Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
There is a feature of the Easter account that we all know very well, but that we don’t always understand the significance of. And it is this: the first witnesses of the resurrection were women. Now with our 21st century ears we hear that, and it doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy. But in the 1st century this would have really stood out. For women were not considered to be reliable witnesses. Jewish rabbis at the time explicitly said that the testimony of a woman, especially in a court of law, was not to be considered valid. While this was not Jesus’ stance toward women, it was the thinking of the time. So what can we learn from the fact that in every one of the four Gospels, it is the women who are the primary witnesses of Easter?
First of all, this helps to authenticate the resurrection of Jesus, that this is a real, historical event and not some legend. After all, if you were going to make up and invent a story, the last thing you would do at that time would be to give women such a prominent role in your tale. And, in fact, those who rejected and mocked Christianity in the first century often pointed this out about the Easter story, that it was based in part on the unreliable testimony of hysterical women. The idea of bodily resurrection was something the first century world already scoffed at, and this feature of the narrative just made it an even easier target for lampooning.
And yet the early Christian church didn’t adjust their story to make it more palatable to the world. They didn’t take out the part about the women and jump right to the men, to Jesus’ later appearances to the disciples. No they stood by the women. They didn’t even photoshop Mary Magdalene out of the picture–the one who, if she wasn’t formerly a prostitute, certainly had a shady past. And yet there she is, not just in the background but prominently featured particularly in John’s account of Easter. The early Christian community stood by the account we have in the Gospels from the very beginning. They didn’t change how the story happened because this wasn’t a concocted story in the first place. This is how it actually occurred, and no amount of rejection or persecution could make them deny this life-changing truth.
And there is another thing we can learn from the women being the first witnesses of the resurrection. Their central role in this points to the fact that Jesus’ resurrection is the undoing of the fall of mankind. You recall how in Genesis, it was Eve who was tempted by the devil in the Garden, and after she succumbed and ate, she passed some along to her husband with her and he ate. Though both Adam and Eve were equally guilty, it was from the woman to the man that death came. That was the path by which the curse traveled and the grave gained its power over us. “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”
So now on Easter morning, our Lord Jesus does a wonderful “in your face” to our ancient enemy. He mocks the devil whom He has defeated by purposely giving the good news first to the women to then give to the men. Jesus reverses and destroys the devil’s work. Just as the fall came through Eve to Adam, so now word of the raising up of mankind comes from Mary Magdalene to Peter, and to John and to all the disciples. Here in this Garden where Jesus had been buried, the announcement that the tomb is empty and that the curse of death is broken is carried by the women to these men who would be ordained by Christ to be the first preachers and apostles of the Easter Gospel. Here we are given to see that in the risen Jesus creation is redeemed from the fall and all things are restored and revitalized.
In this true story of the resurrection, Jesus is shown to be the new Adam for us, the one in whom humanity has a new birth and a new beginning. And we need this new life desperately, don’t we. For our old life from the first Adam is riddled with death even from our youth. It’s the hollowness that we still have even after we’ve taken in our fill of all this passing world has to offer. It’s the camaraderie we seek by going along with the crowd that turns out to be a sort of crowded isolation. It’s the deterioration of our bodies and the brokenness of our relationships which happens often in spite of our best efforts. There’s ultimately no avoiding the truth of our mortality. In the end you are left right where Mary was: bent over, staring through tearful eyes into the gaping mouth of the grave.
But note what Mary sees. Not only is Jesus’ tomb is empty, but she also sees two angels sitting where Jesus had been. And these messengers of the Lord ask her, “Why are you weeping?” It’s almost as if they said, “There’s no need for tears any more. For the crucified One whom you seek has risen. He who bore the curse of the world’s sin has redeemed you from the curse forever. He who was held by the jaws of the grave has shattered those jaws and has destroyed death’s power over you. He who did battle with the kingdom of darkness has crushed the devil’s head by His holy cross, setting you free from hellish bondage. So don’t cry. Jesus is alive for you as the triumphant Lord of all.”
