The first Easter was not celebrated in a crowded worship space with singing and praise, Easter lilies and even an egg hunt after worship. On the very first Easter, the disciples huddled behind locked doors, afraid of what was outside.
And yet, even alone in their homes, their memories of Jesus – plus the unbelievable story that some female friends shared – stirred in them the hope that their long night might possibly ending, and that sunrise had – indeed – brought a new day. That daring belief unites us with them, even over all this time and distance.
As you and I get ready to commune together from our various homes and shelters, let’s remember together more of what happened that first Easter so long ago.
Before we get to the main event, allow me to give a little context. Last Sunday we looked at the crucifixion. Mark’s gospel tells us Jesus died at about 3:00 PM, just a few hours before sunset and the beginning of Sabbath when all work was supposed to stop. According to John’s gospel, that barely left time for a brave man named Joseph of Arimathea to ask Pilate for permission to give the body something approaching a dignified burial. The Governor said yes, probably because Joseph was rich and Pilate liked the idea of Joseph owing him a favor, but also maybe (I think) because Pilate was ticked at the religious leaders who’d manipulated him into a ridiculously early morning trial for a man he cared very little about, and he knew this would bother them.
A Pharisee named Nicodemus, the same Nicodemus who went to Jesus late one night because he was afraid to be seen talking to the notorious rabbi, now courageously joined Joseph (letting anyone watching know that he was a disciple). As per Jewish custom, they wrapped Jesus in cloths, but Sabbath was coming (plus, remember, it had been dark since noon because of storm clouds – and it may have been pouring during all this); so there was no time to properly anoint the body. They quickly laid him in what John tells us was a tomb Joseph of Arimathea had originally purchased for himself.
By then it would have been dark even if there’d been no clouds, so Sabbath had definitely begun.
Now the Roman soldiers could have taken care of Jesus’ body – no problem. They’d have left it on the cross for birds to eat or thrown it in a common criminal’s grave; and then without another thought gone back to town for a drink with their friends. Joseph and Nicodemus, however, in addition to being followers of Jesus, were pious Jews who had just touched his dead body. That was a problem because it made them ritually unclean, and that meant they had to leave the community for a few days.
Matthew 27 has something interesting to tell us about what happened seven or eight hours after all that. The chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate and said, “Sir, while that deceiver was still alive he said, ‘After three days I will arise.’ Therefore, order the grave to be sealed. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell people, ‘He’s been raised from the dead’.” Pilate replied, “Go, make it as secure as you know how.” They went: sealed the stone door and posted guards.
That’s how things stood all day Saturday. Sabbath formally ended one hour after nightfall, and I’m sure those who loved Jesus gave serious thought to going to the tomb right then and there to finish anointing Jesus’ body. But the women probably reluctantly agreed it was too dark to even find the tomb, much less do what needed to be done.
And as for the men, well: we’re talking about the same guys who ran away when Jesus was first arrested. Shortly after that, Peter denied even knowing him. Give credit to John, who showed up at the crucifixion where Jesus – from the cross – asked him to look after his mother, Mary. But only Joseph and Nicodemus had stuck around to the very end, and touching so body had made them unclean, so they’d left town. In other words (guys, I hate to say it, but) the only male followers who COULD have done anything, apparently decided to count their shoelaces when the subject of finishing burial preparations came up. Doing anything that made it obvious you sympathized with Jesus was fun a week ago, but it was deadly dangerous now. Only the women were up for it.
That brings us to our picture. It’s Sunday. These three women made their way to the tomb by the light of a sun that was only beginning to rise when they first set out. We know the most about the woman on the left, Mary Magdalene. The Gospel of Luke lists her as one of the women who traveled with Jesus and helped support his ministry “out of their resources,” which tells us that she was probably relatively wealthy. The same passage also states that Jesus drove seven demons t of Mary Magdalene.
To her right, sharing in amazement that the huge stone door has been rolled away, is Mary, the mother of James. The only thing the Bible tells us about Mary, the Mother of James is that she was (You ready? This is deep) the mother of James. That’s not much, but it’s more than we know about the third woman. I’ve had to imagine her story, because we don’t know anything about her from the Gospels except her name, Mary – or, as Matthew refers to her, simply: “The Other Mary.” Let’s hear what she has to say.
Mary: I grew up in Nazareth and knew Jesus before he was a famous rabbi. In fact, he was my cousin. I first became aware of him when I was six and he was 12. Our families traveled together on the 60-mile trip to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Jesus and a couple of his sisters spent most of the trip with my parents and me. I quickly had a crush on him because he was smart and fun and treated us girls like we were equals. On the way back, his parents assumed he was again with us. I remember how – one day into the two day journey – Mary and Joseph learned that wasn’t the case. Shocked, they returned to Jerusalem to find him.
