It was still dark when Mary Magdalene came to the tomb. If you read the resurrection accounts in Matthew, Mark, or Luke you’ll hear that a group of women came at dawn, or just after the sun had risen. But in John’s account Mary goes to the tomb alone. And she goes when it still dark.
She woke up early – or maybe she hadn’t slept at all – and walked to a graveyard to prepare a body for burial. And it wasn’t dawn. There wasn’t a lightening on the horizon. It was just dark.
If you read the gospels side by side, you’ll find other ways that John’s description of the resurrection is different from the other accounts. For one thing, the action is delayed. In the other gospels, angels show up almost immediately to explain the meaning of the empty tomb: “He is not here!” they say, “He is risen!” We’re given divine insight into the resurrection right off the bat. And while the women first hearing that message may still be confused, the message itself is very clear: Jesus’s body is gone because Jesus is no longer dead.
But in John’s gospel we don’t receive immediate answers. There are no angels present in the tomb when Mary first arrives on the scene. She runs to find John and Peter and they run back to the tomb, and there are no angels then either. It is only after the disciples leave and Mary is left weeping alone, that she bends down to look into the tomb and sees two angels sitting where Jesus’s body should have been.
And even then they don’t tell her what’s going on. They simply ask her, “Why are you weeping?” And she tells them why: “they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” We are 13 verses into the story and she is still in the dark about the resurrection.
It’s this sense of darkness and delay that stood out to me this particular Easter. That, and the stooping.
Both John and Mary are described as stooping down to look into the tomb. They are forced to bend over to peer into a dark space, trying to piece together what has happened.
I resonated with this action of stooping. I feel like most years I approach Easter standing up – I see the resurrection at eye-level. I show up to church, hear the gospel, and enjoy potluck afterwards. It’s uncomplicated.
But this year I find myself coming to Easter with a different posture. I am stooping down, like Mary, looking into an empty tomb, sorting through confusion and some grief. I am also asking what this empty tomb means for us, and what it says about Jesus.
And it occurs to me that although these feelings and circumstances may be new to me, they are not unique.
The anniversary of this resurrection has come around almost 2,000 times. It has come during plagues; it has come during wars; it’s come during eras of enslavement; it’s come during divorce proceedings; it’s come during periods of intense loneliness; it has come when people are dying.
We are not the first people to come to the resurrection weeping.
Mary came to the resurrection weeping because she did not know where to find Jesus. And if this were another gospel account, the angels would have told her exactly what had happened. But John does something unprecedented. Because the next thing that happens is that Mary turns around and discovers that Jesus is standing right behind her. She doesn’t realize that it’s Jesus – she thinks he is a gardener at first – but when he says her name, she suddenly recognizes him.
This is the only gospel account without a grand announcement from the angels. This is the only gospel account without the line, “He’s not here, he is risen!” This is the only gospel account where the first telling of the good news of resurrection doesn’t come through words; it comes through that visceral knowledge that we call recognition. Think about that feeling of recognition. It’s the feeling of picking up the phone and immediately knowing the voice on the other end. It’s the feeling of seeing someone from a distance and knowing them by the way they walk. The gospel according to John is announced through this bodily knowing, a non-verbal knowing that holds the most profound theological truth: Jesus is here.
And I think that’s why John doesn’t have the famous line, “He is not here, he is risen.” Because in John’s gospel, for Jesus to be risen means that Jesus is there. When Mary is walking to the graveyard, grieving for her friend and teacher, Jesus is already there. When she stoops into the tomb looking for his missing body, Jesus is already there. And when she speaks to him in the garden without knowing who he is, Jesus is already there. Jesus has been there the whole time.
And that is the good news that has been passed down for almost 2,000 years to come to us today: the One who you are looking for is already here – has been here. The only thing left is recognition.