Sunday, April 24, 2011

In the Garden

The National Archives UK

Today's sermon is dedicated to all of my colleagues who have expressed discomfort at the song lyrics of "In the Garden". We are saved by love, we are resurrected by love, and surely this is reflected in this intimate moment between the Magdalene and Jesus at the tomb in the garden.

Sermon, Sunday, April 24, 2011
by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Reading: John 20:1-18

"For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness." ~James Baldwin, Sonny's Blues

Early on that first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. She walked in the dark to the garden near where Jesus had been crucified, to the place where Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had laid him in a tomb. They laid Jesus in a tomb on Friday night after wrapping him in spices and linene cloths, preparing the body according to their customs. Joseph and Nicodemus risked identification with Jesus, the criminal crucified for crimes against the empire, for rabble rousing, for heresy, for stirring up trouble wherever he went. Jesus was a man who inspired others to take risks, to take their lives in new and unexpected directions, to let go of what they thought they knew and seek after truth, though it might cost dearly. Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy man, perhaps one of the religious leaders who condemned Jesus. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who first came to Jesus by night, wrestling with questions and longings he did not understand. These two men, on Friday night asked Pilate for the body and laid it to rest in a tomb in a garden. And then they departed, their ritual and duty complete.

Earlier on that Friday, as Jesus suffered on the cross, he saw the three Marys standing with the disciple whom he loved, who we believe was John. Mary his mother, Mary his mother’s sister, and Mary the Magdelene. And he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” And to John he said, “Here is your mother.” So that in a little while, when Jesus gave up his spirit and died, he called out, “It is finished.” And perhaps for his mother Mary and his beloved disciple John it was finished. Their beloved Jesus now dead, but at least they had one another. But it is somewhat poignant to ask what was left for Mary the Magdelene.

We might ask what she has been left with all these centuries later. Mary Magdalene lives on in our popular memories and myths as a sexual sinner, a prostitute, a woman of low reputation and social standing, bearing the brunt of sexual innuendo and speculation. Whether she earned that stigma(ta) or whether she, like Christ, was scapegoated, what we know is that she was stricken with grief at the loss of her beloved Teacher. And on that first day she walked in the dark before dawn to the tomb where he was laid. He had already been dressed for burial, but perhaps she went to be near him again in the only way she could think.

I imagine she had woken up that morning (or never really slept), and on that first day of the week she could not think of anything else but to be near something of his. The Hebrew scriptures promise “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning.” But there is nothing that tests our faith in that promise like the death of a loved one. And perhaps Mary the Magdalene rose up out of her bed that morning, early, before dawn, and could not see the new mercies of God through her grief. For her that morning there was no exclamation of “Christ has risen!” but only the pain of loss, knowing that she would not see this beloved man again.

The loss of someone who is so deeply under your skin is not an easy loss. We make much in the church of identifying different kinds of love—passionate, erotic love, brotherly love, and the love God bears for us (which we supposedly cannot hope to match). But I say that in grief those lines blur together, and that the loss of a lover, a teacher, a brother, a mother, an intimate friend, a child, these losses disrupt our neat categories of love. The loss of Jesus was not a theological event for Mary. She had not yet processed the events of the week and packaged it into a story to tell her children and their children. It was not a teachable moment or a Sunday school lesson, the death of Jesus was a devastating, heart-breaking time of grief and sorrow.

She walked along in the dark, passing familiar landmarks along the way. I wonder if she remembered the last times she had walked with Jesus, eaten with Jesus, drunk wine with her beloved Jesus. Images of time spent together perhaps ran through her mind like a film, teasing her with their clarity, bringing laughter through tears, and a sharp pain in her chest as she could barely breathe through the sadness of lost love. We have been there with Mary in the dark before dawn—all of us have or will. Some large part of this life we live is the loss of our loved ones and the subsequent shaping of our identity that comes with each loss. When we have truly let someone in under our skin and into our hearts, such a loss is not easy to bear. Like Mary, we comfort ourselves with the rituals of visiting our old places, stopping at the tomb, seeking comfort in drawing as near as possible to the one we have lost.

