A reflection on John 20:1-18 by the Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy-Keimig
Of the two Gospels in the Lectionary for Easter Sunday, I found myself drawn to John. A part of that attraction for me is Mary. Mary who went out to the tomb while it was still dark. Mary Magdalene who has been confused and merged with the other Marys of the Gospels. Mary who has been maligned through the ages as prostitute and sinner. Mary apostle to the apostles. Mary of the many narratives, is the one on this Easter morning who brings us the story, the one who is the bearer of the news. Ultimately not only the good news of that Easter morning that Jesus was not in the tomb, but the ultimate Good News that the love of God is stronger than death and the grave is not the end. This Mary has a story to tell us in her own words….
It seemed like so many days since the last time we were together, that night we ate and drank together. That night started out strangely, with him insisting on washing our feet. I mean, not that this wasn’t the thing to do before a meal, but to have the host do it, well that was just not what you’d expect. But then Jesus always was the master of the unexpected. And then there was that strange business with Judas. Of course it all made sense later, but at the time, I was so confused.
He spoke to us of so many things that night. He told us again and we must love one another. He said it very strongly, commanded us even to love one another, I remember he said, as he had loved us. I remember it made me think when he said that about the way he did love others. About the way he was with people, how he seemed to really see them, to be able to see their very souls, and what this did for their lives. Like the woman at the well who had such an experience of him that she left her water jar behind when she ran off to tell the others in village about him! I remembered how he healed that blind man, and how the man kept changing the way he talked about him calling him first a man, then a prophet then calling him “Lord.” I remember how that man stood up to the Pharisees and talked right back to them, asking “so why are you asking me all this? Do you want to become disciples too?” I had to laugh at that. I remember my own healing and liberation. I remember how he always included those who were out at the edges and those that the others left out, and that he preached that we must always forgive others, and that his love was a very radical kind of thing, and how he told us to do the same. So when he said that night to love one other as he had loved us, I knew he was asking a lot.
I think he tried to prepare us for what was to come….not just that he was going to die, but that he would be with us again, But he was right in that we did not understand all that he meant. But I had not always understood him. What he said or what he did. Healing people from illnesses, and even bringing his friend Lazarus back to life after four days in the grave. We all know that he had talked of eternal life, we all had come to know there would be a resurrection on the last day, but when he called Lazarus out and asked us to help him loose himself from those grave clothes, our belief in him as the Messiah was strengthened even more.
This was the Rabbi and teacher we loved, who had taught us all along, the one who had amazed us and sometimes baffled us but always loved us. But on that night there was something different about him, a new kind of intensity, an urgency. Now of course it all makes sense, but at the time, all I knew was that what he said was challenging and a little frightening. He talked about others persecuting us and even killing us for following him. And he kept saying he was going away, going to a place that we could not go, and if he did not do this, the spirit could not come. But that if he did go, this spirit he called the Advocate would come and would guide us into truth and righteousness.
And he said he was giving us peace but not the way the world did, but that we should not be afraid. I remember as much as trusted and loved him, I couldn’t help feeling troubled by all this talk of his leaving, and yes, I was afraid. I loved him with all my heart and I did not want him to go anywhere. We had only had him such a short time and he was doing so much good.
Love one another….Oh yes clearly I remember, he said that a second time. He said it so strongly, that command. I remember being a little taken aback by that, as he was so forceful about it. He said “no one has greater love than to lay down his life for a friend.” At the time I had no idea what was to come so soon, that he was talking about himself…his own great love, such great love.
He talked about how in a while we would not see him and again a little while and we would see him…and he said he was leaving the world and going to the Father. And we had no idea….no idea that this meant that in such a short time he would be taken from us, taken off for that travesty of a trial and be mocked and flogged and finally hung on that horrible cross. That was the worst day of my life, standing there with his mother, seeing the pain on her face as she watched him suffer and finally die. We just could not understand. After all that he said and did, for it all to end there, it simply made no sense. I really had believed that night when he said all those things, that he was that close to God, that he was more than just the wonderful Rabbi and teacher that I loved. But that day, I was there and saw it all, and I have to say that my belief in it all, in him, wavered. It pains me to admit it, but it did. When I went to the tomb that dark, dark morning it was to grieve him and to grieve the ideal of all he stood for. I had lost my hope. I had accepted the unacceptable. My Rabboni was dead, and dead with him were the dreams that the Messiah had come and all that came along with that. The group had broken up even before he was tried, hiding, fleeing, denying they knew him, afraid for their own skins. It was worse than if we had never known him. My heart was breaking, I really thought I might die from sadness. The only thing I could think to do was to go to the grave. If nothing else I could be close to the place where Joseph and Nicodemus had laid him. The garden was soothing, maybe I would find some peace just being near him there. But when I arrived to find that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, the bottom dropped out of my world even more. I had thought I could feel no worse, but I was wrong. My despair knew no bounds as I knew that the grave robbers had likely taken him. I ran for my friends, but all they could do was confirm what I had feared, the tomb was empty, the wrappings all that remained. They went back home. But I could not leave. Something just compelled me to stay. It was not hope, for I had none. There was nothing to hope in. It was not faith, for I had no faith left. It was not belief, for there was no one left to believe in. Then I looked in the tomb. I have no idea why I looked, Simon Peter and John had already told me there was nothing to see. But there were messengers there…two of them who asked me why I was crying. I told them of course, and it was then that I turned and saw the gardener; at least that was what I thought at first, that he was the gardener, or that he was another vision of some kind. That maybe I was just was just hoping that much to see him….but then I remembered that I had no hope, had no faith, had no belief. It had all dies on that awful cross with him. But then in the quiet of that empty place, I hear a familiar beloved voice say my name and I know who this was beyond a shadow of a doubt. It is he who has called by name, he who sees and knows all of me, he who has healed me, he who has recalled me to life even as he has risen from his own death. “Rabbouni, beloved teacher” I cry as I recognize him. I must not let him get away from me again! I cannot go back into that hopeless darkness now that his light has shone on me again. I grasp at him, but gently he pulls away and looks at me with great love, “Don’t hold on to me now. When I go to my Father, I will be available to all of you.” And I remember all of those things he said to us on that last night. And suddenly it all comes together and it all makes sense. This is Jesus, the Messiah, the Incarnate one of God. I trusted him then and I trust him now. This is the greatest news of all! I have seen the Lord and he is risen from the dead!