Mary then turns around and sees Jesus. But she doesn’t yet know that it’s Him. She mistakes Jesus for the gardener. And yet she really isn’t mistaken, is she. Jesus is the Gardener. For He is risen to restore you to Paradise. This New Adam walks in the garden in the cool of the new day and comes to this daughter of Eve. What He brings to her and to you is not judgment but justification, not sin but righteousness, not death but life. Jesus totally and completely undoes the fall. We heard it in the Epistle, “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”
Jesus reveals who He is to Mary simply with one word. The sheep know their Shepherd’s voice, and He calls them each by name. “Mary.” In the joy of this sudden recognition, Mary cries out “Teacher!” She goes to Jesus and falls before Him, clinging to His feet, the same feet she had once anointed with fragrant oil and with repentant tears. The Teacher who had received her and had forgiven her sins was alive! Now it is tears of joy that she cries.
But interestingly, Jesus tells her, “Do not cling to me.” Why would He say that to her and ruin this Hollywood moment? Here’s why: Things are not the same now. This is not just a going back to the good old days before the horrors of Good Friday. Easter is not the undoing of the crucifixion. In truth Easter is the victory of the crucifixion. It’s the result of what He accomplished on the cross. The resurrection of our Lord shows that His death really did pay the wages of sin completely. By the cross He swallowed up death and conquered the grave and redeemed the world and routed the devil. Easter is simply the glorious revealing of that fact. So Jesus is not snubbing Mary here; but He is indicating that things will never be the same again. Everything has been changed.
Time now has actually been turned forward. Jesus’ death and bodily resurrection have inaugurated the era of the new creation. Easter means that we are looking forward to something much better than the Garden of Eden. Through Christ, creation itself will be resurrected and freed from its bondage to decay and death. Tomorrow the world will have its semi-pagan earth day celebration. But we know that the real earth day is today. For Easter means that the groaning of creation under the curse has its end, and what was intended for this earth from the beginning will come to its awesome fulfillment in Jesus.
The good news for you today is that you have your place in this because you are baptized into Christ, who is the source and spring of the new creation. Jesus actually revealed Himself to you in the same way He did to Mary, by calling your name at the baptismal font. By water and the Word He drew your name into the name of the Holy Trinity. He united you with Himself and thereby made you a child of God. That’s why Jesus says to Mary, “My Father and your Father, my God and your God.” Do you see what that means? Penitent believers are now family with Jesus. All that Christ is and has He has made yours: release from sorrow, abounding forgiveness, indestructible life and joy. In Christ you are restored to communion with God and with one another.
Finally I must note what a wonderful change of message occurs with Mary Magdalene in the Gospel. She goes from a frantic “They have taken away the Lord!” to a joyous “I have seen the Lord!” At first she had thought the soldiers who were guarding the tomb had moved Jesus’ body. They would have absolutely no reason to do that, but it was the only way she could make sense of things. She didn’t yet know that when Jesus rose, the soldiers became paralyzed with fear and then fled away. That, too, is more evidence of the resurrection. Both Jesus’ friends and enemies acknowledged that the tomb was empty. Jesus’ cowardly disciples certainly couldn’t have stolen the body. And if the body had been moved by the well-armed authorities, the location of His corpse immediately would have been pointed out by them when the disciples started preaching that Jesus was alive. This whole Christianity thing would have been nipped in the bud. But the authorities didn’t do that; they couldn’t. For there was no dead body any more.
No, Christ Jesus is indeed risen from the dead and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. There is more of Easter to come, more rising from the dead. Our Lord has led the way through the grave, so that those who die in Him will also rise with Him when He comes again. The Lord will swallow up death forever. He will wipe away the tears from all faces. You can be sure of it, for the Lord has spoken it.
Let us all, then, do as Mary Magdalene did and gladly confess this truth, both here and before the world: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!