Homily for Easter Vigil 2018
“You seek Jesus the Nazarene, the one who was crucified. He is risen; he is not here.”
The women had come to the tomb “valde mane” – extremely early. To say that these words were not what they had expected is to state something so obvious that it becomes banal. We who hear this Gospel reading this evening hear it shaped in our listening by repeated hearings, and by centuries of faithful reflection on the part of those generations of believers who go before us: perhaps somehow we need to hear the passage ‘for the first time’.
So I chose to use a different translation, that of the English Jesuit biblical scholar Nick King: it perhaps gives us a way of hearing the story afresh. And Nick gives us some details of Mark’s account which got lost in the Jerusalem translation, and which might just help us feel something of the experience of these three women.
And when the Sabbath was at last over… We can remind ourselves of the time-sequence here, drawing on what we heard yesterday in John’s account of the burial of Jesus, with everything done in haste so that the Sabbath not be profaned. As Nick comments: “You can feel the impatience of these women, as they grind their way through the Sabbath, before they can buy spices to do the needful for Jesus’ dead body.”
We keep Holy Saturday as a day of waiting; people making the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius often observe a “Tomb Day” between the prayer of the Third Week – on the Passion – and that of the Fourth Week – on the Resurrection.
But both of these are times of anticipation, of looking forward even while deliberately choosing to wait before celebrating the good news. For Mary the Magdalene, Mary of James, and Salome, the long Sabbath wait was not in anticipation of anything. Anything worth anticipating had gone with the death of Jesus: “the promised one of Israel’s story, a bridegroom clad in fire and light” – Jesus the Messiah – had turned out to be nothing more than “the one who was crucified.” Amor meus crucifixus est. My love is crucified.
And so, as soon as they could, they bought spices for the dead body, and came to the tomb, perhaps still too stunned and shocked to work out that they needed to move a heavy stone before they could do these last small acts, that which would close the chapter that had spoken of so much promise and life.
We’ve possibly been there – facing loss that seems to upturn not just one aspect of our lives, not just one friendship or love, not just one enterprise or mission to which we have given our lives, but everything. The pieces of our life just don’t fit together anymore; the story we thought was our story turns out to have been just a fairy-tale all along. Perhaps the experience of depression has taken us to this place seemingly without hope; perhaps we have known it through being with another, feeling ourselves helpless to be of assistance because helpless to find, to know, what to do or what to say.
And into this moment for these women comes a young man who simply sits there and says: “You seek Jesus the Nazarene, the one who was crucified. He is risen; he is not here.”
We shouldn’t be too surprised that the three women seem not to have known what to do, any more than we should wonder at Mark’s Gospel (at least in its oldest texts) coming to an abrupt halt after two or three more sentences. What Mary the Magdalene, Mary of James and Salome had experienced wasn’t something that could be made sense of.
Sense told them that Jesus was dead.
Sense told them that their hopes had turned out to be empty dreams.
Sense told them to do the necessary to this broken body, and go home.
But this young man told them that the crucified one is risen, and (though we don’t read it as part of tonight’s proclamation of the Gospel), Mark tells us what happened next:
And going out they fled from the tomb, for quivering and astonishment had hold of them. And they said nothing to anybody. For they were afraid.
Whatever we try to do to hear this Gospel afresh, we’ve heard the story before. And we may even have come to think that it makes sense.
But it seems to me that it no more makes sense than a sunrise makes sense; it no more makes sense than Bach or Leonardo da Vinci make sense; it no more makes sense than “I love you” makes sense.
But if we come to the tomb with our broken hopes and our fractured loves, with our disappointments and our limitations,
if we bring these openly rather than continuing to make those small accommodations which close off chapters of our lives,
and if we really allow ourselves to hear that the one who was crucified is risen,
then quivering and astonishment will take hold of us, too, as we recognise that we no longer need all that we thought we relied on to make sense of our world, because we have heard the utter good news of God.
“He is going before you (leading you) into the Galilee. There you will see him, as he said to you.”