I have a confession to make: I am afraid of the dark. I put on a brave face for my children, tucking them in, ushering them through the darkness between the car and the house, holding back the imagined ghosts and goblins that threaten them. But the truth is, when I’m alone in the dark, I freak out a little. When the house is empty, I avoid the basement, where shadows lurk even at mid-day. When I have somewhere to be at night, whether it’s the church parking lot or my own back yard, I am on high alert, checking back seats, walking quickly, looking behind me, and carrying my cell phone ready to dial. I’ve been mugged twice, both in broad daylight. Yet it is the dark that scares me.
Which is why I think Mary Magdalene must be a little crazy, or more likely desperate, when she goes, alone, while it was still dark, to the garden outside the city, to Jesus’ tomb. Jerusalem is probably a city that never really sleeps, but the darkness of this pre-electric world would still be pretty dark. And probably dangerous for a woman walking alone. But she is driven by something else on this night. On this night, the darkness within her is greater – the darkness of grief, of sorrow, of despair. Her beloved teacher, rabbi, friend, is gone. Brutally murdered in front of her, a victim of the cruelty of empire and occupation and fear. She probably doesn’t even notice the darkness that surrounds her as she comes to the tomb.
But what she finds there is enough to startle her, to shake her from her inner darkness. The stone is rolled back! The tomb is empty! She is awakened from her sleepwalking grief – where is Jesus’ body? – and she runs, back to the city, back to find Peter and the other disciple. And together they run, at a sprint it seems, and find the tomb empty. Not the kind of empty that it would be if grave-robbers had been there. Grave-robbers do not remove the wrappings and roll them up neatly. Something else is happening here. And the disciples believed, but did not understand. While it was still dark.
I think this is the hardest thing for us, we who come to the Christian story, the Christian faith 2000 years on. It is still dark. This week alone is evidence enough of that. As we mark one year since the Boston Marathon bombings, it was hard not to notice that this week is the most tragedy-filled week in American history. This week last year also brought the huge explosion in the town of West, Texas. Going all the way back, this week in 1775 Paul Revere made his famous ride. On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot at Ford’s Theatre. In 1906, a huge earthquake struck San Francisco on April 18, killing more than 3000 and destroying the city. On April 15, 1912, the Titanic sank. On April 17, 1967, was the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. In 1983, the US Embassy in Beirut was destroyed by a bomber, killing 63. On April 19, 1993, the ATF stormed the compound of the Branch Davidians, resulting in 76 deaths. The Oklahoma City bombings happened 2 years later on the same date. Fifteen years ago today was Columbine. On April 16, 2007, a gunman killed 32 people on the campus of Virginia Tech. Four years ago today, the Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded. And I could go on. It is indeed still dark.
It was dark on that morning 2000 years ago. The People of Israel were occupied, put down by the Roman Empire, under the thumb of a foreign ruler who called himself god and demanded the allegiance and the homage of his subjects. Less than 50 years later, the Romans would destroy the Temple and scatter the Jews in an exile that lasted until 1945 and beyond. For the followers of this preacher from Galilee, things were darker than dark. Their teacher and friend, the one they had hoped would be king, messiah even, who would push out the Roman occupiers, who would establish David’s throne, who would bring God’s Kingdom, this rabbi and lord, was dead. Three-days, sword-pierced-his-side, wrapped-in-linens-and-spices dead. Hope was gone. There was nothing left to do but mourn.
We are, most of us, living in this kind of darkness. Whether it is the tragedy of the newspapers, or the difficulty of daily living, it is dark. We don’t have to go so far as history to know how dark it is. We live in the darkness of Holy Saturday, caught between the pain of tragedy and the uncertainty of what is next, breathing in hope and despair simultaneously, like a crazy conflicted oxygen molecule, hope and despair joined together, pulsing through our veins, exhausting us with its contradiction. This is where we live, in hospital rooms and AA meetings and courts of law; this is where we live, at kitchen tables, and coffee shops, and therapists’ offices; this is where we live, in heartbroken silence, and red-faced anger, and crushing loneliness. It is still so dark. So dark that we cannot see the one we are looking for standing in front of us.
Until he speaks our name. Jesus said to her, “Mary!” and she turned and recognized him! Rabbouni! A term of endearment for a beloved teacher. Rabbouni! And now she believes and understands. Believes and understands that darkness is not the winner. Darkness is not the final word. Darkness does not rule. No matter how dark it gets. When the darkness inside overwhelms the darkness outside, still, it cannot win. When it is so dark that you cannot see your beloved standing right in front of you, still, it cannot win. When it is so dark that the world seems lost and hopeless, still, it cannot win.
Because the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness cannot overcome it. This is the promise of Easter. This is the promise of the empty tomb. It is not a promise that darkness disappears. The world still turns, and the sun still sets, and darkness is still a part of life. Jesus still died. The cross still happened. The tomb is still part of the story. Jesus raised still had the marks on his hand; the wound in his side. Easter does not erase that, or eliminate it, or ignore it. Mary’s tears are still fresh on her face and very very real. But those tears are not the end of the story. The cross is not the end of the story. The tomb and the waiting and the despair are not the end of the story. Because the tomb. Was. Empty. As a friend posted on her Facebook page today, “Death is real. But life is real-er.” Because the beloved Rabbouni was standing in the garden. Because the risen Christ called her by name, and suddenly she could see clearly. Everything that had come before had a new light on it, because he called her by name, and opened her eyes to the light. To believe. To understand. Even while it was still dark, she could see her risen Lord. And darkness no longer had power over her.
In your baptism, Christ called you by name. Even while it was still dark. Whether you were baptized as a little infant, or as an adult, Christ called you by name. Even if you have not yet been baptized, this invitation is for you, and Christ is calling to you. Calling you by name. It doesn’t take away the darkness, it doesn’t mean that life will be easy or perfect or sin-free from now on. Instead what it means is that the light has named you as its own. That while it was still dark, the light has chosen to dwell in you. That your identity is not caught up in darkness, or despair, or grief. Your identity is not a Holy Saturday, darkness-of-the-tomb identity. You belong to Christ, in whom you have been baptized. You joined with the Body of Christ, and while it is still dark, your identity is now the light, shining for others in their darkness. Pushing back at the darkness, reminding the world that darkness cannot win. Light has the final word. Love defeats despair. Life will not be held by the tomb. You are an Easter Person. We are an Easter People. Your identity is a Named and Claimed by the Light that shines in the Darkness. And your life is a Resurrection life. Death is real. But life is real-er. Thanks be to God!