The dark hope of Easter

Picture Mary Magdalene stepping through the darkness to an empty tomb.  The last time Mary saw Jesus, she was standing at the foot of the cross, watching him die a brutal death as a criminal.  In the days since, she no doubt exhausted herself with weeping.

I imagine she barely ate or slept. So, when she came to the tomb, she was deep in grief, horror and disbelief at what has happened. It was before dawn but, whatever time of day it might have been, for Mary it was very dark. No doubt all those who loved Jesus were struggling to make their way through the darkest time they’d ever experienced.

Those who stayed with Jesus until the cross witnessed his murder, helpless to do anything except watch, weep and receive a few last words from him. Some abandoned him. Peter, for one, wished he had kept his mouth shut and not made grand promises to stand by Jesus no matter what. The hope Jesus had given now seemed as dead as their rabbi. And then there were the others who now thought it was all a sham. They felt tricked and deceived, hiding in fear that they would be identified as his friends.

But Mary made her way to the tomb. It’s not clear (in John’s Gospel) what she intended to do once there, but I imagine she wanted to mourn and pay her respects. This is where Easter begins – in darkness and lament, in the shadow of death. But it’s not where it ends.

The message of Easter, of resurrection Sunday, doesn’t so much burst onto the scene as it creeps, emerging from darkness and confusion, from death and sadness.

For Mary, it’s a message she doesn’t understand at first. Someone has moved the stone. Jesus’ grave has been tampered with. Now there is no longer even the comfort of a grave site. Someone has claimed Jesus’ body, and this is more than she can bear.

It’s interesting that none of the Gospels describes the actual resurrection.

Grief and loss are like that – just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. Sometimes the darkness around us is as deep as the dead of night and it seems as if dawn will never come. We know what it’s like to feel Jesus’ absence because we all lose sight of him at times. Mary experienced that. Even the presence of two angels couldn’t stop her tears. In her pain, she didn’t see the signs of God’s presence. So, she turned from the tomb and blundered her way back to find Peter and John.

I don’t blame Mary. Sometimes it’s hard to see God at work in the darkness.

As I think about it, it’s interesting that none of the Gospels describes the actual resurrection. We know what happened when Christ breathed his last and died. We’re told it was so violent that the curtain of the temple was torn in two, the earth shook, and the rocks split. The whole physical realm reacted so cataclysmically that tombs opened.

I would have thought that the moment of resurrection would be similarly recorded. That God would want the entire world to know that he was working to overcome the horror of Friday, that he hadn’t finished yet.

Here is the central event of the Christian faith and no Gospel writer recorded flashes of light, earthquakes, or tsunamis? No one saw it. Even Jesus’ birth had angels singing to shepherds, signs in the night sky for foreign astrologers to follow, and a king mad enough to order a massacre of children. But nobody is tipped off about the resurrection, the greatest event in all of history.

Hope was alive because in the darkness God had done his best work.

It happened sometime in the dead of night – while it was still very dark – and nobody knew until Mary went and looked.

This is our hope. Christ rose while it was still dark. He was alive before the first rays of dawn broke, before those who loved him were able to see him and believe. And although Mary felt lost and alone, Jesus wasn’t far away. Hope was alive because in the darkness God had done his best work.

The apostle John (1 John 1:5) has a lot to say about the light that dawns with the presence of Jesus. He writes, ‘God is light. In him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his son, purifies us from all sin.’

Light for John represented everything that is good, true and holy, everything Christ is and everything we are not. For the darkness that is in us – the sin in the hearts of all – God sent his son Jesus. For that darkness, Jesus died. While it was still dark, God was at work on our behalf.

On that first Easter morning, Mary didn’t find Jesus. But Jesus found her. She discovered, as we so often do, that God has been at work – not despite the darkness but because of it. One moment Mary is in the throes of grief and the next Jesus calls her name. In that moment Mary has more clarity than ever before – she encounters the risen Christ, and it changes everything.

Resurrection Sunday reminds us that we need not be afraid of the darkness we so often feel. As we consider the darkness in our own lives and as we live in and despair at our broken world, our hope is in knowing that long before we would understand it, God was working in the darkness on our behalf.

He still does.

Rev Melissa Lipsett is the CEO of Baptist World Aid.