By Kimberly Constant —
Every spring as nature awakens from its winter slumber and life bursts forth anew, the church revisits the heart of the gospel message. An old rugged cross. The discovery of an empty tomb. The wonder of a risen Lord. The promise of an eternal kingdom in which all will be made whole. Peace will reign. Love will flourish. Year after year we engage in our rituals of remembrance. Maundy Thursday.
Good Friday. Easter Sunday. We wash one another’s feet, we mourn at the foot of the cross, we rejoice in the good news of the risen Christ. All to evoke the germination of a real, miraculous hope.
But, year after year there is one element of the Easter story that fades as our familiarity with it grows. The element of surprise. Lost amongst the realities of life and a world that often seems unmoved by the events of that glorious morning, perhaps, like me, you long to reclaim the life-changing surprise of the empty tomb.
The truth is that the very first Easter provided not just one surprise, but a series of them. Stumbled upon by the most unexpected of people. Women. Women, who in Roman times, did not hold much agency or status, who often occupied the margins of society. Women who, against all odds, had been invited into the ministry of Jesus. Accompanying him on his mission to make God’s kingdom known. Staying near to him even unto the cross to bear witness to his suffering and death. Pushing through their grief and despair in the early morning hours after Sabbath to attend to him, one last time. We imagine they could not have fathomed the surprise that awaited them. Mired in grief, their minds churned over the most practical of details, perhaps as a means of maintaining sanity amidst the unrelenting pain. How, they wondered, could they care for Jesus’ body when there was a giant stone blocking the entrance to the tomb? It was a worry that was dismissed fairly quickly because where they expected to find a hindrance to their Lord, instead the women discovered the first surprise. The stone had been rolled away.
Their next surprise varies from gospel to gospel. No doubt the breathless shock of the morning generated some difficulty in clearly recounting the events that ensued. Whereas Mark recorded the women meeting a young man in white sitting inside of the tomb, Matthew mentioned an angel sitting on top of that rolled away stone. Luke, on the other hand, noted the presence of two young men who glowed. John wrote of two angels in white. This being (or beings) confirmed what the women saw with their own eyes. Jesus was not there. Luke, and potentially Mark if we follow the earliest manuscripts, provided this as the only encounter the women experienced that morning. In those gospels, the women returned from that bodyless tomb to give the news to the disciples. According to Luke and John, it was information that prompted Peter, and per John another disciple, to run and see for themselves the discarded strips of linen that had once encircled the body of their friend.
But Matthew and John (and later Markan manuscripts) made note of a more intimate encounter. Jesus, in all of his resurrection glory, appearing to Mary Magdalene (and perhaps to one of her other female companions). Matthew did not provide much detail aside from noting the amazement and reverence of the women as they fell at Jesus’ feet. However, John relayed an interaction between Mary Magdalene and Jesus that spoke to the tenderness of that staggering encounter.
In his version, Mary’s discovery brought forth a flood of tears. The terrible thought that Jesus’ body had been stolen. Perhaps vandalized. Turning from the tomb she noticed a man whom she mistook as the gardener. Not yet ready to surrender to hope, she asked aloud, was he the one who had taken away the body of the Lord? No. This was no gardener. This man was the Lord. A realization that dawned when he spoke her name, “Mary.” A name that means “obstinate” or “rebellious,” and also by some accounts, “love.” A name that encapsulates that most profound of meetings. The stubborn rebelliousness of humanity greeted with the unconditional, unending, undefeatable love of God.
What a thrilling surprise. Not just for Mary. Not just for the disciples who would hear about these events and later be met themselves by the risen Lord. But for us all. What an unexpected revelation. The triumph of Jesus over sin and evil and death announced not via a host of angels singing songs of praise in the early morning sky. Not via a sudden appearance in Pontius Pilate’s bedchamber or in the courtroom of the Sanhedrin. Guess what guys? You got it all wrong. Not even via an inbreaking into the room where Jesus’ nearest and dearest had gathered to mourn. Not yet anyway.
