upper room daily devotions

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

A Christmas Sermon (for Easter), Easter C

Tears. A name. A garden. These are three of the most important images in our gospel reading. Together they reveal the transformative power of love to overcome the powers of this world, including the power of death, and in these images we see how God brings new life and redemption for all creation. All three of these - tears, a name, and a garden - link Mary with Jesus. When John awakens us to new life in the Resurrected Christ, it is through the presence of Mary Magdalene, the witness to the miracle of new life. So who is she?

Mary is found in all four of the gospels. The Bible does not say, as many of us were told growing up, that she was a harlot or a prostitute or even a sinner. 
Some traditions like the Roman Catholic Church, following the storyline in John, equate Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, Martha and Lazarus’ sister. This is mostly because, as intimate as Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are with Jesus, they simply fade away from the storyline about the time that Mary Magdalene appears. Both Luke and Mark tell us that Jesus cleanses her of seven demons. All four gospels put Mary as a witness to the crucifixion. Luke says that a group of women followed Jesus from Galilee, including Mary Magdalene. In John, Mary is a unique witness to the burial of Jesus. In all four gospels, Mary is among the women who announce the empty tomb to the apostles. In fact, in John, 

Jesus appears to Mary first among all others, as he does in the extended ending of Mark. And her name? There is a town called Magdala, which indicates that she could be from there. But Luke expressly tells us that she was called Magdalene, in Hebrew “Migdal,” which means fortress. Perhaps Mary was the fortress in the same way that Peter was the rock. Perhaps she was Mary the fortress, the unmoveable witness to Jesus. By the 10th century, she had become known as the Apostle to the Apostles. Traditions and stories of her evangelistic journeys became part of Christian legend.

One such story comes from the Eastern Orthodox church, and it is over 1500 years old. According to this legend, after Jesus releases Mary from the demons, she, coming from a wealthy family, financially supports him and his ministry. As others abandoned him, she remained with him to the cross. The resurrected Christ appeared to her and sent her to proclaim the resurrection. She travelled to Rome to do just this. Because of the status and wealth of her family, she was admitted to the court of Tiberius Caesar, where she dined with him. Over dinner, she picked up and egg and proclaimed that Jesus had risen from the dead. Caesar laughed at the absurdity of such a story, saying that such a thing would be just about as possible as the egg in her hand turning red. And so it did, immediately. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, eggs are still painted a deep red in remembrance of this act of transformation. 

This story along with Mary’s role at the death and burial of Jesus is why her icon usually depicts her with a jar of anointing oil 

and an egg, sometimes white, 

usually red.

 But what does this have to do with Easter? With Christ himself? With the miracle of this day? Tears. A name. And a garden. On that morning so long ago,

Mary goes while it is still dark out,
while her spirit must have been dark with grief and anger at the injustice of Jesus’ death, while the whole world was dark at the death of the Anointed One. But the dark could not keep her away. She moved in and through it to her beloved Jesus. When she finds the stone removed, she runs to tell the disciples that Jesus’ body had been taken. In the footrace to the tomb, Peter is beaten by the beloved one. There they find evidence of Jesus, but no body. We are told that the beloved one believed but did not understand and so they went home. Mary, once again, is left to be the witness. Love pulled the beloved disciple to the tomb before Peter. Love helped him believe, yet, in his ignorance, he left. But Mary, she stayed. And she wept. Her tears flowed from the years of following Jesus, from the loss of first his life and then his body - after all that he had done for her, to her, and in her presence. Her tears, I imagine could have been enough to saturate the ground. I believe they were enough to open her heart beyond belief into the presence of the risen Christ. It says that, “As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and she saw two angels in white...” They say to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She answers, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 

(Duccio di Buonisegna)

She turns and finds a single man, who asks the same question of her. Supposing him to be the gardener, she says, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Then Jesus speaks her name and her steadfast and loving heart is fully opened, “Teacher,” she says. She believes and she understands. Standing in the garden, she tries to hold on to him, but he tells her not to. She must release him. “But go...” he says. And so she does. She goes to the disciples and announces, “I have seen the Lord.”

Today’s sermon has an odd name - “A Christmas Sermon (for Easter).” This is because we often think of Christmas as the holiday of Incarnation. God born into the world. Emmanuel. God with Us. And then, when we get to Easter, Jesus is about the sky and the spirit world, something that happens after death in places we cannot see, smell, touch, taste or hear. But this story is about the Incarnation. About God in this world. Healing in this world. Living. Breathing. Redeeming. Loving. This world. Mary experienced bondage in this world. Jesus liberated her from her demons...in this world. She was with him in real human agony as his body was broken, as he breathed his last breath. She was there at a real tomb where death has the last word, from which there is no escape. She was there to wash and tenderly care for his body. She loved him. In this world. In that garden. When the door to the tomb was rolled away, she did not assume, “Oh, yeah, Jesus is with God.” She wept. She wept in love because his body, his real flesh body, had been stolen. She wept real tears that saturated the real ground. This is sorrow as you and I have experienced it when the unthinkable happens. When love breaks our hearts. Because it does happen. Justice is denied. Pain is real. The story of our faith as told through Mary Magdalene is a story of this world, of Emmanuel, of what happens when love fully takes hold of us. When the resurrected Christ speaks her name, he is with her, and the real ache in her is opened by real love. Right here in this world. Right there. In that garden...

(Alexander Ivanov)  

...In that garden like the first garden, where God began creation with Adam and Eve. The first and the new creation germinate in these places of life and death and life. They are verdant and potent. They smell. They taste. They make sounds. They provide food for nourishment and they offer pleasure. It is no coincidence that as God spoke the first creation into being, Christ speaks Mary into a new creation. So, as God began the first creation in a garden, God begins the second creation in a garden. Jesus as new creation. Mary in the midst of new creation. New creation. Alive in a new way. In the garden. By the breath of the divine. Intimate and holy.

John invites us into garden living, to be called by love into the suffering of the world and to weep at the reality of it all, to hear God speak our name, and to be awakened to the truth that, despite the hardness of it all, the difficulty of it all, God is at work speaking us into newness. Christ is speaking. Creation is awakening. Things are being disturbed. Changed. Transformed. The Easter miracle is not that a white egg magically became red or that a dead body was reanimated. The Easter miracle is love. Transformational love. Through love, all of creation is transformed as only God can do. Like  Mary released from demons. Like Jesus released from the grave. Like us released from.... Set free from... Like all of creation being awakened to something as yet to be experienced.

Tears. A name. A garden. These are all found here on this earth. And they serve to remind us that God is disturbing this world and entering into it fully and deeply, speaking it to new life once again. Amen.

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