despair.[1] 

And so, every year we recount these events, we return to these bible readings – the passion narrative of Jesus’ suffering, death, and burial, and then subsequently the story of the empty tomb, the risen Jesus, and the astonishment of his friends. These are familiar stories, ones many of us have grown up with and grown accustomed to. Easter shares some similarities with Christmas in that way, doesn’t it? They both roll around every year bringing holidays and festivities with them. At one level the repetition of these celebrations forms us, we’re regularly prompted to engage with these stories so they naturally become part of us, who we are, and how we see the world. But at another level, the repetitive nature of encountering these stories year after year can make them feel rather ordinary, sort of a ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ kind of thing. We also tend to tell the story of Easter from the perspective of its big universal implications, of how through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God was reconciling the world to himself, of how evil was overcome with love, and how death was defeated by life. While there’s plenty of profound truth in that perspective and there’s value in appreciating the big picture, we run the risk of keeping the events of Easter at arm’s length when we only think about it in that way. While we know the Easter story so well, and retell it every year, it can be easy to feel a bit disconnected from it, for it to feel more like a legend – something that happened a really long time ago, in a faraway land. While we might recognize the significance of Easter at a general level it can be easy to feel detached from it at a personal level.

Interestingly though, this account of Jesus’ first resurrection appearance in John 20 revolves around a deeply personal encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Now, of course, the headline of this passage is the resurrection of Jesus, it is the main event, like I said before it carries with it these enormous theological implications for us and the world, we might even say it is the essence of the gospel – the good news. But based on the way that this passage is written it almost seems as though Mary is the main character here. I think she is a really important part of the story for us, and in some ways provides a way in. Mary’s reactions and emotions to how things unfold in this otherwise ethereal and mystifying scene in the garden just seem so human, so natural, so relatable. It’s hard to make sense of the resurrection, it’s shrouded by mystery and wonder, it’s astonishing, and it defies what we know and what we’re familiar with. This is why I think Mary’s presence is so important because in some ways she’s just like us. She gives us something to latch on to, she provides a caricature for us to read ourselves into the scene and engage with the Easter events at a personal level. It almost feels like we’re invited to place ourselves in Mary’s shoes and engage with the risen Jesus vicariously through her.

I find it interesting in verse 1 that the detail “while it was still dark” is included when describing Mary arriving at the place where Jesus was buried. It just sort of seems unnecessary, unless more than Mary’s sleep habits were being communicated here. I wonder if the literal darkness also speaks to a figurative darkness, an internal darkness that Mary was experiencing. Loss, grief, uncertainty, despair. She’s just witnessed her friend and teacher be unjustly tortured and executed. And added to that she finds herself at an empty tomb which adds to her distress. Just as darkness is the absence of light, Mary is confronted by the absence of Jesus’ life and his body. Resurrection wasn’t top of mind for Mary, her natural, and quite relatable, assumption, was that someone had taken Jesus’ body. Grave robberies were not uncommon. This rightfully alarms Mary, to her not only had Jesus been denied justice in life, but now he was being denied a dignified burial in death. “The Lord has been taken from the tomb, I don’t know where he is,” Mary says desperately to the two disciples who have since arrived at the tomb, she says words to that effect twice more in this passage – “I do not know where he is.”

It’s easy to gloss over Mary’s distress and desperation because we know where the story is headed. But this is where Mary gives us a connection point to the story because that internal darkness that she felt – that loss, that despair, that uncertainty, probably isn’t all that unfamiliar. Lord, where are you in this darkness? I cannot see you, I cannot hear you, I know your absence, not your presence. I wonder if those are questions that people affected by the war in Ukraine are asking at the moment, or by people who lost homes, livelihoods, and loved ones in Cyclone Gabrielle. Or by those who suffer abuse, bullying, injustice, or discrimination. By those suffering sickness in body or mind, or those who are losing or have lost loved ones – “I don’t know where he is.”  I wonder if Mary’s words resonate with you in any way. I’m sure many if not all of us have experienced that darkness that Mary knew. When have been the times you’ve seemingly been confronted by God’s absence? Where you’ve found yourself saying I don’t know where he is… 

Mary lingers at the tomb, the site of her loss, a place of inner darkness. She gives voice to her grief and her doubts and although she doesn’t recognise it at first, Jesus is in fact present with her there. Interestingly she sees so much but realises so little – angels in the tomb, and even Jesus himself whom she confuses as the gardener. It’s almost as if the internal darkness that Mary is experiencing blinds her to the light that is breaking in all around her. Sometimes that’s the case though, isn’t it? Sometimes in the midst of difficulty, it’s hard to see the goodness that’s around us and it’s not until we have hindsight that we can understand how God might have been present with us in our pain. It’s here in the passage that the story turns and Mary’s perspective shifts. For Mary, things change when she hears Jesus speak her name, “Mary.” That’s all Jesus says and all of a sudden her whole world is flipped upside down. For Mary at that moment the gospel wasn’t a general theological truth that she cognitively understood, the good news connected with her in a deeply personal way, in a way that met her exactly where she was – lost, grieving, uncertain, and in darkness. The good news of Easter landed for Mary when she heard her name; the gospel was embodied for her in a personal encounter. 

The good news of Easter that life and wholeness win out over death and brokenness is a big and important truth, but it connects and contextualises in many different ways. In expressions of love and generosity, of selflessness and sacrifice, of peace and joy. A while back World Vision made a big push to raise funds so that they could build what they called “child-friendly spaces” in Syrian refugee camps – things like sports fields, playgrounds, classrooms, etc. I remember hearing a little bit of pushback at the time, some were saying that money shouldn’t be spent on things that weren’t essential for survival. I do understand that perspective, but when I think of what good news looks like to a child living in a refugee camp because they’ve had to flee their war-torn country, in my mind it looks a lot like having spaces to be a kid with other kids – playing on swings, kicking a ball around, smiling, and laughing, and playing. That good news at the heart of the Easter story comes in many different ways. What does good news look like for those affected by the war in Ukraine? What does good news look like for those that have known loss as a result of Cyclone Gabrielle? What does good news look like for you? For our families? For our communities? 

The good news for Mary doesn’t stop at her encounter with the risen Jesus though. The good news for Mary is that she is then given a part to play in sharing that good news with others. And so having known good news herself Mary goes, she goes and declares to Jesus’ friends “I have seen the Lord!” Or maybe in other words “In my darkness, I have seen the light – the light that the darkness of the world could not overcome, I have known and seen that light for myself too!” Now, as the church we’ve been guilty of not being very creative in this space for a while. For too long sharing the good news with others has been synonymous with soap boxes and street corners, for unsolicited evangelism and loaded questions. Now, I’m fine in hospitals, but those things send shivers up my spine and make me feel extremely uneasy! Sharing the good news firstly means understanding what exactly that is for those around us, and secondly what our contribution to it is. We all have a part to play, and I’m sure many of us simply do it naturally, but it’s good to reflect once in a while and ask ourselves – how am I being or sharing good news? Where or how is God inviting me to participate in the outworking of the good news around me? 

And so, as we come to the Easter story once again, it’s good to reflect afresh on what it all means for us – as it did for Mary, where does this land for me? What does this event that happened a really long time ago in a far away land, mean for me in the here and now? What is the good news for me, for us, and for our communities? And what is my part to play? As Mary shared so excitedly with the disciples, this Easter, may we all be able to say “I have seen the Lord!”

[1] Joel B. Green et al., eds., Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 197.