The first revelation of the resurrection occurred there, in that garden which was created to house the vestiges of death. To a woman who had once been inhabited by evil itself, Jesus revealed his triumph. His glory. His power. His love. All encapsulated in the beautiful pronouncement of her name. No trace of bitterness detected. No anger or disappointment or even sorrow on display. Just our Lord and Savior making his presence known. The truth of Jesus’ resurrection as humble and miraculous and surprising as his birth. As his ministry of reconciliation. As the company he kept. As the teachings he espoused. It was a moment which brought restoration to all of humanity. But also, in a particular way, to women, who for thousands of years had carried the weight of Eve’s actions, the first to fall prey to the temptation of the tree and the lies of the enemy in another garden long ago.
In this new garden, Jesus gifted a woman with the mission to be the first to tell the good news, the glorious news of his resurrection. The message of hope issued from the most unlikely of preachers. How remarkable!
What emerges from the somewhat varied tales of utter shock and awe that morning fundamentally finds consistency in its centering of the core truth of our Christian faith. Jesus is risen. That tomb was not his end. Nor is it ours. Sin and evil and death no longer have an unyielding hold on the human race. God has invited all of us to enter into God’s eternal kingdom. His grace has enabled a community in which all of us are rendered pure. Holy. Men and women from all different cultures and backgrounds made equal under the authority and lordship of Jesus Christ. Our unique gifts and attributes finding their best expression in concert with one another as we continue to spread the greatest news of human history. Jesus is risen. Indeed. The rest, as they say, is just details.
But maybe, like me, you wonder. Is it possible to recapture that element of surprise, that uncontainable joy of witnessing resurrection power, when sometimes it feels as if nothing has really changed? When sometimes we wonder if the surprise at the tomb still reverberates in a society that eschews surprise and mystery altogether, sacrificing them at the altars of human knowledge and scientific discovery. Incessant accomplishment. Never-ending work. How do we hold onto the wonder of the resurrection when sometimes it feels like we are living in a time in which hope grows more and more dim? By surrendering. Like Jesus, who did not succumb to death, but instead chose, willingly, to give up his spirit. Along with, according to Mark, a loud cry. A battle cry of victory expressing the surprising and glorious truth that Jesus willingly died on that cross for the sake of us all. Jesus chose to surrender so that in our own acts of surrender we too might overcome, as he did.
The surprise of Easter morning wasn’t something hidden away, only able to be discovered by the power of human knowledge or ingenuity. That surprise was waiting to be found by those willing to surrender. The ones humble enough to be surprised. Women who surrendered to the pull to make that early morning journey to attend to the body of one who was so dear. Men who were willing to touch Jesus’ side and surrender their doubts and fears and worship their friend as their Lord. Brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the years who each, in their own way, have humbled themselves and surrendered to the truth that human beings do not, cannot, have all the answers.
The surprise of that empty tomb still waits to be discovered by those of us willing to surrender to the truth that not all mysteries can be explained. Those of us willing to admit that maybe, just maybe, peace is not secured by fighting every foe. Wisdom is not earned by constant striving for more and more knowledge. Success is not won by the accumulation of accomplishments and things. But all of these and more are found in surrendering to the one who already has gained victory over anything in this world that stands against us. By surrendering to the one who already has accomplished for us that which we could never earn for ourselves.
Jesus tells us that he stands at the door, knocking. A surprise waiting to be discovered by everyone willing to surrender their way to his will. Not just once in a lifetime. Not just once a year at Easter. But every day. From moment to moment. In hospital beds and rush hour traffic and family reunions and voting booths and work cubicles and online forums. We can discover anew the wonder of his grace. The surprise of his mercy. The depth of his provision. In surrender. In humility. Allowing ourselves to remain open to the continual surprises of faith that lie before us. Reminding ourselves that, truly, there is nothing that God cannot overcome. There is nothing that can contain the glory of our God. Even a society that denies him is no match.
The surprise of the empty tomb and a resurrected Lord still wait to be stumbled upon in the most unexpected ways. By the most unexpected of people. In the most unexpected places. In rest. In relationship. In quiet trust.
As we journey together once more this Easter to the foot of the cross and the open doorway of an empty tomb, may we surrender. May we embrace the unexpected surprises that lie in wait. May we receive with fresh wonder the glorious truths. We are loved. We are forgiven. We are redeemed. We are recipients of a kingdom that will, without a doubt, defy our wildest expectations and offer up an eternity of wonderful surprises. All stemming from the best surprise of all. He. Is. Risen. He is risen, indeed.
Kimberly Constant is a Bible teacher, author, and ordained elder in The United Methodist Church. You can find out more about Rev. Constant at kimberlyconstantministries.com.