So when she arrived at the tomb in those early hours, it must have been a shock and a fresh sharp pang of grief to find the tomb open. Who would do such a thing? She ran to get the other disciples, Peter and John. She had not looked into the tomb herself, but it was not normal for the stone to be rolled away, and so they ran back to the tomb, Peter and John racing to be the first one there. John saw the linen wrappings on the ground—the wrappings that surely should have still been on Jesus’ body—and he paused at the entrance to the tomb.  Then Peter burst on to the scene and pushed into the tomb and found the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus head. Scripture gives us no further reaction from Peter, but tells us that John understood that somehow Jesus had defeated death. We don’t have the words they must have spoken to Mary, but I can imagine it something like this: Peter saying, “Huh, that is very strange! I wonder who did this? But there is nothing more to be done.” And John, understanding a little more, said, “He is not here, but he told us death could not keep him down. Mary, he would not have wanted you to grieve so. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases—his mercies are new every morning.” And I can imagine Mary throwing them out of the garden in her grief, unable, unwilling to hear such words. We who have grieved have been there too, when the words of well meaning friends and family and strangers have simply added to the grief. The men returned to their homes.

But Mary stayed and stood weeping outside the tomb. She was to be denied even this final comfort—the comfort of having a place to mourn this death. There had been Jesus’ death on Friday, which she witnessed in all its horror. As she stood there with Jesus’ mother and aunt and the beloved disciple, Jesus had cried out from the cross and made a family out of the two Marys and John. But what was to become of Mary the Magdalene? What was her place now in the wake of his death? I wonder if she felt the indignation that I feel for her now to be left out of that formula as she stood there loving him deeply and watching him die. What was left for her?

And then to know that someone else had cared for his body after death...with his death came the Sabbath and a day of rest. Surely for her it was a day of mourning as well, and by Sunday before dawn, she was on her way to the tomb. The other disciples were seemingly gathered together: Peter, whom Jesus named the Rock, and John, whom Jesus loved. What was Mary’s place? Who was she to become in the face of this loss, in the dark before dawn?

She stayed weeping outside the tomb, lost in her desire to be near Jesus even after death, her grief cruelly interrupted by the loss of even his body. Peering into the tomb she discovered it was no longer empty, and two angels in white disrupted her private moment and asked, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

She turned her head, and there was another man, whom she supposed was the gardener. “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Such questions to ask—it almost seems cruel to taunt a grieving woman so. Yet I can almost hear and see and taste the tenderness in the questions. The gentle touch of his voice as he called her by name, called her out of her grief and pain into the present moment. The sound of his voice opened her eyes and she saw Jesus for who he was. “Rabbouni! Teacher!” I can imagine all of the complicated emotions that must have surged through her body and heart and soul in that moment, overwhelming in their intensity, disbelief, joy, wonderment, anger, desire, longing for this moment to never end, to lose herself in this poignant moment of reconnection and possibility.

Then he said, “Do not hold on to me. I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” And he was gone. I cannot imagine that her grief was any less that morning, but maybe there was some comfort in knowing that she had seen and been seen. To be known this one last time by a man who had fully known her as none other before or probably after. This Teacher, this Rabbouni, this intimate friend, who knew her well enough to wait by the tomb. Perhaps there was some small comfort in a last good-bye, knowing that she was not forgotten, knowing that she would not forget.

I wonder if as she left that tomb the depth of this man’s love for her and hers for him settled deep into her body. I wonder if she spent the rest of her life seeking after a love like that. I wonder if after that Mary the Magdalene refused to accept anything less from those who loved her. For to be loved like that, to be known like that, to be seen like that, is to be laid open completely, touched deeply, left fully vulnerable to pain. And yet to love and be loved like that is to be fully alive. To be loved like that transcends bodies and earthly bonds—we carry that kind of love with us into everything we do and say.

And so when Mary returned to the disciples and said to them, “I have seen the Lord” what she was really saying is, “I have seen Love. I have known Love.”

May we each, in this earthly life, know love that pierces our grief and sustains us in our trials. May we know love that strengthens our courage and resolve, sends us after truth, and endures past even death. May we know love that greets us at the tomb and sends us back into life, love that sees us and knows us and longs for us, love that releases us to live instead of clinging to death. For we all come to death soon enough, but for now, like Mary the Magdalene, we are called to go back into the world to seek out that kind of love again. It may be all that is risen on a dark Easter morning is the possibility that we will know that love again.


  1. thank you for a great message - reminds me of what I heard from my husband's sermon this morning - Jesus had been the one person who really saw her - valued her for who she was - and the loss of that one struck deep and so likewise the joy of seeing that one ALIVE again. Great messages this Easter!

  2. Beautiful Katie. I'm with Aaron Billard - I'd probably cry a lot if I was in your church. (I cry a fair amount in my own church too). This kind of sermon is a perfect illustration of the redemptive power of eros and the paucity of our fixation on agape.

    Not to self-promote, but I think you would appreciate the sermon I preached on this passage a couple years ago.