Early on Easter morning, before dawn, Mary Magdalene visits the tomb. She had seen Jesus crucified the day before. She was at the cross—there for his last breath, there when they pierced his side, there when they took him down, there when they carried his corpse away for burial.
Mary has lived for far too long under the stifling power of male domination, of men who control her world, her life and body. She is a survivor of the quotidian torments of patriarchy. But with Jesus, a new world had dawned. Among his followers, a new life was offered, where she was treated as an equal, a co-worker in God’s kingdom, a life with Jesus and his followers where she was respected and loved, not as a possession but as a friend.
But all of that lays lifeless in the tomb, and she shows up early to mourn the death of what could have been—the death of what was, for a moment, only a couple years, a flicker of hope, now snuffed out on the cross.
At least that’s what she thought. She thought he was dead, and his death meant she had to return to a deadening world, a world of death, of social death, a society that rejected her full humanity.
I used to teach classes in the federal prison in Butner, about a half hour north of here. One year, for one of his writing assignments, a man turned in a paper entitled, “Captive to death.” Life in prison is a kind of death, the student wrote, because without his friends and family and work and routines on the outside, he keeps on forgetting who he is. Being locked up feels like a kind of death. Prison as annihilation.
In the early nineteenth century, the warden of Auburn prison in New York would say to new intakes, “While confined here, you are to be literally buried from the world.” Prison as burial. “A living tomb,” a prisoner named Harry Hawser wrote in a poem while incarcerated just up the road, in Philadelphia, at Eastern State Penitentiary. When Charles Dickens visited that prison in Philadelphia, he described the prisoner’s experience as “a man buried alive… dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair.”
In more recent history, fifty years ago, George Jackson wrote a letter from San Quentin State Prison in California. “Capture, imprisonment, is the closest to being dead that one is likely to experience in this life,” he said. “My life here is slowly becoming one of complete alienation.” Prison as an alienation from life—that was his experience, buried behind layers of concrete and metal and bricks, behind walls and bars and fences.
The contemporary poet, Jimmy Santiago Baca, writing from the Arizona State Prison, said that his time in prison felt like he was confined in “an archaic tomb of concrete and iron.
The Easter story is about a tomb, an empty one—a tomb, cracked open with resurrection, freedom from death, life restored, a relationship returned.
Last year, in the spring, I got a call from a friend who asked if I could come down to the Durham County jail. There were some people she would like for me to visit. I asked her when, and she said now. When I showed up, there was a group of women outside—they had set up a folding table, with bouquets of flowers and coffee and donuts and cigarettes and bags filled with toiletries. They had raised thousands of dollars to pay the bail for women, to set them free from that tomb in the middle of downtown Durham.They were ready to welcome them back into society, back to their families, back to their lives.
But first they had to get consent—to get permission from the women in prison to bail them out. And pastors have special privileges, when it comes to visiting people in jail. We don’t have to sign up in advance like other people do. We just flash our ordination card, and the prison staff let us visit whoever we want.
So the women who raised the bail money gave me a list of names, a list of people they wanted to get free that day, and I spent the morning going up and down that elevator in the jail, visiting the prisoners—I can’t remember how many. But I do remember one visit in detail.
I take the empty elevator to the empty fifth floor, where I walk the empty hall from to the visitation section. I sit on the lone plastic chair, a grayed piece of patio furniture facing a large plexiglass window. I watch as a guard lets a woman into the enclosure on the other side of the glass. She doesn’t sit, so I stand—both of us strangers to one another, although I know her name.
“Hi Elisa,” I say through the intercom, “My name is Isaac,” I explain while she paces. “There’s a group of people outside,” I tell her, “and they sent me to let you know that they’ve raised enough money for your bail.” She stops and leans toward the window, toward me, staring. “What do you mean? You know how much I need?” I tell her the women outside have the money and want to know if she’s ready to be bailed out this afternoon. “No way! Don’t play with me. You telling me the truth?” She covers her mouth with her hands. I nod quickly, assuring her that I’m telling the truth. I tell her the story of black women across the country bailing out black women from jails everywhere.