Joseph died three years after that, and Jesus became the man of their household. Rather than marry and move out, he stayed the next 15 years to help his mother raise his younger siblings.
I got over my crush, but Jesus remained a good friend as well as a cousin.
When I turned twelve, our families were again traveling to Jerusalem for Passover. I was walking with Jesus who was 18 by then. He already had a reputation as precocious Bible scholar – very unusual for a carpenter. Even more unusual, he talked about the Bible with me, a girl!
He was also beginning to be known as something of a healer. That’s why, when I woke up in the morning – one day into our journey – with blood between my legs, he’s the one I told. I was sure I was dying and wanted him to heal me.
He said, “Relax, that blood is perfectly normal. It means you’re a woman now, ready to have children. Ask your mother; she’ll tell you.” I did, rather sheepishly because I hadn’t gone to her first. Mother said Jesus was right and it’s a unique man who understands that – far from being defiling – some blood gives life.
Years later, when his last little sister was finally married off, Jesus left carpentry behind and began his ministry. I was a young widow by then thanks to the Roman army who, six weeks into our marriage, mistook my husband for a rebel named Barabbas and killed him when he resisted arrest. It left me bitter and angry, but it also left me free to follow Jesus who had never stopped being intriguing.
He was closest to 12 disciples, men he seemed to be grooming to follow him in ministry. But there were some 70 of us who followed as often and as best we could. Maybe the most amazing thing about those days was that many of his followers were women! If that doesn’t surprise you it’s because you don’t know that – in our day – women were expected to stay home. We weren’t supposed to talk to men, other than our husbands. Our testimony was deemed worthless in court. If we did get out and walk the streets of town, we were expected to be heavily veiled. The Talmud says, “It is foolishness to teach Torah to your daughter”; so women were almost never taught to read or write. We were confined to the outer “Women’s Court” at the temple and never allowed to participate in public prayer.
Given all that, you can understand that when Jesus not only talked to us, but taught us (!), he was taking a great chance and challenging the norms of society. Even the 12 had trouble with it at first, but they slowly came to accept us as fellow followers.
Add all that up, and you can easily see why I was so devastated when Jesus was arrested, convicted, and crucified. The men grieved, but also worried that they would be next. Most of us women couldn’t see past the unthinkable death of our beloved teacher and friend. Even so, we started doing what we always did when a loved one died.
Jesus was crucified on Friday at the third hour, 9:00 AM your time. The sky turned black at noon, and he died at what you’d call 3:00 PM. Usually, the bodies of crucified criminals are left on the cross to warn others and be eaten by birds. But Joseph of Arimathea, one of the first rich followers of Jesus, went to Pilate and asked for permission to remove his body and bury it. Pilate agreed – probably to irritate the religious leaders who had pushed him to go farther than he wanted to in Jesus’ case.
We don’t embalm or cremate, and both harsh weather and tradition mandate that burial happen quickly. There was time to wrap his body in linen and place it the tomb Joseph lent us. But we could not properly anoint Jesus before sunset and the beginning of Sabbath when any work is prohibited.
It bothered me all the next day, but when sunset came on Saturday and Sabbath ended, it was too dark to go to the tomb (especially since, for some reason, it was guarded by soldiers who might get jumpy if they saw strangers in the night). At dawn, with barely enough light to see, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and I took enough spices to properly anoint his poor battered body. The soldiers saw we were “only women” and led us to the tomb. We were astonished to see that the heavy stone door had been moved and the tomb was empty! The soldiers were even more astonished than we: they might very well be killed for failing to guard the body. They slunk back to their masters to make a report. (We found out later their lives were spared only because they agreed to lie and say his disciples stole the body.)
We women stayed, however, and – suddenly – two men in gleaming clothes joined us. One of them said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember: he told you, ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinners, be crucified …and on the third day be raised!!’ ”
I did remember him saying that, though it meant nothing at the time. Now, however, I’ve had time to reflect on all the ways he tried to tell us that, because of God’s love, there is more to life than this life. And it has given new meaning to my mother’s comment so many years ago, “It’s a unique man who understands that – far from being defiling – some blood …gives …life.”
Dear God, we know that – after a while, when it is safe for all people, when it is the most loving choice – Christians all over the United States will come out, and gather together, singing and shouting the good news. But help us remember that news even now: the news that You bring life out of death, and that Your Love always has the final say.” In Jesus’ name we ask it, amen.