If you live in Michigan, you will agree that we are enjoying a long and beautiful spring this year. When I lived in Chicago, we used to say that there was no spring there—just an extended battle between winter and summer that summer eventually wins. These past few weeks around here have been like living in a southern climate: we’re getting a spring that lasts more than a minute between swelter and frost.
The opportunity to live with the leaves as they emerge, the flowers as they bloom, and the birds as they return over an extended period gives us the chance to take in the splendor of life as it renews itself. As I walk around the neighborhood here, I see people already at work in their gardens. I think gardens fascinate us because they let us see, in a defined space, the drama of death and life as they interplay with each other. And gardens have an important role in the Christian story of salvation. The writer Frederick Buechner once said that humanity was both lost and found in a garden. We were lost with Adam’s disobedience in Eden and found with Jesus’s faithfulness in Gethsemane. Everybody loves nature generally, but some deep part of us is drawn to the garden because we see recognize it as the place where death, life, sorrow, joy, despair and hope all intertwine.
Today is Easter, the day of risen, resurrected, renewed life. Just as spring only comes after winter; just as the garden’s new growth only comes with the cutting away of the old and dead, so the joy of Easter gladness only comes after the death of Jesus on the cross. We cannot have life without death. We cannot have death without life. Everything we learn from scripture is confirmed by a walk in the garden. As Charles Wright, a poet who writes often about what he sees in his back yard, says:
Death’s still the secret of life,
the garden reminds us.
Or vice versa.
--[Charles Wright, “Disjecta Membra” in Black Zodiac, p. 73]
Today we are drawn, in John’s Gospel, to a very particular garden, the one adjacent to the tomb in which Jesus was buried. The focal character in this story is Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’s most faithful followers. She goes to the tomb, discovers it empty, and returns to bring Peter and the Beloved Disciple to confirm what she sees. Peter and the Beloved Disciple go into the tomb, but Mary stands outside weeping. She sees two angels who ask her why she cries. She then turns and sees Jesus, whom she does not recognize. As John tells it,
Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). [John 20]
To me, this is the most powerful of all the New Testament resurrection accounts. It is moving on its own terms, even more so when you remember the journey that Mary Magdalene has been on. She joined the Jesus movement early on in Galilee, as a result of being healed by Jesus from “seven demons” [Luke 8:1-2]. She followed Jesus faithfully all the way to the cross, and was one who stood near him as he died on Calvary. She has gone to the tomb to anoint his body, and when she gets there she discovers that the tomb is empty. She is therefore the first witness of the resurrection.
What touches me so deeply about this Easter story is the way it shows us a woman in the grip of two emotions each of us will recognize. Mary Magdalene is overwhelmed with grief: her loss is so profound that all she can do is weep. Mary Magdalene is overpowered with fear: the angels and even the risen Jesus himself seem so strange that she is terrified at the very newness of what she is trying to take in.
This story, then is about the two big emotions that can rule our lives: grief and fear. They are constants in our emotional experience. First there is grief. It seems that all through our lives we are confronted with losses of every conceivable kind—the deaths of parents, friends, and spouses; the transitions of time and change that mark every life; the losses and diminishments that naturally happen as we age. Grief is a constant in human experience. We are always losing, always being asked to adjust to life without something or someone on whom we have come to depend.
And if grief is a constant, so too is fear. Most of us probably can’t (or won’t) name what we fear. We fear death, certainly. We fear loneliness, to be sure. We fear being unknown or forgotten or unloved. So much of our culture is organized around fear, so many advertising and political appeals are made to our fears, that fear becomes like the water we swim in: an invisible constant in almost everything we do. We will do almost anything to protect ourselves from the things we fear. We’ll even let those things run our lives.
And here is where the depth and power of today’s Easter Gospel come forth. We see a grief-stricken, fearful Mary at Jesus’s empty tomb. She does not recognize Jesus. In fact, she thinks he’s the gardener. He asks her why she weeps. She answers that she is looking for the body. Jesus then calls her by name. “Mary,” he says. In the moment she is called by name, her fears and her grief all vanish. She calls Jesus her teacher, and moves to embrace him.
The central point, of course, is that Jesus calls her by name. In being known for who she is, Mary is able to move out of grief and fear into a new way of being—into a joyous embrace of God and life. When we are in the power of death (which, after all, is what grief and fear are mostly about), we shrink into ourselves, trying to protect what we have, holding on ever more desperately to things which are passing away. When we are called and known by name, we are able to let go of death’s hold on us and move passionately into life.
The story of Mary Magdalene and Jesus in the garden is not just a first-century Bible-land fairy tale. It is a story about Jesus and Mary, but it is even more a story about God and us. Just as Mary was drowning in a sea of grief and fear, so are you and I. And just as Jesus called Mary by name, so does God call you and me. There is nothing you and I human beings can do to eliminate death as a fact of our lives. Jesus knew that. Mary knew that. But in calling Mary by name, Jesus bore witness to a bigger, more important truth: God calls you by name, too. God knows you. God loves you. In going to the cross, God in Jesus took on what it is to be you. Your thoughts, your fears, your longings, your hopes, your disappointments, your losses, your glories—all of these things about you matter, because God has taken them on in Jesus. And the knowledge that we matter and are known, while it cannot take away the inevitability of loss and death, robs them of their power over us. We are free to go on without them.
Mary Magdalene went to the tomb a broken, fearful, grief-stricken woman. She left transformed into a passionately committed, joyful apostle of love, justice, compassion, and hope. She was the first witness to the resurrection and its promise of new and redeemed life not just for her but for the entire human community and the world. You and I are now witnesses of the resurrection, too. Easter is God’s answer to our grief and fear. We no longer need to cower and weep alone. We are invited into the embrace of a risen life where God’s loving, redemptive purpose even now goes forward to reclaim and redeem the world.
God loves you. God knows you. God calls you by name. Mary turned from weeping to embracing the living Jesus. So can you. Like the extended spring we’re enjoying now, life itself is abundant, beautiful, and joyous. Our griefs and our fears need no longer control us. We have been known and embraced by God. Step into the abundant, beautiful, risen, joyous Easter life. Alleluia! Christ is risen! Amen.