March 23, 2015

Cover Story


“Down in the blackest midnight,
Deep in the marrow of bones,
Night sits enthroned on a scaffold,
Guarding the silence of stones.”

Some have called it “urgent darkness”—those long, slow hours past midnight and before dawn when we sit and wait and fear and scheme. These are the hours when night has lost all its romance and all of its charm.

At 3:00 even the stars seem weary of shining, and the moon grows pale as it slides to the west. Time hangs suspended in hundred-minute hours as we sit up with sick children, battling fevers and battling fears; as we lie on sleepless beds, counting sheep and counting shame; as we wrestle with night shift machinery and answer call buttons from patients who can’t sleep; as we stare at the oncoming headlights from the cabs of night delivery trucks.

These hours between midnight and dawn sorely test the patience of the world. We stumble through the hallways of dark houses, seeking companionship in all-night television channels and books that used to be able to put us to sleep, hiding from the pain or grief that won’t let us close our eyes.

Why must the dawn wait? Why must the light and hope of day stretch out so far beyond our grasp? If we could, we would reach out and grasp the first gray light of morning and pull it toward us to wrap ourselves in its slight hope and cheer. But dawn isn’t within our grasp. Hope isn’t within our reach. Light is still some hours away.

The urgency of darkness waiting for deliverance. It could be the last night in Egypt. It could be the night before an anguished father sacrifices his son on a lonely mountain. It could be the night of Jacob wrestling with the angel. It could be the fitful sleep of half-awake disciples in a garden.

It could be a tired young woman that we see, toiling in these dark hours before dawn, measuring out sweet spices to anoint the cold, stiff body of her dead Lord. It could be Mary of Magdala that we see, dripping tears into the bottles of perfume that she will waste upon Him once again.

How much her story is our story, my friends. How much this weary woman working in the darkest hours is like so many of us with our blighted hopes and our broken hearts. How much we feel the ache she felt when we have lost someone we love, someone who was light and joy and life to us, someone who now is gone and irretrievably lost.

Our hands go through the numbing routines of carrying on, of getting along, of wrapping up details. We fold clothes; we pack belongings; we tell ourselves a hundred times that life must go on, that dawn will come. And sleeplessly we wait the coming of the first gray light that will help to put this sorrow behind us.

Her story is our story. Like her, we stand in need of some powerfully good news. Like Mary, we need something more than sunlight to lift our hearts and get them singing again. We need a resurrection. We need a resurrection.

Duty and Grief

John’s Gospel tells us that in the early hours, in the urgent darkness of that fateful Sunday morning, Mary of Magdala made her way out through the city’s western gate to Joseph’s new tomb in the garden. Others of the Gospel accounts suggest that she was in the company of several women, including Mary, the mother of James and John, Salome, Joanna, and still others. In fact, no two of the Gospel accounts are identical, with the exception that each of them tells that Mary of Magdala was there.

Only she came twice, however, drawn by the magnet of affection for Jesus that no barrier of cold stone could ever prevent. Only the woman we call the Magdalene came twice to stand in the dark garden and gaze into the black hole of death. She couldn’t stay away.18 1 5 7

We see her now in the darkness, climbing the gravelly paths of the garden, trying to balance her cargo of costly aromatics as her feet stumbled over bushes and stones. Up there, ahead, behind a slab of stone lay the body of the One to whom she owed her life. Up there, in the cool recesses of Joseph’s tomb, were the still, unmoving hands that had so often reached out in blessing. The eyes were swollen and shut, she remembered. The lips that had seven times hurled the demons from her life were cold and gray. She had seen it all on Friday afternoon—the rigid, lifeless form of Jesus, still bleeding from the lash, still covered by the unrelenting flies as kind hands plucked him from His cross and gently, quickly placed Him in the tomb.

And in the midst of the almost hysterical sorrow on Friday afternoon, she had clearly seen what her duty was: it was her job to see that He had a proper burial, that His body was anointed with the sweet aromatic oils, with the frankincense and myrrh.

But like any grieving person at any time, she discovered as she stumbled up the garden path that her mind wasn’t working normally, that details were slipping away from her in the flood of overwhelming sorrow. What had she been thinking, anyway? How was she supposed to persuade the guards who had been posted there to let her in to do her work?

And even if they gave a kind of grudging permission, who would be there to move the heavy stone away from the mouth of the tomb? It was a job for three or four of Jesus’ brawny fishermen.

The frustration of failure slowed her steps as she approached the tomb. It has been a foolish errand she had entered on, one that reflected much more of her heart than her head. Having gone to all this work, having spent the whole night preparing for her duty, she had overlooked the most obvious details.

The Terror of Emptiness

We can only guess at how her pulse must have quickened and the hair stood up on the back of her neck when she reached out to finger the giant stone in the darkness, and found it wasn’t there. Her hands groped for the solid, unmoving rock and came up empty. Terror and dread came rushing out of the darkness and overwhelmed her there in front of Joseph’s tomb.

