Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.
So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in.
Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen.
Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
– John 20:1-18
The time between three o’clock and six o’clock is the loneliest time of the night. It has some of the darkest hours in it. The long, slow grey time before sunrise seems to take forever.
It can be beautiful, once the sun is up – but between three and six in the morning can feel like the bleakest, most God-forsaken time of the whole day.
That was when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb.
Easter morning didn’t begin with hymns and songs of joy. It began with a solitary woman, who couldn’t sleep for grief, picking her way out to the cemetery in the chilliest, loneliest, most washed-out part of the day.
Everyone else had run away. There was just one woman – dressed in mourning clothes, who had loved Jesus because he had brought her God’s own healing and forgiveness.
And when she got there, the tomb was empty. Here was grief added to grief. Here was desecration of the dead added to the devastation of Jesus’ death. She didn’t know what to do.
So the second thing that happened, that first Easter morning, this same woman went running back to town, to get people to come and see what had happened.
Do you all remember Peter? Not Peter the chief apostle – not Peter the head of the church, the rock, the fearless witness. We’re not talking about Peter standing at the Pearly Gates with the keys to heaven in his hand.
No. This was Peter – the one who only three days before had denied even knowing Jesus, the Master he had sworn never to abandon. Peter, the one who ran away.
Maybe Peter had been something special before. Right now he was just a scared fisherman. Peter was just an ordinary guy whose courage gave out and whose beloved leader was dead. That’s who Peter was.
We don’t know who the second disciple was. Today’s reading calls him the beloved disciple, the “one who Jesus loved”, who had leaned up close against Jesus during the Last Supper. Some people think it was John himself, who wrote down the fourth gospel.
So Peter and the other disciple took off on the run for the cemetery. They didn’t wait for Mary Magdalene – they left her to catch up on her own. When they got there, it was still that cold, grey time before daybreak, and it was just as she said – the stone was rolled away.
Then, when they stooped down to look into the darkness of the tomb, they saw something that really shook them. The shroud was there, but the tomb was empty.
So the first Easter morning, two grown men stood staring into a hole in the ground in the early morning light. They were scared. They didn’t know what it all meant. That’s the real version of Easter – a weeping woman, a scared man who had run away, his scared friend, and all unexpected, an empty tomb.
And then, as the light slowly grew, they got their courage together, and they ducked and went into the tomb itself. As they looked around, they saw that the shroud wasn’t just empty – it had never even been unwrapped. It was as if whoever had been in the shroud had simply left the grave behind, without even bothering to unwrap it. It was empty. Jesus was gone.
It doesn’t say what Peter felt. But it does say that the other disciple, the one who came with him, saw the empty tomb, and believed. As the sun burst over the hills of Jerusalem, there in very bottom of the tomb, hope burst into his heart. Hope, right in the tomb itself – that’s the fourth big event of Easter morning.
It wasn’t till that very moment that either one of them gave any thought to what Jesus had been saying for the longest time – that he would rise from the dead.
It was like they hadn’t heard what he’d been saying, as if they hadn’t been listening to him. They had been following Jesus all that time, they said they were his friends, but they never understood or heard what Jesus was saying about the life that was in him – the life that never ends.
They didn’t know what do do. So they went home. I think they must have left without even a word to poor Mary, who had just caught up with them. They didn’t give her a word of comfort, not even a pat on the shoulder. Maybe they didn’t know what to say – they could hardly believe what they’d seen themselves.
So there was Mary, weeping. And after a while, she just had to look, no matter how much it hurt her.
And when she looked, she thought she saw two figures in white – angels, she said later – standing right where Jesus’ body had been.
And one of them said, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
And she answered, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have put him!”
Then she turned around, and there was Jesus himself, standing right by the entrance to the tomb. She didn’t know him. Maybe she was blinded by her tears. Maybe she had her face in her hands. Never forget – Easter begins with grief, despair and tears.
And then Jesus asked her again, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
Maybe she thought he was on the night cleanup crew, and had taken the body away someplace. She cried out, “Oh, please, if you’ve taken him, please tell me where, and I’ll go and take away his body!”
And then comes the great moment – the dialogue that only took one word on each side to be complete.
He quietly called her name – “Mary!” And through her tears, at the entrance to the grave, she knew him, and called back, “Master!”
Just two words were all that were needed. That is the heart of Easter – the living Christ calling a broken-hearted woman by name, and her reply. Two words – that’s all. That’s all that was necessary.
I always encourage you to put yourself in the story. So, as we think about Easter, remember that scene. Two words – the living Christ who calls us by name, and our recognition, our reply.
A lot of things have grown out of that first Easter – songs and traditions and thousands of years of sermons. A great faith that’s passed down and re-discovered in each generation. But two words started it all – one word from the risen Christ, the other word from us.
It’s almost as though we go through different stages.
Easter is grief for the God who seems to be dead and gone. Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt that God just wasn’t there? Have you ever lost your hope, lost your faith, been empty of all the things you believed?
If you ever felt that way, that’s how people felt, early on Easter morning.
Easter – the real version – is faith, and joy, but it’s also all the times when we just don’t understand. It’s that “What?” moment – that disconnect from what we expected, when God has done a complete surprise instead. The tomb where Christ is supposed to be, but it’s empty.
Easter is all of the moments in our lives when we don’t know where Christ is, when we just don’t understand, when we don’t know what to believe anymore.
Easter is also a time of personal re-discovery. It’s the moment when we hear God call us by name, and when we answer.
We are Mary. We are Peter. We are all the unnamed, beloved disciple, with our faith and hope lost, and finding it again.
All of these moments are Easter, and Easter is whenever these things take place – no matter when they happen.
I wish you all a happy and joyful Easter. I want you to go home, and enjoy the day.
But remember that enounter in the garden.
Ask yourself, “What really happened? If it were me, would I believe? And when I went home, what would I say?”