Sermon preached by Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Great Vigil of Easter – March 30, 2013
Gracious God Guide us as we move
From Darkness to Light,
From Mourning a loss to Remembering Love.
Set our Hearts Afire with Resurrected Love. Amen
On this most holy night, I invite you to travel for just a few minutes alongside Mary Magdalene. On this night of all nights, let us accompany Mary Magdalene as our guide to the wonder and vision of Resurrected love. I stand in awe of Mary Magdalene, a woman whom all four Gospellers cannot dismiss [though several of them tried by confusing her with a prostitute, but that’s another story]. Even they had to agree that Mary Magdalene was present at the Crucifixion and at the events gradually dawning on that Easter morn. The Gospels tell us that Mary Magdalene and the other women, followers of Jesus throughout his ministry, are the first witnesses to the resurrection. So what might we learn this evening from this early witness and these budding evangelists?
I am not the first to put Mary Magdalene in the center of this story. How might we understand her witness in our own time? Different ages, different cultures, different generations will hold different images. The early Renaissance painter, Fra Angelico, depicts this evening’s Gospel with a fresco of the women inside the tomb. Mary Magdalene stands in the center of the picture, her companions behind her. She reaches out and touches an open marble casket. As she peers into the tomb, she holds her head in wonder and in awe. Meanwhile the messenger calmly relays his news, “he has risen.” This fresco is a gentle gem, an icon with deep eyes into tonight’s Gospel. It conveys in its quiet, inviting depth, the tenderness and sweetness of a God who embraces us when we are in greatest need.
What did Mary discern as she stood peering into the tomb? How might her reactions inform our faith and enlighten our witness this evening?
1) First of all I am comforted by the humility and humanity of Mary Magdalene’s emotions. Once again, I am comforted by the ability of Scripture to present the full spectrum, the messy rawness of ordinary human emotions. Mary Magdalene had come with others in deep mourning. She was doing what any of us might well do at a time of sadness/loss (and what many of us have done): that is, keeping busy, trying to be helpful, wanting to do something to honor and attend a beloved departed friend. Well might she stand in awe and wonder inside that tomb. How will she (and the other women) recover, what will her next steps be? Clearly this was not what she expected.
2) It takes time when we are surprised by death, indeed by significant loss of any kind: time to pause, time to remember her beloved companion, and time to learn to walk in newness of life promised in baptism. Time that is often longer than any of us might wish.
The scene inside the tomb is gently bathed in light. The Messengers in dazzling clothes calmly invite Mary and her companions to recollect and refresh their memories. “Remember how he told you in Galilee . . . that he would be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” I imagine these women talking among themselves, gradually, yet perhaps with some urgency, assembling bits and recalling pieces of the messianic prophecy. We are told that they together “remembered his words.” This is something we can grasp and relate to. I too am comforted and inspired by sharing collective reminiscences, passing on stories of the holy witness of sisters and brothers living and dead. Stories I am eager to share.
3) There is another lesson I believe we can learn from these first witnesses to the resurrection. I imagine that this news, gradually dawns upon them, and, still not knowing where it leads, they eagerly rush home to tell the others. Then, perhaps predictably, they find they are not believed. This is despite the fact that Mary Magdalene is a member of a community created by the One who considered men and women equal. Perfection is not a requirement for Disciples, then or now. Yet I wonder, will we too be met with disbelief when we pass on to others the significance of this evening’s events? Still we are bidden to hasten to tell others, seldom knowing where this will lead. Do not be reluctant to share this good news. What stories will you tell of this night?
4) Here is just one more important revelation from Mary Magdalene’s witness. Mary Magdalene discovers on Easter morning the tenderness of a God who goes on ahead of us. God is not limited to Mary Magdalene’s historic past, or to our historic past. This God beckons Mary Magdalene – and beckons us – to get moving, to catch up with and to contribute our witness to what this God is doing. This God travels with us now and in our future. This God gently yet persistently guides us as we move from darkness into light, and from mourning loss to proclaiming Love. Risen Lord, set our hearts afire with your Resurrected Love! Amen.
Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett
Mary Wolfe Professor Emerita of Historical Theology
Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts
The Resurrection of Christ and the Women at the Tomb in the Convento di San Marco, Florence.