Today is the feast of Easter. We do not celebrate this feast as if it were only a past event. It is intimately related to our own present lives. It is the center of our hope, the mandate of our proclamation, the source of our joy even in the midst of our sorrows. We hear in our hearts, and we say again and again to one another: “Jesus is risen as he said. Alleluia! He lives and is with us still. Let us rejoice and be glad.” We ourselves experience dying and living, in the unending life of God, in the forever present life of Jesus, and in our deep inklings and hopes of the meaning of resurrection.
This year on Easter day, of all the treasures in the many biblical passages that precede and follow the Resurrection of Jesus, the church has given us (in its lectionary) a particular text to ponder, a text from the gospel attributed to John. It tells us the story of Mary of Magdala coming to the burial place of Jesus. She sees that the stone has been removed from the tomb. Immediately she runs to find Peter and another disciple, bringing them to see the situation. They come, they may begin to believe, and then they return home. She herself, however, remains weeping next to the tomb.
If we look ahead to similar texts unfolding in Eastertide, we note that Mary Magdalene appears in every one of the four gospels, always searching for the body of Jesus. And except for the version in John’s gospel, other women join her in this task and longing. Altogether, it becomes clear that it is these women who go first, before anyone else, in the early morning, to bring spices and to reverence the body of Jesus. In every telling of this, similar elements in the drama are repeated. The message is conveyed to Mary Magdalene that Jesus is not there; and that he has risen from the dead. The women are moved (or commanded) to go quickly to tell the disciples that the body of Jesus is gone, and that he is alive. Sometimes in this story the disciples run to the tomb, sometimes they are skeptical–they respond to the women in unbelief, rejecting what they say as “pure nonsense” (Luke 24:11; Mark 16:11). In Matthew’s rendering, Jesus himself comes to meet the women, greeting them, allowing them to worship him (Mt 28:9). In each description, the women respond in powerful ways: fear, weeping, joy, yearning for an even greater sense of Jesus’ ongoing presence. The role and responses of these women cannot be underestimated if we seek to understand the meaning of resurrection–Jesus’ resurrection and our own.
But let us return to Mary Magdalene, weeping outside the tomb (John 20:11-17). Angels ask her “Woman, why are you weeping?” She answers, “They have taken away my Lord.” Then she turns around and sees Jesus, but does not recognize him. (We know the story well). Jesus says to her, “Why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She still cannot recognize him. He calls her name, “Mary,” and she beholds him. For Mary Magdalene, tears of joy supplant tears of loss, but neither are wholly behind her. She experiences wondrous fulfillment of her search, yet nonfulfillment when in utter joy she beholds the risen Christ, yet hears the loving words, “Do not cling to me.” What can this mean?
Imagine the transformation of her grief into joy when she heard her name and beheld the one she sought. Yet in that very experience of joy was the paradoxical requirement of what might be called a “discipline of nonfulfillment.” “Do not hold on to me,” Jesus said. In this is the essence of what we know as the “already” but “not yet” of our existence. “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:16-17).
We have learned something about sorrow and weeping–from Jesus and from Mary Magdalene. There are different kinds of tears–tears of desolation which, if they have all been shed, leave the well dry. But there are also tears which water our hearts and give us strength and peace in real union with Jesus Christ. These are tears which turn us not in upon ourselves, but which open us to union with God and our brothers and sisters. Such tears may even move us to action on behalf of God’s reign and the welfare of our neighbors near and far.
God, we believe, is present everywhere, charging the world with grandeur, hovering over it and dwelling in it, groaning within it for life and glory. Jesus, the one who emptied himself in order to gather us into himself; who made our world his home and did not abandon it, now transforms (or aims to transform) our hearts and our world, holding us into what is promised–what is not yet full, but is somehow already here. Jesus himself rejoices in his Resurrection, and he shares his joy with us. Why? Because the joy of Jesus is for us–no less than his suffering, no less than his labor, no less than his death. Everything, if we can only receive it, is for us and all creation: his love, his incarnation, his divinity, his truth, his pain, his glory, his Spirit, his life in time and eternity.
The women who came to find Jesus did not scoff, did not disbelieve, did not lose hope–and they found him before any others. It was they who first spread the amazing news that has brightened our world ever since–whether in sorrow or in joy. Like these women, we, too, believe and speak in our hearts and voices: “Jesus is risen as he said. Alleluia! He lives and is with us still. Let us rejoice and be glad.” Everything is new. It is time for us to Arise and meet the new dawn.
Margaret A. Farley
Margaret Farley is Gilbert L. Stark Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics at Yale University Divinity School. She is the author or co-editor of eight books, including a new revised edition of Personal Commitments: Beginning, Keeping, Changing; but also Compassionate Respect; as well as her award winning Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics; and her newest book, Changing the Questions: Explorations in Christian Ethics. She has published more than 200 articles and chapters of books on topics of ethical methodology, medical ethics, sexual ethics, social ethics, historical theological ethics, ethics and spirituality, and HIV/AIDS. She was Co-director of the All-Africa Conference: Sister to Sister, an organization that has for 15 years facilitated the work of women in sub-Saharan Africa responding to the AIDS Pandemic. She has lectured widely not only in the U.S. but in Southeast Asia, Western Europe, and Africa.
Professor Farley is the recipient of a variety of honors and awards, including the 1992 John Courtney Murray Award for Excellence in Theology, and the 2008 Grawemeyer Award in Religion for her book, Just Love, as well as 14 honorary degrees. She has served on numerous editorial and advisory boards and national ethics committees. She was a founding member of Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Bioethics Committee; and she served for eight years as Co-director of the Yale University Interdisciplinary Bioethics Center. She is past president of both the Society of Christian Ethics and the Catholic Theological Society of America.
She has mentored countless Yale Divinity School students as well as Yale University doctoral students. In her many years of teaching, she has also been called upon to preach.
Professor Farley is a member of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, West Midwest Community.