She shakes her head in disbelief—the news is too good to be true, unthinkably wonderful news. She starts calling out, “Thank you Jesus. Thank you Jesus. Thank you Jesus.” The concrete echoes with her joy. She pulls out a scrap of paper from her pocket, carefully unfolding it, then presses it against the window for me to see. “I’ve prayed these verses every day I’ve been stuck in here,” she shows me Bible passages from Ephesians, Philippians, the Psalms, all in her handwriting. “I’ve been claiming God’s promises—and now you’re telling me that the Lord has broken the chains, that Jesus has set this captive free!”
Through the plexiglas she and I work on the details of her release—who to contact for a ride, where’s she could stay the night, friends and loved ones to call. When we finish, as she walks away—back toward her cell to gather her things—she stops and turns and looks at me, both of us radiant with gratitude for this moment. She is standing at the edge of hope. As I wander back through the empty hall to the elevator, I hear her voice echo through the jail, her shouts of praise: “God is good! God is good!”
Resurrection is a confrontation with tombs. Resurrection defies the violence of this world. Resurrection is God’s protest against the powers of death.
Last year, those women in Durham raised $100,000 to set free 14 women. Half of them had their charges dropped, which means that they were punished with imprisonment even through they were innocent of any crimes, held in jail only because they couldn’t afford to buy their freedom, to pay their bail. They were punished because they were poor. And while they were in jail, some them lost their jobs, lost their housing, and lost custody of their children. That’s social death, the way our society kills the lives that they had, the way our world deadens their humanity.
I told you the happy bail out story, an Easter kinda story, with the woman praising God for her freedom after I told her about the people who had raised money to bail her out—a story about her shock at the good news, the unimaginable news, that she would walk out of that tomb. Her shock had to be something like Mary Magdalene’s shock at the sight of the resurrected Jesus, her friend unbound from the tomb. But there were other stories from jail that day last year, difficult ones, for me, for us—but also Easter stories.
There was another woman I visited that day. I let her know that she could walk free, if she would give us her permission to pay her $15,000 bail. And she said no. She couldn’t leave, she said. She didn’t want to return home. It’s too dangerous, she said, too risky. She told me the horrors of domestic violence—no, she said, she couldn’t go back home, and there was no where else, nobody else, no where was safe from the threats on her life. Another woman said no because she couldn’t afford her medical care on the outside. Somehow that jail cell was a little better than the world outside. And that is an indictment on all of us—that we live in a country, in a world, that is so unsafe for people, for women. The world as a tomb.
This is also an Easter story because it’s a call, a call for resurrection, for us to proclaim resurrection with our lives. Our Easter passage ends with a commissioning, a sending—Jesus commissions Mary as an apostle of resurrection. “Go to my brothers,” he tells her. And it says—this is how the story ends, on that first Easter morning: “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord.’”
Resurrection is God’s protest against the death-dealing violence of this world, a protest against the police who killed Stephon Clark in Sacramento last week, the soldiers who killed 15 people in Gaza this weekend, the tombs all around us, people waiting to get free.
Easter is a commissioning—where we are like Mary, empowered with the gospel, empowered to live in the world Jesus offered, to proclaim that there is another world possible, another way of life, resurrection life.
After the women were bailed out last year, there was a celebration at a park—at a ramada decorated with rainbow streamers and vases of flowers, bouquets of yellows and blues and pinks. We stood there, hand in hand with the women who were freed from jail, and the women who raised money to free them from jail, and all their friends and family, and we sang a song, a chant: “Let my people go, set my people free, I’m letting my people know, that I love you like you were me.” To love you like you were me.
That’s what resurrection sounds like—that kind of celebration, life restored, a love beyond the power of tombs, a love that unclenches the grasp of death.
Closing Prayer (by Martha): Lord, we are all living among the tombs…. Millions of children living and dying in poverty, habitual war strangling fragile efforts for peace, the weak exploited for gain by the greedy, the continued inequality among peoples worldwide. On this day of resurrection we remember your human living—living in good news to the poor, release of the captive, sight to the blind, liberation to the oppressed. Commission us to be apostles of that Love—a Love more powerful than death. Lord, on this Easter morning make us all instruments of your peace: “For it is the spring of souls today, Christ has burst his prison, from the frost and gloom of death, light and life have risen. All the winter of our sins, long and dark is flying, from his light to whom we give our thanks and praise undying.” AMEN (quote from hymn #264—come, ye faithful, raise the strain).