“The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre. Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him. Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre. So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre. And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed. For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead. Then the disciples went away again unto their own home. But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, Mary.” John 20: 1-18
What I have to say today is nothing new. You have heard all this before. What is maybe different is that you are hearing it in the context of the end of the narrative of the Fourth Gospel that we began studying close to two and a half years ago — the life-story of the Word of the Father made flesh. So let me begin literally at the beginning.
The Bible says that our first parents, the man and his wife, were a perfect fit for one another and, together, a perfect fit for God’s creation and like the rest of creation they had nothing to hide, there was nothing to conceal from anyone. In that state of being the very notion of hiding or concealing would have been unintelligible.
“And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.”
But, after our first parents disobeyed God they became aware of their natural state of nakedness and they interpreted their natural, their created state of being, as a sign of their sin and felt shame. There was nothing sinful or shameful about their nakedness, but now they were looking upon their world with new and alien eyes, and they were ashamed of how they were in the world, they tried to hide their disgrace by covering their bodies with fig leaves. But vegetation did not do the job. Leaves pulled from trees and sewn together could not cover our parent’s psychological shame, much less their very real betrayal of God. Man always tries to pass off his sin as costing only a few fig leaves but that is a lie. Something greater and terrible was needed. And the Bible tells us that God himself provided that greater thing by covering their nakedness with the skins of animals. Man will never tell the truth apart from God’s grace. But God always tells us the truth. Their betrayal was not a mere embarrassment, no more than an awkwardness, because a betrayal of God was a betrayal of the very ground of life and being itself. It is utterly nihilistic. God clothed our first parents with the skins of animals not to cover our shame but rather that we might know from the inside out what sin’s finality is with regard to creation. It sheds out creation’s life blood. There is nothing good about sin. But God would not permit sin to occlude his original intention to make us his very own children by the grace.
“And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”
And with the Word of the Father made flesh, Almighty God has vested himself and his divine glory with the skin of our humanity. And you know perfectly that he did not merely cover himself with our human flesh as if he were donning a mask, but God Almighty, the Son of the Father, became one of us really and truly — body, mind, heart, and will. And he became one of us without ceasing to be who he is — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Now we can vividly see how the place of God’s judgment and blessing is and remains forever in the flesh of Jesus. And how God’s judgment and blessing reaches all the way back to Genesis and all the way into the future — the future of the Word of the Father made flesh — knowing that our future is tied to his future while the future of creation is tethered to our future — as all creation awaits the revelation of the children of God.
I love John’s imagery. By appealing to our visual imaginations, the Beloved Disciple paints picture-stories of profound theology. These images were meant for a specific audience, namely the first generation of Jewish Christians – John’s intended readers who would have understood these word pictures because they already knew them from older narratives of the Law. And they already had clear meaning attached to them. I have pointed out many times before the connection of imagery between the Ark of the Covenant, the Empty Tomb, and the Altar.
“two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.”
That is what Mary saw. You see that picture as well? There’s the stone slab where Jesus’ bloody body had lain and at each end there is an Angel. Now pass over to the standpoint of a Jewish Christian in John’s day and sooner or later it would dawn on you that you had seen that before. And eventually you would remember where you had seen it. You would recall God instructions to Moses for the Ark of the Covenant and the Mercy Seat.
“And thou shalt make a mercy seat of pure gold…and thou shalt make two cherubim of gold…one on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end. And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat…”
The Mercy Seat was kept in the Holy of Holies in the Temple and on the Day of Atonement a High Priest would sprinkle the blood of a sacrificial victim upon the Mercy Seat atoning for all of Israel. Incense was burnt first so that a cloud rose up over the Ark. You can see that. Right? If you were a Jewish Christian that John’s Gospel is declaring that the Tomb of Jesus is the finality of the Holy of Holies and his once lifeless body was the place of God’s judgment and blessing — the true Mercy Seat with real angels, not angels hammered from gold –- real angels on both ends.
Mary had come upon another Mercy Seat but even more than that because the Mercy Seat in the Empty tomb, where the blood of Jesus had been sprinkled — that Mercy Seat assumed, subsumed, sublated into its reality the Mercy Seat of the Old Testament. Thus the Mercy Seat of the Empty Tomb bestows final meaning upon the Mercy Seat of the Old Testament. Note God did not discard the Ark of the Covenant, rather he brought to completion his purpose for the Ark. But that is not all: the Mercy Seat of the Tomb gives way to another Mercy Seat. Recall that Jesus has replaced the Temple with the Temple of his own body. There is no Holy of Holies deep in some temple or a tomb in Israel. So if you need mercy and if you want to know God and participate in his life, you will not find it in Jerusalem. Our Temple is the resurrected body and life of Jesus Christ.
And in front of us there is another Mercy Seat, the Altar of God, that gathers up and subsumes, sublates the Ark of the Covenant, Calvary, and the Empty Tomb — bringing them and the whole wide universe into perfect unity. That perfection is made visible upon the altar at every mass so that the Children of God may participate in that Perfection, which Perfection is the Incarnate Word. And we see that perfect unity between the Old Testament and the New Testament in the Icons of Mary, Mother of God — the budding Rose Tree of Israel — and John the Baptist, the Terrestrial Angel, directing our attention to the place where Bridegroom appears to his Bride at every Mass. How splendid is that?
One last thing:
“And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, Mary…”
In the Gospel of John people are always making mistakes with regard to Jesus’ identity. Anytime someone makes a mistake of identity in a Gospel it means something. What would this have meant to a Jewish Christian in John’s day? Well, who was the first gardener? Every Jewish child knew it was Adam. By citing this piece of tradition John is identifying Jesus with Adam. Here is the Last Adam in a garden that is bursting with life. And Jesus has a wound in his side just like the first Adam. In the story-world of creation the mother of humanity was taken from Adam’s side. And so Holy Mother Church was taken from the side of the Last Adam when a Roman soldier opened up his side and water and blood poured forth.
Remember the animal skins? God does not intend for us to go through life dressed in the bloody skins of animals. God not only forgives a man or a woman that his life is sin-stained — he makes us clean. And he makes us new. He does not merely declare us to be righteous he also makes us righteous. We are called to put off the old animal skins and to cloth ourselves with Jesus our God. And never forget that God has not cast his creation on the scrape heap. He loves her gardens and springs, he loves her rivers and he loves all her creatures. And from her gardens and rivers and seas, from her birds and beasts and even from her serpents –- a redeemed order is already being born to make a fit habitat not only for the children of God but for God himself — who has taken the form of a Gardener, our Adam, and who will one day return to his creation with his siblings in tow.