In life’s all too common journeys, we encounter small signs of a great victory. Those signs were there on that first Easter. The Bible says, “Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb” (John 20:1). She does not understand its meaning. She runs to get others. She jumps immediately to the common supposition that “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2).
Whatever else is to be said at this point it is clear that the grave is not the end. I remember a colleague telling of pausing in a cemetery after he had finished a funeral. He looked at a massive stone crypt set near where he had just concluded the funeral service. Clear specific instructions had been left. “Not to be opened upon any circumstance” was chiseled on the stone door facing of the crypt. And yet, there it was. The tiny shoot of a plant, possibly a tree in the making, had slowly but inexorably forced the stone door of the crypt open. A shaft of light was streaming in.
So it is for us this day. A shaft of light breaks through the darkness. Mary struggles to believe; so do Peter and the other disciple as they peer in to examine what is left behind. They examine the grave like befuddled detectives, one starting to believe; the other, Peter, clearly not knowing what to make of the empty tomb.
We are so like them that at times it is painful. We believe and yet we are overwhelmed in grief and loss. We believe and yet we shake our heads at how awful the world is. We believe and yet … we are not sure. We believe and see small signs of a great victory.
Notice what the disciples and Mary did. They relegated the extraordinary – the stone rolled, the tomb empty – to the ordinary. They sought to explain it all with a sensible supposition – the body has been taken. All the while they confront massive evidence of the truth. Christ has been raised from the dead. Death and sin are conquered. Belief dawns slowly with the light. The Bible says, “For as yet they did not understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead” (John 20:9).
This too is our struggle. Small signs of this colossal victory are all around us. Mary and the two disciples of that first Easter morning would teach us to look for signs of the extraordinary in the ordinary. In love shared, in care given, with hope amid despair, and laughter in the place of grief, comes the dawning of belief. One of the followers gets it. “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed” (John 20:8). Let that be you. Begin to see the extraordinary – God in resurrection action – amid the ordinary.
Pause here. Catch with me precisely where Jesus is first encountered. It is near the tomb! Angels are messengers of God. They point to the triumph. They are inside the tomb, at the very epicenter of defeat, directing our attention to the triumph. Still Mary struggles to believe.
Did you make the critical connection? We encounter Jesus first, often best, at the very place of our defeat, despair, and deep grief. Where we struggle to believe, God is most present. Where we have come to the end of our resources, there God can break through in triumph.
Focused on her grief Mary teeters on the edge of faith. “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away’” (John 20:14-15). Then the full impact of the resurrection, the gospel, hits. “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’” (John 20:16). In the naming she is claimed by the Lord. His triumph becomes her destiny! The “Jesus Way” leads not to defeat but to victory. Our morning begins in a graveyard. It erupts in a shout. “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18).
Our path of faith is the same. Near the tombs of our life – be they physical, spiritual or symbolic – we are named and claimed by the risen Lord. Lift your head when defeat, despair, and deep grief settle in. Look for the triumphant Christ. He is at hand. You are named and claimed.
A friend of mine, Joe Harding, years ago sat on a plane next to the great actor Richard Burton. Conversing with him, Harding asked him about playing the role of Marcellus in the epic movie The Robe. Marcellus was the commanding officer of the soldiers who crucified Christ and gambled for his garments at the foot of the cross.
Richard Burton relayed how terrifying it was to play that scene at the foot of the cross. He told Joe how the figure of Jesus was made out of plastic and one of the stage hands stood beneath the cross, out of view, and pumped blood through this plastic figure. Burton said that the scene was so terrifying, so fake and unreal, that one of his fellow actors had a nervous breakdown.
As Burton finished relating the story, the plane pulled up to the gate, and they got ready to leave. Joe didn’t know what to say but words just sort of popped into his mouth. He said, “Mr. Burton, I know a Jesus that is real and alive.”
What about you? Do you know a Jesus who is real and alive? He calls us by name – Mary! or Jim! or Juanita! or Mark!. This Easter we are named and claimed by the risen Lord. His triumph is our destiny!