When I hear John’s account of Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, the song “In the Garden” comes to my mind:
I come to the garden alone, / while the dew is still on the roses, / and the voice I hear falling on my ear / the Son of God discloses.
And He walks with me, and He talks with me, / and He tells me I am His own; / and the joy we share as we tarry there, / None other has ever known.
Written in 1913 by Charles Miles, “In the Garden” has been recorded many times, and never more successfully than in a 1967 gospel album by Elvis Presley. I remember listening to my mother rehearse it when I was a child and being puzzled because it sounded like a love song, which, of course, it is.
“In the Garden” is based on the evocative story of Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb of Jesus in the morning while it is still dark, two days after he was buried. At first, Mary finds it empty. Later, after Peter and the so-called “beloved disciple” have run to the tomb to confirm her tale and then left, she finds two angels inside; and finally, she encounters a person outside the tomb whom she thinks is a gardener, but whom she realizes is Jesus as soon as he calls her by name.
This is good material for a love song, don’t you agree? John’s prose is evocative, and a story about being grief-stricken and finding new hope when one’s name is called by a beloved friend is a powerful one.
Still, I prefer the original version of the empty tomb – the one written by Mark, which we heard last week.
In Mark’s account, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb with another Mary, presumably Jesus’ mother, and a woman named Salome. When they find the tomb empty, they do not run to tell Peter or any of the other disciples. Instead, Mark writes, they flee in terror and tell know one.
John’s narrative of the life of Jesus is quite different from Mark’s. and while many people amalgamate them into a hybrid account of the life of Jesus, I try not to do this.
I prefer Mark’s account of Easter morning because the absence of physical appearances of the Risen Christ underlines the sense that resurrection is a mystery. It helps me connect the empty tomb with Paul’s idea of the Risen Christ who appears only in our hearts, minds, and souls.
The Good News I try to preach is that despite life’s inevitable losses and pains, a new life closer to universal love is available to us on the other side of the death of our illusions and addictions, and at the end of our individual earthly lives. This new Easter life is not a continuation of pre-Easter life. It is one that transcends the past and brings us a deeper awareness that our soul is united with the sacred love of all other people, and with the entire cosmos.
The post-resurrection physical appearances of Jesus found in Matthew, Luke, and John strike me as too prosaic, even if they are evocative and moving as in the story we heard from John today. And so, I prefer Mark.
In general, I approach the books of the Bible more as poetry than prose; and I appreciate them most when I view them more as dreams than as history.
So, while I can gain from John’s Easter story, I prefer the stark ending of Mark. It might seem to lead nowhere, but for me it fits well with the letters of Paul. Like us, Paul never met Jesus, nor did he seem to know anything about a birth in Bethlehem, a childhood in Nazareth, or a ministry around the Sea of Galilee. Nevertheless, after being reborn in Christ, Paul was swept up in a kind of ecstasy that transcended his old self, and which led him to love so strong it powered his ministry in the most difficult of circumstances.
So, for the rest of this season, I am going to leave behind the stories of the post-Easter appearances of Jesus found in John, Matthew, and Luke, and stick with the arc of death and surprising new life sketched by entire gospel of Mark.
In January and February, we read the first chapter of Mark with its proclamation of Good News and of a new kingdom of God. In Lent and Holy Week, we read from Mark’s final chapters about a deadly clash between the movement Jesus created and the religious and imperial leaders in Jerusalem. Last week, we heard a young man in an empty tomb proclaim the surprising news of resurrection.
Taken as a whole, I view Mark a parable as to how even in times that can seem disastrous or hopeless, Love prevails and Love wins. It is mysterious tale but a true one, which is why I find that poetry can help.
This year, as spring unfurls in its usual fretful but beautiful fashion, I pray that we will find new ways to connect to the power of Easter – with images and songs, with words and deeds, and as a community of seekers who peer into an empty tomb and find infinite light and love beaming out of it.
May it be so. Amen.