It is the final week of Jesus' life. The long-awaited "hour" of his death, pent up for so long like water behind a dam that is suddenly released, strikes with blinding speed and savage fury.
Jesus' many predictions, and indeed the prophecies of Scripture, are coming all too true. In quick succession, Jesus is betrayed (by Judas), arrested, bound, denied (three times by Peter), tried (by Jews and Romans), condemned as an insurrectionist, flogged, tortured, mocked, robbed and crucified.
While most of the disciples have fled, a small group of women that includes Mary Magdalene, who was delivered from the ghastly control of seven demons, stands mournfully but resolutely by the cross. It is what will come to be known as Good Friday.
Then Jesus, the Word who created the world, dies, his side pierced with a Roman spear just to make sure. The mangled body is taken down and laid in the nearby garden tomb of a heretofore secret follower named Joseph of Arimathea. Somehow, the stars do not fall from the sky. The Lamb of God who created them and who turned water into wine, who saved a dying boy from miles away, who restored a man lame for 38 years, who fed a multitude with five loaves and two fish, who walked across the stormy sea, who healed a man born blind and who called back his friend Lazarus from the realm of death has now gone there himself, taking with him the sins of the world.
A huge stone is rolled in front of the tomb. With the Sabbath rapidly approaching, the careful preparation of the bloody corpse for burial is only half done, which Mary from Magdala notices with anguish as day turns to night. She must wait for Sunday in order to finish the grim job, in one final act of devotion.
Finally the day dawns, and Mary and some other women return to the tomb, not in hope, but in duty and love. What she sees in the early light of day produces in her not joy — for she expects nothing good — but consternation. The stone that barred the horizontal entrance to Joseph's tomb has been rolled away. Even more shocking, the body of her Lord is gone.
Mary's first response is not to run to the tomb, but to run away from it. In her fear and confusion, she heads straight to others who will understand — Peter and "the other disciple," John, the one whom Jesus loved.
The Lord's body is missing, she informs them breathlessly. The two disciples, roused from sleep, forget all about Mary and run toward the tomb, drawn like magnets. John gets there first and stoops to get a look. He is transfixed, seeing the grave clothes arranged neatly, but with no body inside them. Grieving and guilty, Peter arrives next and, true to form, plunges right in.
John follows the impetuous fisherman inside, "and," John reports about himself, "he saw and believed." Perhaps John recalls Jesus' words to those who were calling for a sign after he had cleansed the Temple: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."
The final, eighth sign, the exclamation point to the seven, is humbly revealed. It is now the third day since the crucifixion, the beginning of a new week of creation, and Jesus' body is missing. Jesus raised Lazarus with the seventh sign. Is there any doubt that he has been raised with the eighth?
Peter and John leave the empty tomb, as superfluous now as a chrysalis. Mary, however, eventually finds her way back, hoping the body will somehow turn up. She weeps, expecting no miracle. She is just there to anoint the corpse, if she can find it.
As if Mary still cannot believe what has happened, she bends and peers with tear-soaked eyes into the tomb and sees two figures sitting where the body had been. "Woman," they ask politely, "why are you weeping?" (They are angels, though she doesn't know it.) Mary replies in confusion, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him."
Mary's surprise is normal. She has seen death and knows it never gives back its captives. Whatever happened with Lazarus, surely lightning will not strike a second time in the same place. God's promises may be true for others, perhaps, but not for her.
Mary, like many of us overwhelmed with the pain of a broken life, is in despair. Then she straightens up and sees another figure. Mary assumes it is the gardener. He asks the same question as the angels, adding, "Whom are you seeking?"
"Sir," Mary replies, "if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Heartbroken, she looks away again.
From childhood, we all experience death as final. Only in this case, Jesus is not gone. The Living One, who died for our sins and who now is alive forever, who holds the keys of death and Hades, decides to reveal himself to this disconsolate, distracted disciple.
It only takes a word: "Mary." It is a greeting of familiarity, of relationship. Mary turns in wonder. This Man is no gardener. The One who freed her from the worst terrors of hell knows her by name, just as he knows yours.
In J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Return of the King," the hobbit Sam sees Gandalf the wizard back from the dead and exclaims, "I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?"
The resurrection of Jesus means that one day everything sad is going to come untrue — for Mary Magdalene, and for all who turn to him in faith.
Stan Guthrie, a licensed minister, is an editor at large for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.
From BreakPoint, April 18, 2019; reprinted by permission of the Colson Center, www,breakpoint.org.
Chattanooga-area pastors say Easter story of hope has fresh meaning after a pandemic year of fear and uncertainty