20 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. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.
Sometimes we do not choose the dark. Sometimes it feels as though the dark chooses us. Sometimes darkness repels us. Other times it attracts us. Mysterious things happen in the dark. Sometimes that mystery is frightening. But there are times it is redeeming (Taylor 31).
The darkness of that first day of the week to Mary Magdalene was the all-consuming darkness of grief. The kind of deep darkness that comes from the sudden loss of someone we love, the sudden end to a story made all too short, the sudden goodbye to hopes and dreams.
As she neared the tomb, she must have thought the darkness could not be any more dark, the grief could not be any heavier. And yet the stone, removed from the entrance to the tomb revealed a deeper darkness, the silent shadows broken only by the piles of linen wrappings, the damp myrrh-scented air charged with … with what, exactly? Did she feel fear then? Panic? Anger at the authorities? An overwhelming need for presence and touch and ritual? All, in that moment of realisation, replaced by a heart-wrenching swirling darkness of love and absence and longing.
The disciples returned to their homes, leaving Mary alone, weeping into the fading night.
There are times when we wonder if God has failed us. Or if not God, then perhaps our faith has failed us. Or if we have failed God, and God has therefore withdrawn from our sight.
Sometimes it is our own personal losses. But sometimes we look at the world around us into the darkness of poverty, visible and invisible, the horrors of war, the total destruction of natural disasters. We tremble through the nighttimes of hatred and bullying and homophobia and sexism regularly experienced in society and even within the church. The shadows of disappointment and despair threaten to consume us when those who lead succumb to the temptation of power, perpetuate injustices, and devalue, degrade and dehumanise those whom they are meant to serve.
And when we find ourselves in this kind of darkness, if we can bring ourselves to go to the place where we think we might find Jesus, we come bearing our own griefs and doubts. We plod on, wanting finally to lay our hopes to rest.
But even there we find absence. And so we stand and weep.
When this deep darkness descends upon us, we mistrust conventional wisdom; we are suspicious of religious comforters; our language for and to God seems to disappear; and we doubt whether there is any worth or health in us or the world at all. The darkness shelters confusion and sadness and anger.
Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador who died in 1980 while saying Mass, tries to speak words of hope into the despair of the dark garden tomb:
God is not failing us when we don’t feel his presence.
Let’s not say: God doesn’t do what I pray for so much, and therefore I don’t pray anymore.
God exists, and he exists even more, the farther you feel from him.
God is closer to you when you think he is farther away and doesn’t hear you.
When you feel the anguished desire for God to come near because you don’t feel him present, then God is very close to your anguish. …
Let us learn from that cry of Christ that God is always our Father and never forsakes us, and that we are closer to him than we think. (APRIL 13, 1979 [GOOD FRIDAY])
Still we veer from anguished restless questioning to weak and exhausted apathy and then back again.
But what we cannot see is that the darkness reveals the divine presence even while obscuring it, the same way the brightness of God’s glory does. Both are signs of God’s mercy, since ordinary human beings are not equipped to survive direct contact with the divine, in the dark or in the light (Taylor 47).
Jesus had warned his disciples, ‘night is coming when no one can work.’ And in that thick darkness that hovers in the early hours of the morning, in those moments before dawn begins to bruise the sky, all Mary can do, all we can do, is wait, because there is nowhere to escape it. We must wait in the shadow of the tomb. Wait with all that weighs us down. Wait with what feels like the absence of our hopes. Wait and weep. Wait and weep and watch.
The work is being done elsewhere, hidden from view. There were no witnesses to what happened before the stone rolled from the entrance to the tomb. In John’s gospel, there is no earthquake, no thunder, no flash of light when new life starts. Only silence and deep dazzling dark.
We now stare into that dark. And the dark gradually envelopes us, seeps into us. And renews us.
In the words of the American poet Wendell Berry, ‘To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, / and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings’.