Some times the huge moments in the Bible grab me by the shoulders and throw me against the wall and shout in my face “Look! Look! Take this on board!” and I reel away, dazed and breathless and amazed by the power of the living Word of God. Yesss!
Other times some tiny detail will snag me, catch at my sleeve like the minute hook of a bramble, hoiking me into a moment of appreciation. And sometimes those moments grow into hours or days of pre-occupation and revelation. Is ‘revelation’ the right word? Maybe it’s more ‘realisation’.
What seems to be an incidental detail, unconsidered by the writer, will sometimes attest to the truth of the writing and then that tiny detail becomes part of the indestructible cornerstone of my faith.
Listen to a few words from the Gospel of John (Chapter 20:11):
Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb…
As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb…. this incidental detail has beamed me up across the ages and the oceans, and it’s taken me right there, to the tomb where the lifeless body of Jesus was laid, all those long long years ago. It would be ridiculous to say that I was there, but hey – stand by for the ridiculous – “I was there”.
Mary was Mary Magdalene, the same woman who had been possessed by demons, the same Mary who (tradition has it) knelt down to wash the feet of Jesus.
Joseph and Nicodemus (and maybe Mary too) had already begun the final services due to Jesus’ body immediately after the crucifixion. I say ‘maybe Mary too’ because she was one of the women who followed Jesus in life and she never abandoned Him, she never denied Him, and we know that now she wanted to serve Him in death. Maybe she had already washed His poor battered body, on the day of the crucifixion, watching the two men as they wrapped Him in linen cloths and packed the layers with spices and aromatic herbs. Women then were more practised with the tender physical services of washing and caring than men were, so maybe they stood aside as she sponged His wounds and combed His hair.
I know Mary. I know that all through the long night after Jesus’ death she was awake, thinking of her Master alone in the cold grave, longing to serve Him still. Love and devotion don’t end when death comes.
I know Mary. Even before the first light crept across the room she was up and out, gathering everything she needed to finish the job and to lay Jesus to rest. She didn’t wait for fires to be lit and the menfolk to wake, she was up and off! Her last service. So precious. A last few moments alone with her Lord.
When she arrived at the tomb and saw that the stone had been rolled away, how she must have panicked! Where were the Roman guards? Who could have done this? Was it the work of body robbers and if so, were they still there? She ran then, straight back, to Peter and John “The body’s been taken!” I see her distress, hear her voice, know her confusion. When my husband died I was about three miles away, and although I knew he was dead, the urgency, the longing, the fever to be with him, to hold him, it was all-consuming. Nothing else mattered. I know Mary’s distress.
Peter and John ran to the tomb, and there they saw the grave linens folded, the head cloth separate, all neatly left. These would have been several layers of linen cloths, impregnated with ointments and oil and herbs, all applied the previous day. To remove grave cloths would have been a huge task – to unwind caked, hardening and saturated linen bandages…. from a heavy and unresponsive body…. even with knives or tools it would have been a messy, time consuming task… but why? Why would anyone even try? And to leave the linens lying there… we’re told that John saw and believed.
What did he believe? The Greek word used here is ‘eiden’ which means ‘understood the significance or meaning of what was seen’. So John understood that Jesus’ body had risen, not taken by any human hand. Maybe this suggests that the way the grave cloths lay was evidence that the body had miraculously left the linens, travelled through them, so that they folded in on themselves.
The why and the how. It must have paralysed them. None of it made sense. Who would take the body? Where were the guards? Why were the cloths left? How was the stone moved? Imagine their exclamations, the questions, the confusion.
Peter and John leave, but Mary stays, weeping.
I know Mary. I know many Marys. Women whose love and loyalty last beyond the grave, women who have lost loved ones, and washed their bodies, kissed their lifeless faces, held their cold hands, tenderly soaped and dried and served them even beyond death. Now Mary was yearning to do this for her Jesus. She was longing to place the last herbs on his shroud, to arrange the winding sheet with love, to tuck Him up ready for eternal peace, to give her Master one last gentle kiss. And she couldn’t. He was gone.
So she stood there, weeping. She didn’t leave to get on with her life like John and Peter. Her grief was all consuming.
That telling phrase: As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb…
It was a rich man’s tomb, donated for Jesus’ burial. As such it would have been a cave the size of a room, usually with a bier on one side cut into the soft rock and maybe a place for mourners to sit, too. But the door, the entrance, would have been small. Maybe not much more than waist height and just wide enough to allow a person to pass in. So she bent over to look into the tomb.
Aren’t you there with her? Can’t you see her? This woman full of love and longing. Had the body been there she wouldn’t have hesitated, dropping all the things she’d brought with her, the aloes, the spare cloths ‘just in case’, maybe a sprig of lilac, maybe some more of that beautiful perfume she had once poured onto Jesus’ head…. she would have reached out to touch His shrouded feet one more time…. but he wasn’t there, so she stood outside, weeping, lost, nothing to do but love Him. Long for Him. Drowning in grief.
She saw angels. There were angels. I’m glad there were angels but they don’t touch my heart like the stooping Mary does.
And then Mary finds someone behind her. When you’re in the shock of loss, in this first few hours, the world is off-kilter. Your horizon shifts, everything falls away, you’re in a desert, a sandstorm, a snowstorm, buffeted and deafened, blinded by tears, choked by snot, your heart pounding, your brain racing. Disbelief. Your hands and feet icy cold. I remember having icy cold hands and feet for days and days after George died. Distortion, clamour, grief.
And then she hears her name “Mary”.
He says her name. A broken sinful despised woman was the first to see the resurrected Jesus.
He says her name. What a gift. What a heart wrenching wonderful painful gift. To hear the voice you love say your name.
To hear the voice you love say your name. What a gift that will be.