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Accompaniment in fear, in suffering, in trauma: that seems to me to be an appropriate call for Christians over the past three Easters. We are still sitting in a messy, middle space – enduring in grief, and hoping for a new day, a new creation.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes. 11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

John 20:1-18

After a long Lent, one filled with violence, war, and suffering, we have come to Holy Week and Easter Sunday. We come to the event that defines the Christian faith, the hopeful, joyful culmination of a grief-ridden origin story experienced throughout the Triduum. By the time Sunday morning comes, we have (liturgically speaking) walked with the early church through Jesus’s betrayal, trial, and death. Easter may seem like the happy ending we long for in the concluding pages of an epic struggle between good and evil.

Our liturgical celebrations are impacted by the world around us. We have had at least three Lents profoundly shaped by the losses and deaths of the COVID-19 pandemic, by the exposure of racial and economic injustices, by shared social trauma. For three years, it has been tremendously difficult to feel, let alone to preach, the joy of Easter. 

When we dive into the lectionary, however, we can see that the scriptural accounts of the empty tomb and the resurrection offer more than happy endings. They reveal how the trauma of the crucifixion reshapes the witness of the early disciples. In their complexity and diversity, the canonical accounts of Easter offer many different ways to locate hope in the midst of death, grief, and trauma.

In this year’s readings, we have a choice between John’s poignant encounter between Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ, and Peter standing puzzled in the doorway of Luke’s empty tomb. In my own Roman Catholic tradition, John’s version is used on Sunday morning (Luke’s is for the Easter Vigil – more on that later). Unlike the synoptic gospels, the Johannine resurrection narrative is the only one where the risen Jesus himself appears at the empty tomb. Nonetheless, doubt and fear still permeate this story. 

On Easter morning, Mary Magdalene is the one to find the tomb open and empty. She immediately tells Simon Peter and the “other disciple” (traditionally identified as John): “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2). In this moment, neither Mary, nor Peter, nor the other disciple know what has occurred. The gospel writer makes this clear–although the other disciple, upon entering the tomb, “saw and believed,” we are also told that “they did not understand the scripture, that [Jesus] must rise from the dead.” Even if this disciple found some hope in the discarded burial clothes, the meaning of that hope was still obscured.

The men return to their homes, but Mary stays behind–crying, grieving for the loss of Jesus’s body, for this additional indignity after all that occurred through Jesus’s trial and crucifixion. She is asked twice why she weeps: first by two angels who appear in the tomb (John 20:12), and then by Jesus himself (John 20:15). In fact, the text does not indicate whether Mary really acknowledges the ostensibly supernatural origin of the angels: her only response indicates that she believes Jesus’s body has been stolen. 

This is an important moment in the Gospel of John, one that theologian Shelly Rambo has connected to experiences of trauma in her book, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining. In the book, she draws forward the experiences of Holy Saturday–the space between Jesus’s death and Jesus’s resurrection. If the crucifixion is the moment of acute trauma–the death of a loved one, an act of state violence–then Holy Saturday, even the empty tomb itself, according to Rambo, is “that important moment in which you’re living beyond a death, a kind of metaphorical death, but can’t see life clearly ahead.” 

In this moment, Mary struggles to see a way forward from the loss of Jesus. Then, Jesus appears, and she does not recognize the teacher she loved. Even once she does recognize him, once she hears her name and knows the voice of her “rabbouni,” (John 20:16), Jesus’s death still permeates the interaction. She is warned not to “hold onto” Jesus, as he anticipates his ascension (John 20:17). The language here has been subject to some debate. In some places it is interpreted as a prohibition on touching, as if Mary had sought to embrace Jesus; in others, it is spiritualized, as if Mary is being warned not to “hold onto” her pre-resurrection understanding of Jesus (Rambo, 89, footnote 15-16). In either case, Mary is reminded that her relationship with Jesus has changed. 

This experience of trauma leaves its mark even in the joyful moment of reunion. And although Mary Magdalene goes on to proclaim what she has heard and seen, although we the readers have been let in on the certainty of Christ’s resurrection by the gospel writer, the rest of the disciples still struggle with fear and anxiety. After Mary sees the risen Christ, John’s gospel includes the story of “doubting Thomas” (John 20:24-29). Despite Mary’s testimony, despite Jesus’s appearance in the upper room, Thomas still cannot believe, cannot dare to hope in the strange story of the resurrection until he sees Jesus himself. 

So, although John’s gospel wants the reader to know that Jesus is risen, it preserves the doubt and struggle of the disciples in their grief. This uncertainty is even more pronounced in the synoptic gospels, where there is a longer gap between the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances. The original ending of Mark’s gospel famously ends with the women who find the empty tomb and encounter mysterious messengers fleeing the scene without telling anyone of the resurrection, “for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). 

Similarly, Luke’s account begins with women who intend to anoint the body arriving to find the tomb open. They are then frightened by the sudden appearance of two unnamed men (whom later tradition calls angels), who tell them: “He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again” (Luke 24:5-7).

The women, Mary Magdalene among them, seem to find hope in this moment–not just because of the angels’ words, but because of Christ’s: “they remembered his words” (Luke 24:8). So, they take the good news of the empty tomb to the remaining eleven, who disbelieve them. Like the Johannine version, Peter runs to the tomb and is “amazed at what happened” (Luke 24:12). 

Yet, “amazed” is something of an ambiguous verb here: it does not indicate whether Peter believed, as the women did. It does not tell us whether Peter now finds the women credible. In fact, footnotes in the NRSV indicate that this verse is omitted entirely in some textual traditions. This leaves the scene in some uncertainty. The risen Jesus is not seen (or known) until the following story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), and it is only at the end of that story that we hear Peter has also become a first-hand witness to the resurrection.

Rambo’s work brings our attention to the doubt and uncertainty shot throughout the resurrection narratives, moments easily overlooked by Christians today who take the resurrection as a given. In an interview, she notes, “None of those witnesses really have some triumphant understanding of ‘Oh, it’s all going to be good in the end’” –rather, these narratives show us how “instead of proclaiming a very positive, triumphant kind of word, you had witnessing as a slow, almost unsatisfying, unrewarding process of accompaniment.”

Accompaniment in fear, in suffering, in trauma: that seems to me to be an appropriate call for Christians over the past three Easters. We are still sitting in a messy, middle space–enduring in grief, and hoping for a new day, a new creation. 

If we cannot find joy this Easter, if we may struggle to see how that new creation is possible, we nonetheless hold onto the fragile strands of hope. We stand in the doorway of the empty tomb. And yet – we know, even if we do not yet understand how, that there is something greater to come.

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