The first time I saw my father cry was when the coffin cover was closed over his mother’s body for the last time. (I must have been 13 at the time.) I had never seen my father cry before. That saddened me so much that I burst out crying. The family was very impressed at how much I loved grandma. In truth I was devastated to see my father crying. Looking back now over the years I can understand a bit better why my dad cried when he did. The final closing of the coffin was a powerful reminder of the finality of death.
Therefore we are not surprised when we meet Mary Magdalene crying on Easter morning. Jesus, her beloved teacher, had died. And now that the body had disappeared, she had also lost a place where she could grieve properly. But she never entertained the thought that Jesus could defeat death. People who die do not come back. Here is the scene from that morning two thousand years ago.
Then the disciples went home again.But Mary stood outside facing the tomb, crying. As she was crying, she stooped to look into the tomb. She saw two angels in white sitting there, one at the head and one at the feet, where Jesus’ body had been lying.They said to her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“Because they’ve taken away my Lord,” she told them, “and I don’t know where they’ve put Him.”Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, though she did not know it was Jesus.
“Woman,” Jesus said to her, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for? ”
Supposing He was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you’ve removed Him, tell me where you’ve put Him, and I will take Him away.”
Jesus said, “Mary.”
Turning around, she said to Him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!”— which means “Teacher.” (John 20:10-16 HCSB)
In Middle Eastern cultures, and perhaps in many cultures, there is the practice of mourners wailing loudly as a show of grief. Here, Mary had no audience. Mary was weeping loudly, wailing, because she thought she had lost Jesus twice over, firstly to death and now she had also lost His body. Her grief must have been deep indeed for her not to be frightened by the two angels. If you’d lost everything of value in your life, you just don’t care anymore.
But this story has a happy ending. Mary was asked twice, firstly by the angels and later by Jesus Himself, as to why she was crying. She didn’t even recognise Jesus at first. Well, she wasn’t expecting Him to come back from the dead to begin with. She only recognised that it was Jesus when He called her name. (In Aramaic it probably would have been “Miriam.”) Mary was a true sheep and she recognised her shepherd’s voice (John 10:3-4). Now there was no confusion. Even through her tears, Mary now realised that this was no gardener that faced her. It was her beloved teacher, which would be a fair translation of “Rabbouni.”
We can make an excellent case for the historical basis for the resurrection of Jesus. But this Easter account tells more than the fact that Jesus had conquered death. It also speaks of His deep love for His disciples. I often used passages like this one to marshal a vigorous defence of the historicity of the resurrection. But in preparing to preach from this passage this Sunday, I was struck by Jesus’ tender response to Mary’s deep grief. As Rodney A. Whitacre points out:
Jesus is well aware of her condition, and he comes to her with great love and gentleness. The good news is not just that Jesus arose but that the character of God is revealed in Jesus. He is life, and he is also love. (John, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999, 475)
As we approach another Easter, our faith is replenished by this fresh reminder that Jesus rose again. But we still dwell in this vale of tears till the Risen Christ returns. This Easter, some of us need to hear afresh the voice of Jesus calling our names, in the dark, through our tears, asking why we are crying.
There is a place for tears. Even Jesus Himself cried at the grave of His good friend Lazarus (John 11:35). But there is also a time and place to remember that Jesus loves us and that the risen Christ comes to us and walks with us in our darkest moments, and that all things bad have already been conquered. It is a good time to remember that though “Weeping may spend the night . . . there is joy in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5b HCSB) This Easter, the empty tomb reminds us that life and love win.