Welcome to the Society of Saint John the Evangelist

Easter Tuesday

Preached by the Rev. Dr. Ellen Aitken

John 20:11-18

If you have traveled up the coast of New England , passing through one seaport after another, you will probably have noticed any number of large late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century houses overlooking the harbors and bays. Many of these houses have, at their very tops, small, square porches fenced around by a railing. Known as “the widow’s walk,” this architectural feature is said to be distinctive to the houses of sea captains (and their wives). The “widow’s walk” evokes the lonely, longing gaze of the sea captain’s wife, scanning the horizon each day that she might see the sails of her husband’s long-overdue ship returning from its ocean voyage. It evokes the uncertainty, the risk, and the joy of reunion that were knit into the life of these coastal towns, sending forth onto the high seas their sons and fathers, their uncles and nephews, sometimes their daughters (as a young woman my grandmother went to sea from Nova Scotia with her aunt and sea captain uncle to care for their children aboard ship). And the figure of the woman, lonely on the housetop, wondering if her beloved has been lost in the depths of the sea, if he has wandered away forever into a far-off land becomes in coastal tradition a focal point for the rhythms of loss and mourning, for the storms of life, as well as for the constant possibility of return and reunion. As a Scottish folksong from a similar way of life goes, “How often haunting the highest hilltop, I scan the ocean thy sails to sea. Wilt come tonight, love, wilt come tomorrow to comfort me?”

The ancient audience for whom the evangelist John crafted this story of Mary Magdalene in the garden would have recognized in Mary similar patterns of longing, uncertain grief, and persistent hope. John takes this story, already held and long honored within his community’s tradition, and shapes it to speak of the means by which his listeners might be drawn deeper into mutual love, how they might continue to “abide”—that particularly Johannine way of life—in the face of Jesus’ death. The ancient audience, steeped in traditional practices of death and mourning, would have recognized that Mary came to the tomb that morning to do two things. They would have seen first that Mary came to lament, that is, to enter into those communal practices of grieving for the dead, so that the grief welling up within her would take its place amid the griefs and hopes of her ancestors, so that her longing and sadness would be articulated in the traditional language of lament, perhaps the words of the psalmist, “Why are you so full of heaviness, o my soul, and why are you so disquieted within me? My tears have been my food day and night, while all day long they say to me, ‘Where now is your God?’” (Ps 42:6, 3). They, like most ancient (and modern) inhabitants of the Mediterranean, would have recognized that Mary was doing the work proper to the women of her community, the work of lamenting the dead and of finding within that lamentation the seeds of hope, for the psalmist goes on to say, “Put your trust in God, for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance and my God” (Ps 42:7).

This ancient audience would have gone on to recognize that Mary came also to the tomb to remember. John names the grave not simply as a burial place, but with the ritually poignant term, “the place of memory” or “the place of remembering.” The place of burial for the beloved, honored dead was in the ancient world one of the principal places of remembering, the place to which you returned again and again to speak of one buried there, perhaps to eat a meal or to pour a liquid offering onto the grave, but above all to remember. And thus it was that the grave became a place where stories grew, not only from speaking of the person’s life, but also out of the practices of lamentation, so that the words of the ancient promises and prophecies came to wrap around this very particular memory of the sharp, recent loss. And indeed our stories about Jesus may well have grown in part out of these practices of remembering at the place where he was buried.

But Mary remains at the tomb that morning, even after she finds that the tomb has been opened and the body of Jesus is gone, even after the other disciples have disappeared. John’s ancient audience would then have recognized one thing more: that in remaining, Mary was risking an encounter with one whom we might call one of “restless dead.” [1] John tells this story with all sorts of hints—the garden with its tomb is just the sort of place where heroes come back to life and appear to their devoted followers, to converse intimately with them; this garden is just the sort of place where heroes come back to life to exact just vengeance on their oppressors and those who dishonor them. It is a risk to remain in such a garden. You might be called by your name; you might be recognized; you might be drawn into fresh and enigmatic relationship with one whom you thought you knew; you might be given such clarity as to see the world anew.

Lamentation, remembrance, and the risk of encounter: I want to suggest these three as facets of resurrection life, of abiding in love. To lament is perchance not what we associate first with Eastertide, with resurrection joy, but while we may not be weeping for Jesus, there is something about resurrection that allows us to recognize with greater clarity the needs of the world, to face into the darkest and most dire aspects of society. Resurrection faith proclaims that God’s loving purposes to restore, reconcile, and recreate are constant and unshaken: this is our hope! Love is stronger than death! And such strength enables us to see more clearly, to speak more forthrightly of what needs to be redeemed and refashioned. This strength enables us to lament. Resurrection love moves our hearts to lament the destruction of peoples, the decay of a society, the power of an oppressor, the habits of deceit and betrayal—to lament not as those without hope, but to lament in order to uncover the promises of hope in the very midst of the worst that humans can do to one another. And this resurrection love strengthens our hearts not only to speak of our own sorrows, our deep griefs and tragedies, but also to move with compassion into solidarity with the griefs of other. Resurrection love allows us to breathe in with compassion the sufferings of one another.

And remembrance: as we stand with Mary Magdalene in the place of lamentation, the place of remembering, we too remember. As we lament for a broken and suffering world, we remember before God all those who need God—in John’s Gospel it is the Paraclete, the Spirit, who brings all things to remembrance, not just the things about Jesus, but the Paraclete causes us to remember one another in compassion. This Johannine Spirit working within us brings ourselves to our remembrance, our pasts, sometimes what we would rather forget, but above all the ways in which God has sought us out and shown us deepest compassion, abundant nurture. And so our lives become places of remembering, perhaps particularly the places where we thought there was only death and decay, for out of our awareness of such love we too begin to form a story, to let the promises and prophecies of hope wind around the story that we tell of our lives—a resurrection story.

And we too may join Mary at the place of remembering to risk an encounter, an encounter with the Lord of Life, for as we bring our lives into remembrance, as we expand our lament and our compassion, we deepen our engagement with one who appears in surprising and enigmatic ways (a gardener? a stranger on the road? over broiled fish at breakfast?!). In prayer, across the dinner table, in the words of one whom you find frightening or difficult to love, as you read, tonight, tomorrow? —you do not know when the risen Jesus will speak your name, drawing you to share afresh in the resurrection purposes of God, inviting you to share in divine creativity for the redemption of the world. This is the risk that we take: the risk of encountering God, the risk of God remembering us, the risk of the risen Jesus recognizing us in the garden of our lamentation, the risk of encountering the truth about ourselves, about our world, and above all the wondrous truth of the trustworthy and steadfast love of God.

[1] The phrase “restless dead” is taken from the title of Sarah Iles Johnston’s study, Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

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