“Miss—why are you crying?” It was late on a Friday night last fall, and I had been out with friends and heard bad news. Now, alone in the backseat of the taxi, I was sobbing unexpectedly. The taxi driver didn’t ignore me. “Miss—why are you crying?” I admit I had a moment of vanity… “He called me ‘miss’ instead of ‘ma’am’”. But I was grateful for the comfort. It sounds a lot like the angels and Jesus today speaking to Mary, “Woman, why are you weeping?” I told him why I was crying, and he further showed his compassion, in the only way he could, by handing me a paper towel to mop up my tears. And he got me home safely. It was one of those wonderful New York City moments, where you become intimate with a stranger in an instant, a stranger who I’m sure was from a different country and a different faith than I, and yet who blessed me by his capacity for compassion and caregiving.
“Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary Magdalene’s response to the questions posited by Jesus and the angels about why she is crying is interesting. She doesn’t say she’s crying because her rabbi has been killed. Those tears have already been shed. The reality that he has been executed has sunk in. She is weeping because on top of all that, his body has been stolen. She had a ministry, a final act of love in caring for his body and properly anointing it and wrapping it for burial, and giving him the dignity that was stolen from him on the cross. And that has been stolen away. And that is why she is weeping. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
Mary is in a dark place of grief and confusion. The gospel passage begins, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” In the Gospel of John, when the author writes it is dark, it has nothing to do with the position of the sun. Darkness in John’s gospel is cosmic, spiritual, moral, and intellectual. It is dark because Mary Magdalene, Peter, the beloved disciple, and the entire world do not yet know that Jesus has been raised from the dead. But it will not be dark for long—as John’s gospel proclaims in the first chapter, “the light shines in the darkness, and darkness did not overcome it.” Light will triumph today.
But first, as is so often true in the world, there is confusion and a lot of running around, too and from the tomb. Both male disciples are still in darkness as they leave the tomb. It’s not until Mary has stayed at the tomb, waiting, kneeling and weeping that the light dawns. Jesus says, “Mary!” And then she knows—she knows who this is, it’s not a gardener, it’s Jesus and she exclaims, “Rabbouni! Teacher!” and she must fall to the ground and grab his feet, the hem of his robe, and her tears of grief are turned to tears of joy.
The light dawns for those who are weeping and grieving in faith. The light dawns for those who are tenacious in their suffering, and do not give up and go home and settle for the way things are. Mary knows that she has a calling to care for Jesus’ body, and she will not rest until she has convinced someone—whether an angel, a gardener, or anyone else—that they must direct her to where her Lord is laying. And by following her calling, she discovers an even greater calling. Mary Magdalene is known as the “Apostle to the apostles,” the apostolorum apostola; the first person to carry the news of the resurrection and share that light with another person.
May we all have that tenacity in our passion for caring for the dead. Mary cannot change the reality that Jesus has been unjustly executed. But she can return some measure of dignity to his body. Peter and the beloved disciple do not share that call, and so they go home still in darkness, perplexed and not feeling like they can do anything. They are hopeless and helpless.
It is easy to feel hopeless and helpless because of the darkness of the world. The last few months one source of darkness for me is the recognition that the world has begun persecuting Christians again in the last year in a way that feels new to me. Christians in Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, Syria, and now Kenya are being martyred for their faith. Our liberal Protestantism may make us hesitant to stand up too strongly in opposition out of a fear of being perceived as anti-Islamic. But it is not against Islam to say that murdering anyone for their faith is wrong; it is not against Islam to say that when Christians are being displaced by the thousands, Christians who live in places of privilege and safety should pay attention and speak up.
But how do you do that? How do you show the compassion of asking, “Woman, why are you weeping?” and listen to the pain and offer solace and comfort constructively, while still being faithful to the Prince of Peace, and not responding out of hatred? It’s tricky. The response of the Gospel to suffering and injustice is that Jesus does not rise unscathed, unscarred. Open wounds mark his hands and feet and side—as John’s gospel will make very clean in the story of his interaction with Thomas next week. Jesus bears the marks of suffering on his very body and still, still rises to bring us with him. How then do we show our faith in the one who was crucified?
If we just go home after seeing unjust killing; if we turn off the news, click on the next article, and move on about our days unchanged; If we do not wait at the tomb and demand dignity and compassion for the victims, then we remove ourselves from the opportunity of meeting Jesus and having our tears turn to joy and laughter. And this is true not just for the martyrdom of Christians—it is true for all unjust deaths, many of which are far closer to us geographically than Libya or Kenya. We are called as Christians to follow in Mary Magdalene’s footsteps and bear witness; to wait at the tomb and weep and be present so that we can greet the risen Lord when he comes and proclaim that at death life is changed, not ended.
Shortly after the execution of the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya back in February, an artist named Tony Rezk wrote an icon of the martyrs that was stunning. It is in the style of a traditional Orthodox icon, and the 21 men, in orange robes, kneeling on the sand, are being greeted by in heaven by Jesus and two angels who are giving them crowns and shouting “Axios!” the Greek word for “Worthy”. The image, and its wide sharing as a way of remembering the lives lost and gathering support to stop such violence in the future, reminds me of Mary Magdalene’s presence outside the tomb. The dignity and honor that was not afforded those men in life was being offered in death. Each name is listed on the back of the icon, that we may say their names and chant “Axios” for each one in our prayer.
Archbishop Eliud Wabukala of Kenya wrote a letter to his church and the world after the attack this week in Garissa, ending with this sentence:
“We will not be intimidated because we know and trust in the power of the cross, God’s power to forgive our sins, to turn death into the gate of glory and to make us his children for ever.”
In the face of so much bad news, in the face of so much violence and war and persecution and injustice and darkness, how can we possibly laugh or sing or celebrate? We laugh, we shout “Alleluia” today along with Christians all over the world, in places of power and in places of persecution, precisely because of what Archbishop Wabukala writes: we all trust in God’s power to turn death into the gate of glory, and make us his children for ever. We are God’s children, as Jesus says to Mary, “I am going to my father and your father, my God and your God.” Our father, our God, knows each of us by name, and calls us by that name that we may turn and face him and say “Rabbouni”, teacher; and in response, when we make that turn, the heavens will proclaim “Axios,” worthy. Amen.