In most accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, all is light, so it often seems at least.
As Jesus had breathed His last on the Cross, darkness had covered the whole land. He had descended to the dead—to the land of shadow souls and eternal darkness. In the resurrection, then, it is most fitting to envision a new light breaking on the world. Jesus, the light of the world, had risen from the dead.
But that’s not where the Gospel of John begins his account of the resurrection:
On the first day of the week, a Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.” (John 20:1-2, NABRE. Emphasis added).
It was still dark. The earliest every other gospel account begins is the dawn, the beginning of the light. (Compare Matthew 28, Mark 16, and Luke 24.) But not John. In terms of the Easter timeline, we are properly at the beginning of the day, recalling that for the Jews of this time the start of each day was not the dawn but the sunset. So, in the first place, we are struck by the faithful vigilance of Mary Magdalene being at the tomb at the earliest moment permissible under the Sabbath regulations.
We can’t help but to see more to this. For John, light and darkness is paramount prism through which the story of Jesus and His relationship to the world is presented. Jesus is the light that shines in the uncomprehending darkness (John 1:5). He is the light of the world, the light in which we must abide (John 8:12; 12:46).
Here then we have, paradoxically, not light, but darkness that first confronts us in Easter.
Such darkness is then followed by the dread realization that the tomb is empty. Though the gospel does not have Mary peering inward, she infers as much from the stone that has rolled over.
This emptiness is not merely the absence of the body of her beloved Lord. In the beliefs of Judaism at the time, there was a belief that the spirit hovered over the body for three days before departing to the underworld. So Mary Magdalene, in showing up at the earliest permissible time was, perhaps, not only maintaining a mournful vigilance over the body but seeking one last moment of nearness to the departing spirit of her Lord. (For introductory sources on this belief, see the late Biblical Studies scholar Martin Pickup’s article here and the lectionary notes here.)
We now begin to comprehend the enormity of this moment—the lingering darkness, the yawning emptiness of the tomb, and the sinking realization that the Lord was truly gone. In fact, so unsuspecting was Mary Magdalene of what was soon to come that she assumes foul play—the theft of the body.
As we celebrate Easter each year, we are privileged in knowing how the story ends. However long and dark the tunnel, we see—or at least we know—that there is light at its end. But it was not so for Jesus’ disciples. For Mary Magdalene, the emptiness of the tomb was no invitation. It did not hint at a hoped-for resurrection. Rather, the natural darkness of that time of day was compounded by a sickening emptiness, a deepening of her grief.
For us, as we closely meditate on the Gospel of John in the coming Easter Sundays, we should remember that the light of Easter begins in the empty darkness of a tomb. Our world can sometimes seem like a place where “it is still dark” (as this pastor puts it). The world without seems one where the darkness is as oppressive as ever. There is also the darkness within—perhaps sin, depression, suffering, the enduring grief of a profound loss, or that awful spiritual dryness that can strike the most devout of believers.
John has given Christians still experiencing their own dark nights of the soul a place to go this Easter season. We can take our stand with Mary Magdalene, compassed all about by darkness, staring into the emptiness of the tomb.
It is striking that in this account the light does not come last to Mary Magdalene. Her experience of darkness and emptiness is not a spiritual demerit. Peter enters and exits the tomb. The disciple who had run with him came and went (John 20:3-8). They both leave without coming to faith in the resurrected Christ (verses 9-10). Mary of Magdalene’s darkness is not only the deepest but also the longest: she stays behind, now weeping, bent over the tomb (verse 11).
But it is precisely in her moment of greatest grief that she encounters the brightest light (verses 11 to 16). This is the message of hope that shines through the haunting story of Mary Magdalene. And it has its start in the dark emptiness of a tomb.