This Easter message, which I delivered in 2019, struck me anew today. In the midst of a global pandemic, we are bewildered and afraid. But the women are still holding vigil, and hope and love are still whispering, calling us to rise up and follow.
Mary Magdalene, and Mary, and Salome rose before dawn that Sunday morning. I imagine their heads pounded from exhaustion and grief and their puffy, crusted eyes squinted from their tears. I imagine they had spent the night robbed of sleep by visions of their beloved teacher’s brutal death. Perhaps they fell into a fitful sleep at last just as the sky began to lighten, a moment of respite from their crushing despair.
But there one was final and tender act of love to be done, and so they forced themselves awake from that blessed oblivion, rose from their places of rest, and gathered what they would need to wash and anoint his body.
Two days before, when Jesus had breathed his last, executed in humiliating fashion by the state for his radical teachings of power turned upside down, Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome had remained beside him. As his breath rattled and his fragile, human body began to fail, they kept vigil by his side, offering the small comfort of their presence amid a tragedy they could not halt or control. We don’t know if any of his other disciples remained, but the women were there, to the very end, they were there.
They watched as his body was taken down and wrapped in linen and placed in a tomb with a large, heavy stone rolled across the entrance. Then, they returned home as they must to rest during the sabbath day as it was commanded. I imagine them pacing as though caged- their animal bodies wild with the destruction of their life as they knew it. I imagine them wailing, keening, resenting that no work could be done to care for the body of their beloved. Or perhaps they welcomed the day of enforced inaction. Perhaps their limbs felt as heavy as their hearts and they wanted nothing more that to bury themselves in blankets and not get up again.
But Sunday finally arrived, and the women rose early, pushing through their pain, through the despair that must have dragged them back, back down toward the small comfort of their beds. As they walked, the sun peeked up over the horizon in a blaze of pink and glory. The sunrise, as reliable as the solid earth beneath their feet, lit their sorrowful path. They worried on their way, would they have the strength to roll aside the stone that closed the tomb? Perhaps they worried too, in the secret chambers of their hearts, if they would have the strength of spirit to tend to his broken and battered body.
When Mary Magdalene and Mary and Salome arrived carrying oils and cloths and herbs, they found the stone already rolled back and a strange man there, telling them: “Do not be afraid. Jesus is not here, for he has risen.”
I imagine they were confused. I imagine they hoped it was true and cursed that wild hope for springing up in their hearts despite all they knew of what they had seen.
Later tellings would add Jesus’ reunion with the women and with his other disciples, but it in the oldest known version of the oldest gospel, the story ends there. “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
The earliest telling of the story ends in bewilderment, for the women of the story and for the reader alike. Are we to believe the stranger in white? Is he friend or foe? Could Jesus really rise again? Could it really be that the violence of empire and the pain of loss would be denied the final word?
In that most ancient telling, we don’t get an answer. There is no resolution. There is no certainty. There is only a seed of complicated hope, and the persistence of human love to water it and help it grow.
Perhaps you are not surprised that I, as a Unitarian Universalist, find this to be the most resonant telling, as well as the most historically probable. A story told entirely through the experience of the women? Now you are speaking my language. No resolution, no certainty, just a life-shaping question and a wild hope? Yes, please.
We don’t need certainty for resurrection to take hold of us. We don’t need to know the answer to form our lives around the question. The question is all we need, just that door cracked open, or the stone rolled a scant inch. Just the seed of hope. Love will do the rest.
Is new life possible? Is love stronger, even, than death? That question calls to us, wakes our grieving, slumbering hearts. The very question invites us to rise up, to live as though it were true. To make it true in our living.
And what strikes me the most about the actual ancient text is that it is not just Jesus who supposedly rose up that morning. It was also the women who loved him, who rose up from the pit of their grief to tend to him. It was also the movement that his teaching sparked… the community he nurtured who rose up in the shadow of his execution to spread his topsy turvy message of power in weakness and the victory of love.
And therein lies the truth of resurrection, as I see it… that a message so profound cannot be controlled, and a community so connected cannot be contained. That Love will have the final word, even if that word is just a question, a wild possibility, a whisper to rise and follow wherever it may lead.
The lesson for the women, the lesson for the forces of Empire, the lesson for us is this: You can crush Love down, bury it, cover it over, but it will rise. It will reach for the sun, and we will reach for each other.
Hope, once planted, will eventually blossom and grow even in hearts frozen by grief.
Communities formed and nurtured in love will rise up for and with each other again and again and again.
The women are risen. Our hope is risen. Love incarnate is risen. We are risen.