Tuesday, March 30, 2010

While It Was Still Dark

candle flame in dark "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." John 20:1

Yes, it's the story of Easter morning, and it's a place in the Bible where you find a bit of difference in the various Gospel accounts. Aside from the differences in who shows up with whom, I was caught by the dark.

Mark's account is very specific that the sun was up. Matthew and Luke use the more general "dawn," but the implication is that it is at least growing lighter. In John, he is very specific in wanting to mention that it is still dark when Mary goes to the tomb.

If you study John, you shouldn't be surprised at this. John's Gospel is written on many levels of meaning and the themes of light and dark play a prominent role. The chances are that John had no intention of implying that Mary went to the tomb when it was literally dark. John is not about taking things literally, as the record of Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 will show you. John wants us to think about what things mean and he picks his words carefully with that in mind.

John's choice of emphasizing the dark is powerful, because Mary's heart and the hearts of all the disciples at that point would have been dark indeed. Remember she wasn't expecting to witness resurrection. She was coming to a grave to care for the dead body of one she loved. She came to the tomb in grief, not in hope. She came while it was still dark in her soul. And she found something so completely unexpected that it took her awhile to realize that night had turned to day. Jesus was alive.

Many of us come to this Easter in the dark. The economy is picking up but not in a way that most of us feel just yet. As I write this my home state is under a state of emergency for flooding, the Carolinas have been ravaged by tornadoes, and about 3 feet of snow is falling in Oregon. We are involved in two wars and the grief of dark times has brought out the worst in some people who spew rage and hate in the name of patriotism. Just this week, nine members of a "Christian" militia in Michigan were arrested for plotting to kill a police officer and then mow down all the officers who went to the funeral. It is dark in many quarters, whether the sun shines or no.

In the midst of it all, here comes Easter and there is John reminding us that the way we feel on the inside does not necessarily reflect the unseen hand of God at work in the world. Mary came to the tomb in the dark--in deepest grief and probably fear and anger mixed in given the cruel and unjust means of Jesus' death. And yet when she actually got to the tomb, the reality was very different than the mood of her heart. God's work was already accomplished...the stone was rolled away...Jesus was risen. All while it was still dark.

John 1:5 says, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." John uses the dark of Easter morning to bring us back to his opening words and the reminder that, as corny as it sounds, light will triumph over darkness. God triumphs even over death. We head for a tomb and discover that God has been at work just when we thought God had abandoned us.

We come in darkness but then the light shines. It's almost never in the way we expect or perhaps at the time we would have chosen. But it is the promise of Easter and the hope that carries us in the dark.

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