Weeping makes a way

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A sermon for Easter Day, March 31, 2013. The lectionary readings are Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26 , and John 20:1-18 .

One of the many advantages to being an Anglican is that our list of saints—of who’s “in” and who’s “out” is not set in stone.  We generally agree about those saints and martyrs from the Church universal whose names appear in boldface type on our calendars, but there is, and always has been, a lot of room for local saints and for a diversity of opinion about whose life we can learn from; whose witness to the love of Christ can teach us something.

One of my favorite not-quite-official “saints” is Margery Kempe, a late-fourteenth, early fifteenth-century woman.  I like Margery because she’s from the Norfolk area of England, where some of my ancestors originate.  I like to think of Beddingfields hearing about Margery up the street, or perhaps even meeting her or knowing her, and yet, scratching their heads, trying to figure her out.  And there’s a lot to figure out.  Margery took over her father’s brewery and ran it.  When she felt called to go on pilgrimage, leave England and go to the Holy Land, she left the brewery in the hands of her husband and sons and she took off.  She went to Rome and to Santiago de Compostela. She visitied all the important religious sites of England and would show up to meet with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Lincoln, and the holy woman Julian of Norwich.  (Now, the conversation between Julian and Margery would be something worth eavesdropping on!.) Margery kept a journal of her spiritual life and travels, and the Book of Margery Kempe is thought to be the first autobiography written by a woman in English.  But what she’s best known for are her tears.  And boy, could she cry.

Margery would cry not only in church in in the streets, and through her travels, she cried all over the world. Margery couldn’t write, but as she dictated her book, she talks about her tears. “Frequently, while I was absorbed in … sacred speeches and conversations [prompted by the Holy Spirit], I would weep and sob so much that people grew very alarmed.  …it was hard even for me to tell of the grace that I was feeling; it seemed to come from heaven, to be well beyond the reach of my own power of reason.” (6).   Once she had a vision of heavenly music.  From that point on, she says that when she laughter or music she would be overcome with tears….  “Heaven is such a merry place,” she would say.  And she writes that people then would ask her, “Why are you always going on about heaven?  You’ve no idea what it’s like; you haven’t gone there any more than we have!”  But Margery keeps praying, and she keeps crying.

Margery is on the outskirts of a long Christian tradition known as the “gift of tears.”  Particularly in the Eastern Church, and our own contemplative tradition, there are those people whose bond with Christ is so deep, so pure, so real, that their expression of love, of penitence, of compassion… comes out not is words, but tears.

That can sound strange to us in a culture that prizes the rational over the emotional, and tears are so often understood as “merely” emotional. The Speaker of the House, Mr. Boehner, is one of the most powerful people in the world—and yet every time he cries in public, it makes the news and there’s usually a tone of criticism in the reporting.  When Katie Couric cried during an interview a while back, there was conversation and question about her objectivity.

But tears are a part of life. They’re with us at the very beginning, and they’re often with us at the very end. Tears are in our mothers’ eyes when we’re born and tears are in the eyes of those who love us, when we die. And this morning, we have tears, tears in our Easter Story. They are the tears of Mary Magdalene.  And perhaps there are even a few tears of our own.

Mary comes to the tomb early on Easter morning and she finds the great stone over the entrance has been moved away. She runs and tells Simon Peter and John. They then look into the tomb and find the linen cloths, but see no body. The disciples leave the tomb and go back their homes.

But Mary stays outside the tomb, weeping. She weeps as she looks into the tomb, but it’s only by looking through her tears, that she begins to see. She sees what looks like two angels. “Why are you weeping,” they ask. She turns around and sees who she thinks is the gardener, but who turns out to be Jesus. He asks her the same question and through her tears, she recognizes him.

Tears sometimes express loss, regret, sorrow, and especially sorrow for sins.  Tears show that we’re connected, we’re aware, and we—to some extent, at least—acknowledge we are a part of things, when they go rightly, and when they go wrongly.  St. John Climacus (7th century) wrote: “God in His love for [us] gave us tears. . . If God in His mercy had not granted to [us] this second baptism, then few indeed would be saved. . . When our soul departs from this life, we shall not be accused because we have not worked miracles . . .but we shall all certainly have to account to God because we have not wept unceasingly for our sins.”  Because we have not wept….

Mary weeps in today’s Gospel, and in the context of a moved stone, an empty tomb, and the risen Son of God on the loose, it’s a minor detail. But Mary’s tears are a crucial detail, I think.  Because it is only through her tears, that Mary begins to see Jesus. Through her tears she begins to see the possibilities for new life.

The tears are necessary. They are cathartic, they are helpful. Tears testify that something powerful is happening, sometimes something beautiful, sometimes something horrible, but it is some- thing. It exists.  It has meaning and purpose.

Mary stands at the tomb weeping. Until then, she had probably physically prayed Psalm 30, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.” She probably knew the psalm (42) that speaks of tears being one’s only food, day and night.  She might have known Psalm 56 that affirms, “You have noted my lamentation; put my tears into your bottle,” that God notices tears.

And yet, Mary’s tears move her.  They take her to a new place. Her weeping makes a way as she realizes that Jesus is alive and that he has risen.

Mary’s tears remind us that Easter is not just about lilies, and bunnies, and butterflies. But even for the butterfly, on its way from crawling to flying, there has to be a messy, death-like process. The way a caterpillar becomes a butterfly is anything but beautiful. If you opened a cocoon, you’d find a gooey mess. The caterpillar almost has to completely decompose before it can begin to develop into a butterfly.

It’s often that way with life. Before a new project can be started, an old one has to die in some way. Before a new habit or discipline can begin, an old one usually has to die out. Before following a new dream, an old one has to recede. Good Friday’s FINISH makes possible a new chapter in our spiritual, or social, or emotional life, the old has to be let go.

In the Revelation to John, God promises a day when, God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4).

Mary Magdalene is able to see the Resurrection through tears. Her tears don’t disappear immediately, but over time, as she allows a new joy to flood her heart. For us, Easter is a day, a season, a way of life that proclaims no matter what we may face, no matter how hard, or how easy, no matter how close God may seem, or how far away, no matter how many tears—the tears make a way into new life, risen with Christ.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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