Expectations of the risen Christ - St Bride's: Reflection

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Expectations of the risen Christ

John 20:1-18

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20 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.

10 Then the disciples went away again unto their own home.

11 But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre,

12 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.

13 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.

14 And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.

15 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.

16 Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.

17 Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.

18 Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her.

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"Early on the first day of the week while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the sepulchre, and saw that the stone had been removed".

Hearing those words I'm reminded of my own early morning visits to the Holy Sepulchre when on pilgrimage in the Holy Land in 2014.  Today it is a place that tends to divide opinion.  It's said to enclose an area that included both the rock of Golgotha where Jesus was crucified and the tomb where Jesus was laid in what would have been a ridge just below.  That original landscape is almost entirely obliterated so it can be very confusing to make sense of it and it's often very busy.  Different bits are controlled by different denominations and they have a history of falling out with one another.  For some it's more a circus than a sacred space.  I understand this reaction.  You may well visit the sepulchre in expectation of some divine revelation but find yourself struck instead by human failing.  Personally though, I found the history of the place fascinating and perhaps the strongest argument for the authenticity of the site is that history.  It's a place that people have cared for, and form time to time have fought over, for many centuries. 

I also appreciated observing some of the traditions of the respective churches - the Armenian, Greek and Catholic churches primarily control and the Coptic, Syriac and Ethiopian churches are also represented.  Each have their own areas of the church and there's a schedule that determines their respective times for worship.  You get a very different sense of the centre of gravity of the global church, with the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches much more prominent than we are used to. 

Impatient to visit the site after our arrival, I set off by myself at about 4am on the second morning.  That's when it's of course at its most peaceful and it's a good time to observe different liturgies.  It was quite scary getting there, walking through the narrow alleys of Jerusalem in darkness with stray cats leaping out from different corners.  But once there I was gripped and I returned on a number of occasions at the same time.  Some of the chanting was very beautiful, even though I couldn't understand it, on one occasion I was swept up by a group of South American Catholics celebrating mass in the tomb itself and on others I sat silently with nuns at the foot of the cross on what is taken to be Golgotha.

Many of my fellow pilgrims didn't share these same experiences, visiting only in the busyness of the day.  The thing that I was most surprised by, and which I found most disappointing though, was that rather than being excited by the richness of Christian heritage some saw the traditions of those different churches as alien.  They expected to see practices that were different from their tradition and distinguished them from others and that shaped what they saw, what they were able to recognise.

Now of course when Mary Magdalene visited that the sepulchre on that first Easter morning her expectations were entirely different.  She probably wasn't able to sleep, the horrific events of Friday were seared into her mind, her hopes for the future had been dashed.  Jesus had been placed in the tomb in haste on the Friday evening ahead of the Sabbath.  Mark's Gospel tells us that Mary took spices to anoint the body.  The burial customs apparently hadn't been completed.  She is braced to tend to the corpse, a corpse heavily marked by torturous injuries.  When she discovers the tomb open and the body gone I imagine that she is immediately cast back to the horror of Friday.  Execution has not satisfied the hatred of those who wanted Jesus dead.  It appears that some further insult is underway and she now faces being robbed even of a place to grieve.  She flees to tell the disciples what she has discovered.

Later she returns to the tomb.  She's beside herself.  Perhaps being there provides her with an opportunity to absorb what has happened.  When Jesus appears she takes him to be the gardener.  In her disorientation she isn't able to recognise him. "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away".  Perhaps she pays greater attention now, anticipating that there might be some explanation.  She looks into his eyes and as he speaks her name her spirits are wrenched from despair.  She's perhaps even more disorientated but if that's the case, this must be like some sudden pleasant intoxication rather than a state of panic and despair.  

It's an important lesson I think that our expectations shape what we are able to recognise.  At the heart of the Christian message is the good news that in Jesus Christ human assumptions are overcome.  The suffering and death of Good Friday is not the last word.  Our Lord has risen and we are invited to share in his victory.  In Christ we may overcome our failings and the tragedies of our lives, we need not be defined by them.  But our faith teaches us that neither are we defined by those things that often preoccupy us - our status in the world, our material wealth, our homes and possessions, our interests, our sophistications.  If those are the things that we expect to define people then that is what we most often will see. 

We should expect to see glimpses of our Lord in the most unexpected places because he is a servant king.  We can expect to encounter him particularly amongst those who are most vulnerable.  Just as God's glory was revealed in the desolation of the cross, so he is often most present amongst those who are most in need.  It is love of God and love of neighbour, the fullness of life that God intends for us, that defines us as Christians.

We live in a time that feels particularly significant in defining our future.  It is perhaps ever thus but we are working through the implications of significant technological changes - the internet and virtual world are sometimes likened to the printing press in terms of their social significance.  Our Archbishop, Justin, has emphasised the significance of Brexit as we seek to define a new place for our nation in the world.  My work in health and social care is very much concerned with transformation towards some sustainable future model because our present our simply can't be maintained. 

As we face these challenges our expectations shape the possibilities that we recognise.  If we expect scarcity of resources and cultural conflict then we are very likely to see threats and to find it difficult to reach out to others.  We're called though to trust in the abundance of God's gifts.  If that's our expectation then perhaps we will be better able to discern where his love might burst into our troubled world.  So our expectations shape what sense we make of the world and what we understand of ourselves, of our identities, our lives and deaths.

Let us pray that we may all know that we are children of God, loved beyond all measure, that we may be given the courage to live with the expectation of our eternal future in God's presence and that we might recognise and welcome the love of our risen Christ in the world.

All glory be to him, now and to the ages of ages.


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