Come and See
by Catherine Thiel Lee
Easter: March 31, 2013
Jesus Christ is risen!
(Everyone hopefully responds, “He is risen indeed!”)
Nice. And I have just proved that you already know this story, the one I have been asked to stand up here and tell you. You already know this story.
But as one of my teachers used to reassure, with his wide, kind eyes and broad, soothing Australian voice, “It’s OK—we learn by repetition.”
We are here today for lots of different reasons. Most of you came for the food. I mean, Janna made a triple rum black pepper cake. Some of you came to hold Gwendolyn and Susannah. I think the kids came to play outside on a day when they anticipate joy and energy in the air, the kind they feed off of—maybe you do too. Some of you came to sing. Some of you came simply out of habit. All of these are very good reasons to come.
But we are a storied people and today of all days we are bound up in words that we gather to repeat to each other year after year. You already know this story, but we’re here to hear it again.
I have my own vision of Easter morning. It is shaped by bunnies and pastel colors, crosses adorned with flowers, people making food for each other, sunrise and plastic eggs, people gathered around tables, little people in pretty dresses and blue blazers. (I grew up in the South and trust me, for better and worse, in my childhood the blue blazers were a thing.) My vision of Easter is full of particular joys small and large, false and true, but it is always full, and, on the whole, rather shiny.
So I find it disorienting to read the resurrection stories in the Bible. They are all odd. They are not spit-shined Sunday best. They certainly aren’t pastel. They are dark, full of deeply troubled people running around in a graveyard at dawn. Angels appear and, in case you hadn’t noticed, when angels show up they almost always bring some kind of trouble and disturbance. Usually they scare people.
Mary, Peter, and the other disciple are confused and afraid. They don’t know what is happening. They are fearful of grave-robbing, of someone desecrating the body of their teacher, their friend, someone they loved. Mary, panicked, keeps asking, “Where is Jesus’ body?” A few years ago my friend lost her husband in a boating accident in Lake Gaston. I remember our pastor praying, “please, please Lord, just let them find his body.” I didn’t understand then, but I do more now, how incredibly difficult it is to lose someone to death, and then, to lose their body too, to have it snatched away.
John’s story has a disoriented pace, a troubled confusion, a disjointed sense of time and reality: it looks like Grief—dramatized, writ large. For grief warps time and reality for those locked in its grip. And here, grief itself is upended, disturbed, interrupted.
John’s story is wrapped in a morbid fascination. He keeps talking about the tomb. Nine times in eleven verses, “to the tomb,” “from the tomb,” “outside the tomb,” “into the tomb.” “The tomb…the tomb…the tomb.” It is unbridled narrative direction, focus. John is not subtle. He wants us to think about the tomb, to reflect on its emptiness.
And the grave-clothes, John won’t let me take my mind off of Jesus’ grave-clothes. He describes them in such detail, the strips of linen that had been wrapped around Jesus’ body lying there, the cloth that had covered his dead face folded, carefully, it seems, and set to one side. Was the linen stiff with blood? Or did Joseph of Arimathea have time to wash Jesus before he wrapped his body, leaving the strips clean and fluid, neat and white, like folded laundry waiting patiently on my bed to be put away? Why are they there? Are the linen strips, as Calvin suggested, the “tokens of death,” laid aside to “testify that [Jesus] had clothed himself with a blessed and immortal life.” Or are they a sign of the upside down nature of God’s kingdom? Linen was a fine cloth, worn by kings and priests. Does Christ in his reign have so little need of our finery and status that he would just leave the trappings of human kingdoms, discarded in a heap? Whatever the case, there they lay, their image seared into the minds of those who come to see.
John paints a haunting picture for us, as do the other gospels. It is different from my shiny Easter vision. The church interprets the fact of the resurrection as the mark of God’s final victory over death. Which it is. And after the terribleness of Jesus’ death on the cross, it is no wonder that we want to sing “Victory in Jesus” on Easter morning. But there’s a temptation buried in our theology, a temptation to triumphalism and demanding the immediacy of God’s kingdom; it isn’t far removed from the shouts of the crowd on Palm Sunday. Peter Hausmann told us last week in his sermon, “People want Power. King. Sword. Change. Certainty.” Sometimes, if we aren’t careful, we can twist the meaning of resurrection into that same thing: “Finally,” we say, “on Easter we have Power. King. Sword. Change. Certainty.” But that isn’t the same thing as resurrection, as God’s victory over death. God’s victory always looks different than ours.
I think that is one reason we have these strange, morbid stories of scared, grieving people confronting grave-clothes and an empty tomb. They subvert our temptations. The power of resurrection in every way, even from the moment it is first discovered, is founded in emptiness. John, like any good writer, doesn’t tell us that, he shows us. Shows us grave-clothes and an empty tomb, paints a particular viewpoint.
And he takes us somewhere too.
John’s story is incredibly physical. It is a narrative full of direction. There is a lot of movement, bodies in motion. There is a great deal of concern for where bodies are in space. “I do not know where they have put him!” Mary cries (20: 13). John directs our sight, he tells us where things are, where people are. The story is layered and folded, like the cloth that covered Jesus’ face, with words of “coming” and “seeing.” “Mary comes,” “Mary sees,” “Mary runs.” “Peter and the other disciple went out,” “they came,” “they ran.” “The disciple went,” “He sees,” “He went in.” “Peter comes,” “Peter went in,” “Peter sees.” “Mary stoops,” “She sees,” “She turns,” “She sees,” “She turns.” Over and over, words of stooping and going in, going out and turning, coming and seeing.
Mary, especially, she keeps coming and seeing. She comes to the tomb, she returns to the tomb, she looks into the tomb again. She keeps approaching, keeps coming back. She turns at the sound of Jesus’ voice, even when she doesn’t realize that it is him. She is deep in grief, her hope might be fading, her hope might be almost nonexistent. But she comes and returns and turns again and again to Jesus, even when she is sad and afraid and doesn’t understand and, it is “she, the one having turned”—that is what John calls her—she is the one who sees Jesus—risen—calling her name.
Is that the point? The repeated coming and seeing? Is that our invitation too at Easter, to come and see, to be like Mary, turning again and again with our vestige bits of hope? It might be confusing, unnerving. It might turn our worlds on end. It might interrupt our expectations. It might interrupt our grief. We might not know what to make of what we find—spent grave-clothes, an empty tomb. We might not even recognize Jesus when he shows up in flesh and blood, right in front of us.
But if we grasp, even in a whisper, even in a moment, what it means—spent grave-clothes, an empty tomb?—Jesus is risen!—Then we are changed. There is hope. Maybe not stalwart, self-assured, shiny hope, but some kind of revelation that when we thought—when we were sure—that all was lost:
It is not.
Mary ran in the beginning, ran to find the disciples out of fear and desperation, “they have taken the Lord” (20: 2). It doesn’t say so, but I like to imagine her running at the end too, running with awe and confused wonder and abandon to tell the disciples this time, “I have seen the Lord!”
Today, may we receive this good news, this astounding, earth shattering news. May we allow ourselves be spellbound. May our griefs be interrupted, and begun, in small, slow ways, to be healed. May our gazes and our bodies be directed, lifted up to see the risen Christ. May we be sent out running, full of freedom and confused, baffled joy.
We may not yet have any, earthly idea what it all means. But Easter invites us. Come and see: