The beginning of the Paschal Vigil plunges us into an unfamiliar liturgical setting: outside the church, at night time, holding unlit candles in our hands. We approach the resurrection very much like Mary Magdalene did, “while it was still dark” (Jn 20.1). This darkness is the symbol of the elusiveness of the resurrection and of our constant inability to understand it. The stone is removed from the sepulchre but a veil still covers the eyes of Mary and of the other two first witnesses of the empty tomb, Peter and John – a veil still covers our eyes too. We are told that “they still did not understand the Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead” (Jn 20.9). The empty tomb plunges Jesus’ followers into anxiety and agitation: Mary runs to the disciples, Peter and John outrun each other towards the tomb, they spend some time anxiously examining the cloth and the linen. John seems to have some insight (we are told that he believes and yet that he too does not understand) but this flurry of activity ends in resignation: “then the disciples went back to their homes” (Jn 20.10).
We will never ‘understand’ the resurrection, just as we will never be able to stare at the sun. We can make some sense of somebody coming back from the dead but Jesus’ resurrection is much more than this. Our first experience of the resurrection is the empty tomb, that is an absence, a riddle that leaves us puzzled and confused. Whatever has happened we are not sure about its meaning or relevance – we hear about it and then seek reassurance in the routines we are familiar with, we return “to our homes”. The passages of the Gospel of John we read during the Easter period meet us precisely at this junction and step by step teach us how to become acquainted with the resurrection, that is with Jesus’ new way of being present in our midst.
Not everyone in today’s gospel returns home though. Mary stays, weeps, looks into the tomb again. She is our model of faith in the resurrection not because she understands it better than others but because she stays on, dwells with the mystery, keeps staring into the dark, bravely exposes herself to the unknown. And her perseverance is rewarded. Acknowledging Jesus’ new way of being present takes time and patience. When mysterious characters talk to her she is unfazed by their appearance. The first time she sees Jesus, she mistakes him for a gardener. She complains of her inability to grasp what is happening: “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him” (Jn 20.13) and “she did not know that it was Jesus” (Jn 20.14). However she holds on, stays there, keeps asking, questioning, searching – just like the persistent widow Jesus praises for keeping pestering God and wearing him out with her requests (cf. Lk 18.1-8).
John’s Gospel reveals that this is the only way to recognize the risen Christ. He has in fact been there all along, since the moment Mary first arrived at the empty tomb. He was there when the other disciples came to inspect the tomb as well, but nobody yet had eyes able to see him and hearts ready to welcome him. Mary however perseveres in her pleading and is rewarded not with a clever explanation of the empty tomb but with the new ears and the new heart able to perceive Jesus’s voice: “Mary!”. The resurrection is Jesus’s new way of being present in our midst everywhere and at any time. Our faith in the resurrection wells up from within when we discover that God is always with us and calls us by our name.