Where were the guards? Where was the seal, the Sanhedrin seal that she watched them affix so ceremoniously? And where, oh where, was the stone? Moments ago it had seemed a barrier that shut her out and kept her from reaching Jesus. Now she felt as if it had been her best friend, a protective gate, for even though it had kept her away, it had also kept His body out of the hands of enemies.

She backed away from the awful spot, her mind reeling with dreadful possibilities. Had His enemies stolen His body to mock Him all over again? Had some half-crazed followers of His carried off His corpse to keep His enemies from doing even worse? Wasn’t it enough that He was dead? Could there be no dignity for this Lord she loved? Was He always, always, destined to be an outcast, even in death?

She fled down the steep paths back toward the city, running recklessly, carelessly, where moments ago she had picked her way in the darkness. She managed to blurt out a few coherent words to Peter and John in a stairway of the house in the city—“Just now—in the garden—stone’s been moved—think His body has been stolen—guards gone!”

The two disciples didn’t stop to gather others, but took off running as wildly back toward the tomb as she had run away from it. It wasn’t enough that she had seen it: they had to see it for themselves—had to feel the horror and the helplessness themselves.

It took Mary just moments to realize that there was nothing for her in Jerusalem. Occupied or empty, that awful cave in the cliff was the last spot she had seen Jesus. His body might be missing, but the memories buried in Joseph’s tomb were the last solid things to which her overburdened mind could cling. She turned, panting and out of breath, and hurried back the way she had just come.

Somewhere, up there in the urgent darkness, eyes were watching all this racing and running with a certain divine amusement. Dashings here and dashings there; frantic searches; equally frantic departures and returns. If ever the Lord needed an illustration of how much these poor, frustrated souls truly loved Him, He measured it in the flying feet of that dark Sunday morning.

True to form, by the time Mary reached the tomb again, Peter and John had gone. John tells us that they at least had entered the tomb, had seen the neatly folded graveclothes, the carefully rolled-up bandages. They had confronted the evidence of planned and unhurried departure. Who would take the time to fold graveclothes or roll up bandages if they were stealing a body? Who would bother to be orderly if they were trying to steal a corpse under cover of darkness?

The Mist of Tears

But Mary didn’t find the consolation they found. John tells us that when she arrived back at the dark opening in the hill, she was weeping. It wasn’t the grief of sorrow; it wasn’t even the keen sense of loss this time. It was the flood of absolute frustration. No one—no one—would stay with her and explain what was happening. Not Peter. Not John. Not Jesus. She stood there sobbing uncontrollably, shaken to her very core by the meaningless, the pointlessness, of everything that was happening around her. With that one grave empty, the whole world was empty for her. With that stone rolled away, all order, all reason, had vanished as well.

So great was her distraction, so blurring were her tears, that even the sight of angels sitting in the tomb didn’t astonish her. Her heart was so filled with frustration that it didn’t have any room to wonder. When they asked her why she was weeping, she had only one thought—“They have taken away my Lord.” Not Peter’s Lord or John’s Lord or Andrew’s Lord or Philip’s Lord or even “our Lord”—but “my Lord,” as though no one else felt the loss as much as she did.

She backed away from the awful spot, her mind reeling with dreadful possibilities.

But Mary was being watched by more than angels’ eyes. Mary was being listened to by more than angels’ ears. Love with wounded feet and nail-scarred hands was walking through the dew-soaked garden that morning. The bitter tears that flowed down Mary’s face found their counterpart in the tears of joy in Jesus’ eyes when He saw how much she loved Him.

During His ministry Jesus had promised, “He that loves me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him and will manifest myself to him.” It was a promise He couldn’t break. It was a moment that He couldn’t let go. Jesus was utterly unable to leave alone someone who loved Him that much. He couldn’t look on coldly while this woman was looking so eagerly for Him.

And somewhere up on the walls of heaven, the angel Gabriel held up his hand and said to the massed millions in that golden choir, “It’s going to be a few more minutes. Keep that pitch, my friends. There’s someone that He needs to see.”

The grand processional across the Milky Way was put on hold. The thousands and ten thousands waiting to escort the Lord back to His Father’s throne were told to hold their places. There was some ministry to do, even at this grand moment. There was a broken heart that needed healing, and heaven would have to wait. One lonely, grieving woman mattered more to Jesus than all the joyous celebration heaven could invent to welcome Him home.

He didn’t reveal Himself at once to the obvious choices. He didn’t seek out Peter, even though Peter was destined to be a leader in the church and a martyr for the faith. He didn’t seek out John, the disciple He especially loved—the one who had stood by Him at the trial and the cross, the one who had promised to faithfully care for Jesus’ mother. He didn’t search through the streets of Jerusalem to find where Andrew and Philip and Thomas were hiding in their rooms in fear. He went to where He was needed most. He went to the one who loved Him most.

