In the 1999 movie, “The Hurricane,” Denzel Washington plays Rubin Carter, a boxer who in the 1960’s was sent to prison for three murders he didn’t commit. After many years of appeals, and exhausting every opportunity to prove his innocence, he is completely undone. In a heartbreaking scene, he tells his wife to divorce him, saying: “I’m dead. Just bury me.” He languishes in prison for many more years, public interest in his cause ebbs and flows, and gradually disappears altogether, until he has lost any shred of hope. Years later, a young man finds a discarded copy of Rubin’s autobiography in a used bookstore, and buys it for a quarter. He writes to Rubin in prison, they become friends, and their relationship eventually leads to his conviction being overturned.
When Rubin is at the very bottom, no longer able to see any possibility that his wrecked life can be redeemed and the injustice inflicted on him be righted, someone else sees him, loves him, and offers him hope in the very depths of despair.
Something similar is at work in today’s gospel lesson, which is John’s version of Easter morning. Early in the morning, Mary comes to the place Jesus had been buried, still overcome with grief at the death of her friend, the one she had placed all of her hopes in; God’s plan of redemption evidently a failure. She discovers the body isn’t there, and a bit of chaos ensues as she runs to tell the disciples. When the dust settles, Mary is alone in the garden again. Jesus, standing behind her, then asks what might be the most ridiculous question in the Bible, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary doesn’t recognize him, until he says her name, “Mary”, to which she replies, “Rabbouni,” my beloved teacher.
The grief that has robbed Mary of all hope prevents her from being able to see the risen Christ, even though she’s staring right at him. In this moment of despair, Mary can’t see Jesus, until she knows she has been seen by Jesus. Just like Rubin Carter, it’s only when she is seen, and known, and loved in the depths of her grief, that she can recognize the new life right in front of her.
The good news of this day is not just that God’s love is stronger than death, it’s not just that Jesus’ resurrection is a promise of the same life for us in some distant future. The good news of this day is that the resurrection guaranteed by Jesus can transform the very depths of the tragedy we experience now, and that so often marks our lives and our world. The good news of this day is that even when you can’t look for new life, new life is looking for you. Even when you can’t look for God, God is always looking for you, calling out to you, loving you, and refusing to let you go.
I don’t know what the garden of despair has looked like for you. Maybe it came early in your life in the sudden death of a parent, or a child. Maybe it came in addiction you faced as a young adult, maybe it was a painful divorce in mid-life, maybe you’re right in the midst of it today, maybe you haven’t been there yet. Whatever it is, as one commenter observed this week, Easter’s promise is that Christ stands right in the midst of it, assuring you that God’s life is more powerful than death, and that the darkness you have faced, the darkness you will face, simply doesn’t get to have the last word. Even when you aren’t looking for God, even when the darkness is so heavy you can’t look for God, God’s light is always looking to pierce your darkness.
Here at Trinity Cathedral, the point of everything we do is to practice listening for that call, and looking for that light. That’s why we do this every week, because the death we face out there is real, the way life can knock us around is real. Sometimes we hear the voice loud and clear, in some moments the light almost blinds us, and sometimes we wonder if it will ever come, or if it’s even there at all. Most of the time, we have to hear the voice of the risen Christ through each other, just as the disciples have to hear about it from Mary. We see the light in one another’s faces, and in our kindness for each other. Searching for signs of life is usually just too hard to do on our own.
Rubin Carter faced a hopelessness I can barely begin to imagine. It took being seen, and known, and loved by another for him to see new life in the deepest death. Easter is finally about the fact that God sees us, knows us, and pursues into the very darkest night. Easter is finally about the fact that there is no darkness God’s light can’t illumine, there is no prison God’s love can’t unlock, there is no death God’s life will not defeat.
Jesus died the same awful, cold, hard death that so many of our loved ones have died. Jesus was really raised up to new and unending life. He promises the same for each of us, and for everyone we’ve known. If we really believe that, if we really let it sink into our very bones, it gives us the power to see signs of life in the midst of the deepest death, it gives us the power to be agents of light shattering the darkness around us, agents of love unlocking the prisons of despair, and agents of life singing triumphant alleluias, even at the grave.
Beloved, why are you weeping? Christ is risen. Death has died. We are free. Alleluia. Amen.