Acts 10:34-43, John 20:1-18
Today was supposed to be my last working Sunday here, but it is not: I am here for the foreseeable future, until the current circumstance change. Today was supposed to be a day of family get-togethers and slap-up feasts, but it won’t be. Today Mary Magdalene was supposed to be finishing off the burial rituals for Jesus’s body, but she didn’t, because she was interrupted by the gardener, or so she thought.
Nothing is right today, and yet everything is absolutely right for Christ is risen! Our normal Easter activities have been put on hold, and yet Christ is risen! The churches are locked today, and yet Christ is risen! It takes much more than a vicious virus to quash the joy of resurrection. We will celebrate today, whatever our circumstances, however far away our families may be, because Christ is risen!
While that might be enough exclamation marks for now, the extraordinary reason for today’s celebration far outweighs the restrictions of the current crisis. We are separated from each other for each other’s sake, as life is precious and life is glorious, because Christ rose from the dead. We do what we can to ease the burden on doctors and nurses, whose hard and dangerous work needs our acknowledgement and whose wellbeing deserves our constant prayer, by minimising the risk of infection, but our rejoicing in the risen Christ cannot be contained.
As the large-scale celebrations have had to be put on hold, everything has had to be scaled back to a more domestic level. This is where the Easter story really begins. Mary Magdalene is coming to the tomb to do for Jesus what could not be completed in the haste of his burial on Good Friday and the subsequent Sabbath day. Mary Magdalene is prepared to anoint the body with oils and perfumes, re-wrap and re-lay the corpse in the tomb, and then go home to mourn. She is going to do for Jesus what a relative would normally do, but in these circumstances, she is taking the place of Mary, his mother, out of love and an overwhelming sense of duty. Big public mourning rites were not possible for Jesus, Mary Magdalene knew, so she went to do them as early in the morning as possible, so as not to attract any attention and to avoid any further conflict.
How differently it all worked out. Firstly, the tomb was open and empty. The two disciples she ran to tell were as useful as a chocolate tea pot, as they saw the empty tomb but just went home, leaving Mary on her own in the garden, confused and slightly terrified. How helpful are the two angels, who speak to her? She is obviously still weeping when Jesus approaches, as the lines, “Woman, why are you weeping?” are repeated word for word. It takes Jesus saying her name for the reality of the situation to be made clear. That personal contact, the connection between her name and the sound of his voice finally breaks through Mary’s grief and she realises that Jesus is alive. It is a wonderful moment, one of several that fill the post-resurrection appearances. It is loving and slightly reproachful, possibly, but done in the gentlest of ways. This is two people meeeting up after one of them thought they would never see the other again – no wonder she clings on to him and has to be peeled off, so that she can go and tell the disciples that Jesus is alive. Two people, in a garden, together again. Then the work of outreach begins. That is Easter, summed up in a few words.
For us, we can do little more than go out into our garden or whatever green space is available to us, and realize that we are with our risen Lord, forever. We can cling on to him, or we can demonstrate that he is alive by our gentleness and our reaching out to others. Love motivates us, love takes us beyond ourselves to search out the needs of those who are round about us, especially at this time. There has been no better opportunity to get to know our neighbours and to share the burdens of this lockdown together. There has been no better time to pray for God’s suffering world. There has been no better time to perform those gentle acts of kindness to the isolated and the vulnerable. Pope Francis, in his Maundy Thursday sermon, talks of these kinds of actions as belonging to “saints next door”,who, along with doctors and nurses, paramedics and NHS support staff, are making the difference between fulness of life and mere survival.
We have people ringing round members of the congregation to check that they are all right. If we had more volunteers for that, everybody could be rung up at least once a week. Most roads in Kew have an active WhatsApp group sharing and caring for each other in the street – let’s be part of those simple, practical ways of demonstrating solidarity and bearing one another’s burdens. Nothing spectacular, no grand public show, but like Mary Magdalene, quietly going about the business of caring and making a difference, in the joy of resurrection. George Elliott puts it rather better in the final paragraph of Middlemarch: “..the effect of her being (Dorothea) on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life..”
May your Easter joy be unconfined, may your families and friends be safe and well, and may we all rejoice together when we are allowed back into church, where the Easter candle will be waiting for us, shining with the full brightness of the risen Christ.
Rev Peter Hart