Streaks of gray and pink were splitting the eastern sky when Mary heard that step behind her on the path. She saw the signs of fast-approaching morning around her and made the logical assumption that the first person in a garden on a fine spring morning would be the gardener himself.

Through her tears she could only vaguely see the outline of a man, and she paid him even less attention than she had the angels. Even when he asked her why she was weeping and whom she sought, her single-mindedness for Jesus prevented any other possibilities: “If you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” She knew her duty; she knew her part in this tragedy. It was her job to anoint the cold and lifeless body. It was her role to memorialize the dead, departed Lord.

But Jesus had other plans for this woman, and all He had to say was her name. “Mary.” “Mary.”

The simple sounding of her name was enough to tell her that it was someone who knew her well; but there was a responding thrill in her heart and an awakening of old memories that told her whose voice it had to be. That voice had once before driven out the evil spirits who had ruled her life, and now again, that same voice brought her out of darkness into His marvelous light. From being the most miserable person in the world, at one word, at the sound of her own name on the lips of Jesus, Mary became the happiest creature alive.

Mary didn’t have time to reason or doubt. With one quick exclamation of joy she sprang toward Jesus, and reached for His feet. “Teacher,” she cried. “Teacher.” “Oh, my dear, beloved, wonderful, living teacher.”

An Embraceable Lord

And what did Jesus say to her, my friends? Did He utter those stern, rebuking words that your King James Version has Him saying—“Touch me not; for I have not ascended to my Father”? Was there something about contact with this woman whom He had seven times forgiven that would unsuit Him to enter His Father’s presence?

Was He, in fact, a Lord who couldn’t be touched, a Lord who after His resurrection mysteriously walked through walls, a see-through image of what He had been before death? Or have we in fact been seeing the old story for all these years through our own blurred vision, in the half-light of mystical images of Jesus?

The newer translations of Scripture actually better reflect the original language. And if you have one, you will see that what Jesus may have, in fact, said to this now exuberantly happy woman was “Mary, you’re going to have to stop keeping Me here.” “Mary, you’re going to have to stop holding Me.” “Mary, there are a billion angels all waiting for Me to come home and greet My Father. There’s a gigantic choir up there just waiting for the downbeat of Gabriel’s hand, and we really can’t keep them waiting any longer.”

It was not some unsuitability in Mary as a sinner that concerned Jesus: it was that, precious as she was to Him, there was One to whom He owed an even higher loyalty. Before He would allow Himself to be embraced by the mortal men and women who so deeply loved Him, He required—yes, needed—the embrace of the Father who had loved Him for all eternity. Mary felt no slight and no rebuff at Jesus’ winsome urging that He be allowed to go. She knew the deep soul reassurance that there would be time enough for greeting and embraces in the 40 days ahead.

The Lord of Scripture, the Lord of the Resurrection, the Lord of that dazzling morning that splits history in two, was not some antiseptic, touch-Me-not divinity trying to put distance between Himself and sinners.

His purity isn’t sullied by our sinfulness. His holiness isn’t compromised by contact with the likes of us. His triumph over death is made all the more complete because His arms are always open wide—receiving sinners, welcoming sinners, em
bracing sinners, loving sinners.

Whether your name is Mary or Matthew or Joanna or John or Salome or Sam, you serve a thoroughly embraceable Lord. He longs to take you in His arms and tell you that despite all your sins and all your fears, despite all the darkness and night and chains and bondage of your past, you are loved with an everlasting love.

You are His prized possession and joy. You are the one who makes His heart beat quicker. You are the one He longs to comfort, the one He longs to talk with. You are the one for whom He was born; you are the one for whom He died; you are the one for whom He rose up from the dead. And He tells you that He ever lives to make intercession for you. If ever there was good news to celebrate, this is it!

No one else in all of history has been able to bring the light out of darkness like this Man. Not Confucius or Buddha or Marx or Muhammad or Moses or Freud. Not one of them could bring the light, because not one of them was the Light.

Only Jesus could rightfully claim, “I am the light of the world.” Only He could split the prison where we have been chained in our sins with the marvelous good news of liberation and pardon and power and peace. Only He could triumph over death and hell, because only He had tasted of their power.

This hurting, hopeless world of ours desperately needs the story of His resurrection. This darkened, grieving plant, racked by war, ravaged by hunger, threatened with self-destruction, cries out for the good news of that awesome Sunday morning.

All around us men and women are reaching out for the news that in Jesus Christ we have, not some distant, cold, galactic God, but the living, loving Lord of all—a Lord who stands with His arms open wide to welcome and embrace each and every one of us.

Because of Jesus’ resurrection, Christians have a song to sing.

Because of Jesus’ resurrection, Christians have good news to celebrate.

Because of Jesus’ resurrection—because He split the urgent darkness, because He brought life and light and hope to all—we believers throw this taunt into the very teeth of hell:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O grave, where is thy victory?”
“O death, where is thy sting?”

Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord, for Jesus is alive!