Grieve, Hope & Wait
Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus beside the tomb on the day of his resurrection matches well with the complex mix of emotions Christians continue to experience in the face of death. We find in this encounter the deep grief of death, the exhilarating hope of resurrection, and the agonizing wait for the joy of resurrection to reach fulfillment.
Grief: Out of the sleeplessness of grief, Mary hurries to Jesus’ tomb “while it was still dark.” At the tomb, we find her weeping and so distraught that she fails to recognize Jesus when first she sees him. She is in the morass of grief—the heartbreaking, pain-filled, despairing sorrow of losing one whom she loved.
What I love about John’s report of this incident (in John 20:11-18) is that we can find no trace of Mary being corrected for her behavior. There is never a suggestion that Mary should not have cried or that she should have trusted God more fully. John reports, with full acceptance, the depth of Mary’s bereavement because that’s what the death of a loved one does to us. Mary did what every sane person does in the face of death.
Earl Grollman stresses, “Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.”
Washington Irving adds, “There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”
Hope: Suddenly, Jesus stands before her—or suddenly Mary recognizes Jesus as he stands before her—and Mary is overcome with the exhilaration of his resurrection. Never has such good news been shared with our world as when Jesus appeared before Mary with the announcement that death had been overcome.
Many years ago, Dr. Robert Hughes of the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia illustrated the significance of Jesus’ resurrection with a story about his father, who had been a coal-miner in northeastern Pennsylvania. Dr. Hughes’ father had the job of going down into the mines every morning before the other miners, to check the mines for methane gas. Every morning he would descend alone into the mines, taking with him the safety lamp, and he would begin to go through the darkened tunnels, checking each of the tunnels and shafts to make sure there was no deadly methane gas present. If the light of the safety lamp would begin to flicker, he would have to run for his life, because it would signal the presence of deadly gas. After checking the mine, he would rise to the surface, where all the miners gathered around waiting expectantly, and he would announce, “It’s okay; it’s safe. You can go down into the mine now.”
Dr. Hughes would explain, “That’s what Christ did for us. He came up out of the depths of death and announced to all who are gathered on earth, ‘It’s okay; it’s safe now. You can enter into death, into the darkness and the unknown. It is safe because I have made it safe. I have been there, and I have come back. It has not been victorious over me, but I have overcome it, and I will be with you in death, even as I have been with you in life!’”
Wait: In the midst of her excitement, Mary grabs hold of Jesus, but he says to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”
Jesus rose from the dead, but he was not going to remain on the earth, so she could not cling to him. Death was been conquered, but we do not yet get to enjoy the resurrection of our loved ones.
When our loved ones die, they go to heaven. That is great news! But we still miss them. All of us on earth are stuck waiting for the experience of the joy of the resurrection, and we will remain stuck in our waiting until we are called to heaven or until Christ returns. Between now and then, when we deal with the death of a loved one, we live in the complex mix of deep grief, exhilarating hope, and an agonizing wait for the joy of resurrection to reach fulfillment.