Winter has come upon us. Autumn’s trees now stretch their bony fingers to the sky; the whole world seems stretched and thin. Before long the joyous lights of the season will give way to endless weeks of dark nights, disruptions, and deep cold. But as the last of the leaves lie beneath winter’s blankets, we must remember that winter speaks not so much of death, as dormancy. Life is always there, silently waiting for spring to rouse it from its slumber, when beauty exchanges her sheathe of ice for morning’s fresh dew.
The gospel’s most shocking claim is that all death is only a form of dormancy. When Jesus’ friend Lazarus dies, Jesus says that he “has fallen asleep….I go to awaken him” (John 11:11). What Lazarus experienced in part, Jesus now reveals in full.
THE NEXT FIRST DAY
Jesus had previously vowed that his body would be raised “in three days” (John 2:19). But when his resurrection is described, it is the “first day of the week.”
John 20:1-10 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early…
The gospel of John begins with an echo of Genesis: “In the beginning…” In the Genesis story, God created the heavens and earth. And each day he concludes the same way: “there was morning and there was night.” This happened for six days, up until God created man and woman. On the seventh day, he rested—but the text never tells us that there was morning and night. God’s original vision was a world of spectacular and unceasing intimacy between God and man. But sin changed all that. Sin brought death’s looming shadow into the world, resulting in alienation and estrangement. Something had to happen to change all that. There had to be a new “first day.”
On the cross, Jesus irrevocably solves the problem of sin. In the empty tomb, Jesus conquers death itself. The world, as we know it, is being made new. It is in a state of dormancy; the risen Christ reminds us of the beauty that lies beneath its surface.
MARY DID YOU KNOW?
John’s text focuses on Mary Magdalene.
John 20:1-10 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.
If you are a careful reader of scripture, you notice that John’s facts don’t line up with the other writers—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The others mention multiple women arriving at the empty tomb, but John gives them no mention. Could Mary have made multiple visits? Could John simply have neglected to mention the others? Let’s remember to judge John’s gospel by the standards of ancient narrative—not our own. Ancient biographies weren’t as devoted to chronological sequence and details. Besides, if the story of the resurrection were merely a myth or legend, why didn’t the writers go to greater length to get their story straight? The lack of perfect agreement doesn’t detract from John’s reliability; it enhances it.
Finally, we see the reactions of the other disciples:
John 20:1-10 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 So 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.” 3 So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. 4 Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, 7 and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.
Note that it was “still dark.” John loves wordplay—could it be that he intended this setting to symbolize the disciples’ growing understanding? Perhaps. The disciples race to get to the empty tomb, but when they arrive they are dumbfounded. Don’t miss verses 8-9. John is actually present at this point. He “saw and believed,” but “they did not understand.” Faith and understanding aren’t always on the same page. Some days we trust in God while it is “still dark,” trusting that His light will guide us to greater faith.
HOPE’S ETERNAL SPRING
Lazarus had woken from death’s slumber only to stagger from the tomb with his grave clothes still on. It must have been horrifying, really. A strip of cloth would have held his jaw closed—he couldn’t even ask for help. Lazarus would die again. This wouldn’t be the first time he’d wear those strips of cloth. But Jesus leaves His grave clothes behind. He’d never need them again.
And so Jesus’ resurrection assures us that the winter of our discontent is followed by a hope that springs eternal. Death doesn’t have the final word, nor is decay man’s true destiny. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous Lord of the Rings series, we meet a group of characters who endure much in the face of evil. Two of the lead characters—Frodo and Sam—can only watch in horror as Gandalf, their leader and mentor, sacrifices himself to ensure their safety.
Following the climax of the third book, Frodo and Sam are surprised to be reunited with Gandalf. “I thought you were dead!” Sam cried. “But then I thought I was dead myself! Is everything sad going to come untrue?”
The resurrection of Jesus tells us that the answer is essentially yes. There will be a new “first day.” The pain of death will be over. The fears, the sorrow, the shame, the bitterness of the present life will pass like a fever, ebbing into spring’s eternal season.