April 16, Easter Day

Kristin White

John 20:1-18

Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t have designed it that way.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is hard to find. It’s in the Christian Quarter, just inside the walls of the Old City. I can tell you that I managed to find it three times – two of them in the dark, and on my own – but I couldn’t tell you how. I wandered down what seemed like a side street, which emptied into another, got thoroughly lost on one of those occasions and asked directions from a kind vendor who must have guessed I didn’t have a clue about where I was, and eventually found the church…a different way, each time.

There’s no grand entrance. If you were here for last night’s Vigil, you would have seen on the cover of our bulletin a photo of the archway to the plaza outside the church. It’s marked by an Israeli Defense Force checkpoint and camera, by a hand-painted sign, with a sign above that urging orderly behavior – no pushing or running.

The church was under construction when our group made pilgrimage in January, which added to the chaos. But that church strikes me as a place that probably always has a certain amount of chaos and complication anyway.

In the second century, the emperor Hadrian built a temple to Venus over the site believed to be Jesus’ tomb. By some accounts, he did that to deny Christians access to the place they had been returning to worship since the time when Jesus was resurrected and ascended.

In the year 325, the emperor Constantine, the first to officially tolerate Christianity, reclaimed that space. He called for a church to be built that would enshrine Golgotha, the place of Jesus’ crucifixion, and the tomb, also the place of resurrection.

It’s a big space, as you can probably imagine. And it has been shared for a very long time by different churches – the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic, the Roman Catholic are primary, though Syrian Orthodox and Egyptian Coptic and Ethiopian Christians also hold sway. The key to the church has been held by a Muslim family, the Joudeh family, for 850 years. Their “new” key is 500 years old. A member of that family unlocks the doors to the church every morning at about 4:00.

It’s a big church, with a long history, held dear by many people who have to find a way to share. You can imagine the chaos and complication in the years between 325 and now. There have been fires and fights, persecutions and restorations.

At any given moment, you might walk in the door, next to the marble pillar where pilgrims have traced and carved crosses for centuries, see people laying rosaries for blessing on the anointing stone just inside, hear an orthodox priest chant evening prayer as folks light candles at the place of the crucifixion, join a line that may take an hour, may take much more, to enter the Aedicule, the shrine of Jesus’ tomb.

Chaos and complication are good words for today’s gospel as well. And I’ll confess that, left to my own devices, I wouldn’t have designed it that way, either.

Mary goes in the dark of the early morning to that very place where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands, to find the stone rolled away from Jesus’ tomb. And then she runs back to Peter and the other disciple, and they all run back to the tomb, and somehow it’s important to this gospel writer to say who runs the fastest.

The linens are there, and Jesus is not. The other disciple, the one who runs faster than Peter, sees and believes. And the two disciples go home.

In the midst of all the chaos, all the complication, Mary stands weeping.

Two angels ask her, from the tomb, “Why are you weeping?”

“They have taken my Lord,” she says, “And I don’t know where.”

And then it’s him. He’s right there, but she doesn’t realize.

“Why are you weeping?” Jesus asks Mary Magdalene.

“Just tell me where he is,” she says.

And he says her name. And she knows.

Left to my own devices, I would be inclined to build an orderly and well-signed church, on a main road, with one primary liturgical act going on at a time. Left to my own devices, I would probably wish for a believable and logical story of faith, some kind of provable if-then story, where justice is clean and the moral is clear. Left to my own devices, the gospel we share on the busiest day of the church year would be approachable, recognizable; not chaotic, not outrageous.

It’s a good thing I’m not left to my own devices. Because we need something bigger than that.

Because as hard as it was for me to wander and get lost and found again in the early morning darkness on the way to that church built over the space of cross and tomb, I needed the chaos of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I needed to trace my fingers among those centuries of crosses in that marble pillar at the doorway. I needed to look at the mosaic of Jesus’ body being placed in the tomb (Mary, his mother, helps carry him; she holds his head so tenderly). I needed to see that, at the same time that people wept and prayed at the stone where many believe Jesus’ body was anointed for burial. I needed the frustration of standing in line but not actually ever entering the tomb. I needed the mystery of words chanted in a language I do not know, at the place where Jesus hung on the cross.

We get moments, I believe, where something reaches into the depths of who we are, to the place where both doubt and faith can be found.[1] And in living into the logical everyday, the easily anticipated, the clean and the orderly, I’m not entirely convinced we can see the need for those moments. But chaos? Complication? Confusion and frustration? Well, maybe those disrupt our lives enough that we can find that doubt and faith are not so very far away from one another. In fact, maybe it’s even the case that our doubts bear witness to the power of what it is that we proclaim today.[2]

Because maybe the realities which hold no doubt for us, are also not “large enough to reveal God to us.”[3]

I'll say that again: Because maybe the realities which hold no doubt for us, are also not “large enough to reveal God to us.”[4]

In the complication and the chaos of this day, the Christian faith makes a mighty proclamation, the same ancient claim we will sing as one of our hymns at communion: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.

It’s massive and chaotic and incomprehensible. It’s the kind of statement you can get lost inside of. And maybe that is a necessary part of it all, a testimony that we are not best left to our own devices, this Easter day, or ever. Because “what we proclaim at Easter is too mighty to be encompassed by certainty, too wonderful to be found only within the borders of our own imaginations.”[5]

She goes to the tomb in the early morning darkness, and he’s not there. And there’s chaos, and running, and the disciples go home. But Mary stands weeping.

“Why are you weeping?” the angels ask.

“They have taken my Lord, and I do not know where,” she says.

“Why are you weeping?” Jesus asks.

“Just tell me where he is,” she says.

And he says her name. And she knows.

Jesus will go on to reveal himself to the disciples – in a locked room; and again with Thomas, whose doubts bear witness to his faith; and once more at day break on the shores of the sea of Galilee, which is the place you can see on the cover of your bulletin this morning.

Thank God. Thank God, on this Easter Day and always, for the chaos and complication that tell us again and again that we are not left to our own devices. Because they’re not big enough to contain God. Because the risk and the promise are so much greater.

Because Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.

Alleluia. Christ is risen.



[1] Martin Copenhaver, “Pastoral Perspective” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. 374.

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] Copenhaver, 374