The Celebration

This is a picture of a roadside tomb in Israel.
Roadside Tomb by James Emery

A party was the last thing Mary Magdalene expected as she approached the tomb on that Sunday morning. The last few days brought nothing to celebrate. The religious leaders could celebrate; Jesus was out of the way. The soldiers could celebrate; their work was done. But Mary couldn’t celebrate. To her, the last few days brought nothing but tragedy.

Mary had been there. She heard the leaders clamor for Jesus’ death. She witnessed the Roman whip rip the skin off his back. She winced as the thorns placed as a crown on his head sliced his brow. She wept at the weight of the cross he was forced to carry.

We really don’t know if Mary did that, but we know she could have. She was there. She was there to put her arm around the shoulder of Mary, the mother of Jesus. She was there to close his eyes. She was there.

So it’s not surprising that she wants to be there again.

In the early morning mist she rises from her mat, takes her spices and aloes. She leaves her house, walking past the Gate of Gennath and up to the hillside. She anticipates a somber task. By now the body will be swollen. His face will be white. Death’s odor will be pungent.

A gray sky gives way to gold as she walks up the narrow trail. As she rounds the last bend, she gasps. The rock in front of the grave is pushed back.

Immediately she thinks: Somebody took the body! She runs to awaken Peter and John. They rush to see for themselves. She tries to keep up with them, but she can’t.

Peter comes out of the tomb bewildered and John comes out believing. But Mary just sits in front of it weeping. The two men go home and leave her alone with her grief.

But something tells her she is not alone. Maybe she hears a noise. Maybe she hears a whisper. Or maybe she just hears her own heart tell her to take a look for herself.

Whatever the reason, she does. She stoops down, sticks her head into the hewn entrance, and waits for her eyes to adjust to the dark.

“Why are you crying?” She sees what looks to be a man, but he’s white – radiantly shite. He is one of the two lights on either end of the vacant slab. Like two candles balding on an altar.

“Why are you crying?” What an uncommon question to be asked in a cemetery! In fact, the question is rude. That is, unless the questioner knows something the one questioned doesn’t.

“They have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have laid him.”

She still calls him ‘my Lord.’ As far as she knows his lips were silent. As far as she knows, his corpse was carted off by grave robbers. But in spite of it all, he is still her Lord.

Such devotion moves Jesus. It moves him closer to her. So close she hears him breathing. She turns and there he stands. She thinks he’s the gardener.

Now, Jesus could have revealed himself at this point. He could have called for an angel to present him or a quartet of trumpets to announce his presence. But he didn’t.

He doesn’t leave her wondering for long; just long enough to remind us that he loves to surprise us. He waits for us to despair of human strength and then he intervenes with heavenly strength. God waits for us to give up and then – surprise!

How long has it been since you let God surprise you? It’s easy to reach a point where we have God figured out.

We know exactly what God does. We break the code. We chart God’s tendencies. God is a computer. If we push all the right keys and insert the right data, God is exactly who we thought God was.

No variations. No alterations. God is iTunes. Insert a tithe. Download the song and – voilá – the divine music we want fills the room.

I don’t know how it all works; how mystery unfolds. But I do know that God is at God’s best when our life is at its worst. God planned a celebration in a cemetery. Are we open to God’s surprises?

We’ve seen a few of God’s surprises these few past weeks: the boy’s lunch that feed a ginormas crowd; a man born blind that gained his sight; the rocks, meant for an adulterous woman drop to the ground; the religious leader realizing something was missing in his faith. And now Mary; surprised as her name is spoken by a man she loved and buried.

God appearing in the strangest of places. Doing the strangest of things. Arching rainbows in the midst of the thunderclouds. Hanging aright star to announce a birth in a dark sky. Sending a multitude of angels to shepherds trying to stay awake on a hillside. Calling a name in the cemetery.

“Mary,” he said softly. “Surprise!”

Mary was shocked. It’s not often you hear your name spoken on an eternal tongue. But she did and she recognized it.

The scene has all the elements of a surprise party: secrecy, amazement, gratitude. But this celebration is timid in comparison with the one in our future. It will be similar to Mary’s, but a lot bigger. Many more graves opened. Many more names called. Many more seekers celebrating. A fabulous homecoming. It’s going to be some celebration!

You can read Mary’s story for yourself at John 20:1-16.

Easter bonus: Randall Thompson composed Alleluia as a commission for the dedication of the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood in 1940. It’s a contemplative fanfare of voices.

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