One of the infuriating things about Jesus was that he had an annoying habit of speaking in questions. He rarely gave a straight answer when anyone questioned him. Instead he asked a question back. Or remained silent. Or did something weird like draw in the sand with his finger, while someone’s life hung in the balance. Or said nothing at all, as when he was questioned before Herod and Pilate on Good Friday. Or he told odd stories, that raised more questions than they answered.
It’s no wonder the disciples so often didn’t get it. At our service here on Maundy Thursday, as we thought about the first Last Supper, we looked at what Jesus asked the disciples then – ‘do you understand what I have done for you?’ And no, they didn’t. Not then. It was just too much to take in, and until the resurrection, just too unbelievable.
Sometimes reading the gospels we might think ‘Oh come ON, Peter! Come ON disciples! How can you possibly not get it when you’ve got Jesus there in front of you? How on earth are we meant to manage?’
But on that first Easter morning, even the least charitable of us might reasonably expect Mary and the other disciples to need some sort of explanation of what’s going on.
But no. Even the angels, Gods messengers, often the ones who spell God’s messages out, here in John’s gospel join Jesus in speaking in questions.
And not even sensible questions.
‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ ask the angels.
And ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Jesus asks.
Isn’t it obvious why Mary is weeping, and who she is looking for? Isn’t it weird that Jesus doesn’t just come right out and comfort her, tell her, explain what has happened? ‘Mary! No need to worry. Here I am! This is what I was trying to get at the other night. I had to go through death so that I could conquer its power for ever, for everyone else. But God has raised me, as I always knew and trusted that he would. So everyone can now live for ever with God in heaven – there is no more condemnation for sin, no more need for trying to appease God, and you can now know how much God loves you! Now, go, tell everyone the good news!’
But no. First the angels, then Jesus, start by asking a question – ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’
We don’t know, of course, what tone of voice Jesus asked this question in, how we should read it.
Was it perhaps sympathetic? ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’
The nice thing about imagining that, is how it seems to symbolise Jesus coming alongside us in our sufferings and grief. We know he understands what human sadness and desolation are like – he has gone through them himself, not just in his own suffering, but in for example his grief at the death of his friend Lazarus. If he said it like that, maybe this simply means that God, in Jesus, comes alongside us and meets us in our own pain, empathising with it, sympathising with us, before attempting any theologising comfort. God, like a good friend, simply sitting down next to us and putting a metaphorical arm around us when we are sad. And even though he has the best news in the world – the news that does, in this case at least, totally remove the cause for the sadness – he doesn’t rush to share it, but takes the time to take her grief seriously.
Or maybe it was said with affectionate exasperation? ‘Woman! Why (on earth) are you weeping? Here I am standing in front of you!’
Sometimes I feel that is the tone of voice that God uses with me when I’m praying: ‘Oh for goodness sake, Miranda! I do love you, but per-lease, you can be slow to catch on sometimes!’
Or perhaps the emphasis is on the ‘why?’. It seems obvious to us, that Mary is weeping because she is distraught at the death of Jesus, and now feels totally lost and helpless because his body is gone and so she can’t even do the simple but important things for his body that she came for. As if you had gone to the cemetery to lay flowers, and simply couldn’t find the grave, and stood weeping with frustration and rage and grief and confusion.
But I wonder… do you remember the last time Jesus spoke to some women about weeping?
In Luke’s account of the crucifixion, he includes the detail that among the crowd following Jesus on the road to the place of crucifixion were many women:
‘women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. [And] Jesus turned to them and said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.” 3Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall on us”; and to the hills, “Cover us.” 3For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?’
So I just wonder, if perhaps Jesus wasn’t just asking a rhetorical question when he asked Mary ‘why’ she was weeping? Was he genuinely asking – why are you crying? Because I said the other day, don’t weep for me – weep for yourselves, for the future, because it is going to get pretty bleak. Which is this?
As we look around the world and hear some of the horrific stories of persecution coming from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, people being crucified now, or beheaded, whole families and villages and church communities fleeing for their lives and now living - if they managed to escape - in refugee camps for the foreseeable future – Jesus’ question seems pretty relevant. As relevant as it would have been to the early Christians for whom the gospels were first written down, in the midst of persecutions and uncertainty.
We can all too easily slip into reading the Easter story, and talking about it, as if the ending is so obvious it is banal. Jesus dies, God raises him from the dead, nobody has to worry about anything any more. Sin sorted, world put to rights, Kingdom ushered in, job done.
But that is to ignore the two millennia of women who have been weeping ever since, and who are still weeping now around the world. Weeping over children dying in infancy. Weeping because they are unable to feed their families. Weeping with sheer, mind-numbing exhaustion and hopelessness at the end of a 16 or 18 hour working day, at the end of which they are as poor, as enslaved, as indebted as they were at the beginning. Weeping over war, over injustice, over death, persecution, weeping with fear, weeping with shame, weeping with loneliness.
Jesus, and the angels, both ask – ‘woman, why are you weeping?’ And I thank God for them taking her – our – all humanity’s - grief seriously, respecting it, recognising it. Not rushing to answer it, or tell her why she is wrong to feel it. God doesn’t just know our sorrows, he notices them. God doesn’t just tell us its all OK, but comes alongside us in our grief and asks us to tell him about it.
Only then does Jesus say something that isn’t a question – but it isn’t an answer either. it’s not even an explanation. It is simply her name. ‘Mary’. And at that, she recognises him, and we imagine, from his next words – ‘don’t hold onto me!’ that she reaches out and hugs him in joy, in recognition, in relief.
And then he sends her out to proclaim the good news that she has seen him, alive, to the rest of their friends.
The pattern of Jesus’ meeting with Mary on that first Easter morning is the pattern that I recognise from my own experiences of encountering God, and I wonder if it is one you recognise too?
God meets us when and where we least expect it, in ways we often don’t recognise at first. He is more interested in asking us about ourselves than telling us about himself. He takes our feelings, positive or negative, seriously. He doesn’t tend to explain. He asks more questions than he answers. And far sooner than we feel ready, he asks us to go and tell other people – tell them things we are hardly sure of ourselves, announce things we feel very unprepared for proclaiming, proclaim things that we really hope we aren’t asked questions about because we don’t feel we know any more than the little we have been told to share.
As the people of Mary Magdalene’s church, let’s hear for ourselves this morning the words that Jesus spoke to her.
Why are you weeping? What are you sorrows? God hears, and listens, and takes your worries and your pain seriously.
Who are you looking for? Do you want to find Jesus here today? Do you want to meet him in prayer, in bread and wine, in your neighbour? It might seem obvious, but maybe Jesus wants us to articulate it, to name him to ourselves, to be explicit that we are here to find Jesus.
And then he speaks your name. And says:
Now go. Go to my friends, to my brothers and sisters, and tell them that you have seen the Lord.