When all we can do is weep
“Why did Mary stay behind? “ This morning’s BRF Guidelines features John’s account of the resurrection. (I’m a few days ahead). A familiar passage which I have read numerous times, no doubt inspiring more than a few sermons. And yet the Holy Spirit continues to open up new angles, even fresh meanings from such familiar readings from scripture. As always the temptation is to think that such familiarity means that somehow we have exhausted its meaning. In fact, I recall standing outside the Porter’s Lodge as a young undergraduate thinking that now I have completed the New Testament, that’s it. I now understand the Christian faith, just like finishing an economics textbook. Once you’ve covered the arguments and get what the writer is getting at, what’s left? And yet over the years the Bible as God's word has never ceased to surprise me and every so often the Holy Spirit leads me through well-read passages in a quantum shift in my understanding of how God would work in my life. So each morning I engage in a creative act in partnership with God’s Spirit: “Let’s see what I’ll see this day.” It is Jacqui’s favourite author, Harper Lee, who writes: “The book to read is not the one which thinks for you, but the one which makes you think. No book in the world equals the Bible for that.” So Mary comes to the tomb where just two days earlier she had witnessed Joseph of Arimathea with Nicodemus hastily lay the corpse of Jesus in a rock-hewn tomb; no doubt, she watched the two men roll a large stone over the narrow entrance. You know the story, given here from John’s perspective: how Mary discovers that the entrance of Jesus’ tomb is exposed and that immediately she runs to Peter and “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” We assume that this is John, the evangelist himself. There seems to be a lot of running in this passage because the two men then run to the tomb, as fast as they can in that John outruns Peter. They enter the tomb individually and discover the linen graveclothes and the head cloth but no body. This is one of those situations when your brain races to make sense of some surprising phenomenon, looking for some explicable category. We need to make sense of what we are experiencing, however bizarre. John tells us that the disciples understand and not understand at the same time (they’re human beings). And then as an anti-climax, “the disciples went back to where they were staying” (John 20:10). No point in staying, they need to talk this through with the others: they need to decide how to respond, to do something. In contrast: “Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying.” Clearly in shock, she stays. John gives us the impression she is by herself. Maybe she is embarrassed by her tears, although in her culture unlikely. Or maybe she is immobilised, in shock. Clearly she thinks that someone for some reason has moved the body of Jesus. I guess that has to be the most obvious explanation. Even as a dead body Jesus posed a threat. So she just stands there and cries. Sometimes that is all we can do, do nothing but weep. Mary doesn’t start looking or seek out a possible witness: no point for aimless activism. Mary seems lost to herself. When she eventually looks into the empty tomb to see two angels, she responds in a very-matter-of- fact way. As if angels sitting in tombs is a regular occurrence. Presumably the only give-away that they are angels is that their clothes are white. Even so, Mary doesn’t seem to be startled and enters into conversation by simply responding to their obvious question “Woman, why are you crying?” Clearly her brain is racing to make sense of all that is happening – and it can’t quite keep up. We know very little about Mary of Magdala. Just that along with some other women she accompanied Jesus and his disciples through Galilee and that she was the woman “from whom seven demons had come out.” (Luke 8:2). That’s it. Everything else is sheer conjecture. Certainly no reason to think that she is same Mary as the Mary of Bethany who anointed Jesus’ feet. Much later, from the 6th century even, the tradition began that she was a prostitute. She even features in the bizarre storyline from Dan Brown’s 2003 best seller, the Da Vinci code. Clearly Mary of Magdala needs a good libel lawyer. For it seems to be our human nature to fill in the details and create a context. But all we have is that she stands at Jesus’ empty tomb and weeps. That’s all we need to know. It’s been a difficult time for so many people. In a few minutes I will have to pause this blog and make a scheduled phone call to a bereaved husband who has unexpectedly lost his wife to covid. No glib answers here but just to stand like Mary and weep.
For it is the Mary who simply stays to weep is the one who is the first to experience the risen Jesus. As Lutheran theologian, Nadia Bolz-Weber, observes: “Mary of Magdala didn't necessarily know what to say or what to do or even what to think when she encountered the risen Jesus. But none of that was nearly as important as the fact that she was present and attentive to him.”