Mourning into Joy: Reflections on the Resurrection

Between the arrival of Spring and this season of Easter we’re about to enter, it’s no surprise that my mind of late has been occupied with thoughts of resurrection and new life. Both images are fertile ground as metaphors for our lives. But, whereas the metaphor of Spring suggests a slow and barely perceptible shift in circumstances, if we’re not careful, Easter might give us an unrealistic expectation about what new life looks like. We get so used to the Resurrection of Jesus being accompanied in our churches by all the (often literal) fanfare, bells and whistles of the Easter celebration, that we could be forgiven for thinking that experiencing new life — having our sorrow turned to joy — is just a matter of flipping a switch. 

But if we strip the story of Jesus’ Resurrection from our liturgical expectations, we find that it’s not a loud or flashy story at all. It is in fact among the most quiet in the Gospels. With the possible exception of Matthew’s reference to tombs opening up, the Resurrection is a story that happens entirely without fanfare or celebration. It takes place off-screen, in the quiet, unknown and unnoticed. It may have been a moment that changed the world, but it took time for the world to wake up to it. And so, if our own experiences of new life are slow and gradual, we are not alone.

My favorite ally in this is Mary Magdalene, who is the protagonist of the version of the Resurrection story found in John’s Gospel. I love this story because I think Mary’s emotional journey mirrors how most of us experience new life after grief, loss, or depression. In this narrative, Mary goes up to Jesus’ tomb but finds it empty. She runs off to tell the disciples the news, not in joy but in fear and confusion, thinking that someone has stolen the body. This seems so true to life. When everything has fallen apart, when our deep love and confident hope have been turned into grief and loss, joy isn’t a matter of flipping a switch. Joy takes time. Joy takes trust. In fact, sociologist and writer Brené Brown has referred to joy as the most vulnerable of all emotions: It isn’t easy for us to let our guard down enough to let joy in. And when we are in grief, our guard is most definitely not down. We’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Sorrow — no matter its cause — narrows our vision of what is possible. It’s for this reason that someone once defined depression as not the absence of happiness but the absence of creativity. I think there is much truth to that. Being depressed or living through grief is like walking through a sandstorm: the darkness swallows up all but what is immediately in front of us. We take one step at a time because that one step is all we can see, and even that one step is hazy. All we can see is sand, all we can think about is sand, all we can imagine is sand. So, when an oasis appears in the distance, our first thought is that it must be a mirage — just more sand playing a cruel joke on us. And I see that reality playing out in Mary Magdalene’s story. Her first thought upon seeing the empty tomb isn’t that something unimaginably good has happened, but that yet one more tragedy has befallen her. Her circumstances have trained her to expect the worst: Her friend and master has been betrayed by a close friend (and someone she probably also knew well), was put on trial on trumped up charges in front of a kangaroo court, was mocked, beaten, and publicly executed in a way that was abhorrent equally on political, religious, and humane grounds. Of course his body has been stolen, she thinks.

When we return to Mary’s story after an almost comically detailed digression about Peter and ‘the beloved disciple’ at the tomb, we find her still blind with grief. She sees and even converses with two angels, but this only seems to deepen her confusion. Maybe she can’t deny now that whatever is happening isn’t the worst case scenario, but she still doesn’t know what’s happening. There’s a cognitive dissonance here: nothing is adding up. Even when she turns around and sees Jesus, her grief keeps her from recognizing him. Some might see this as a deficiency in her faith, but I see it as a testimony to the greatness of her grief, and therefore the greatness of her love. It is not until he speaks her name — “Mary” — that she can see the morning’s events for the joyful new beginning they are. It’s as though by calling her by her name, Jesus calls Mary out of the anonymity of loss and back into her identity so that her vision, her understanding, can be restored. Only now can she experience — and proclaim — the empty tomb as Good News; only now does she truly become the Apostle to the Apostles.

What I love about Mary Magdalene’s paschal journey is that it is so recognizably human. While we may applaud the immediate faith of the other two disciples in the story, it doesn’t really ring true in the same way (and the text even says they didn’t understand what it was they believed). And it’s an interesting detail in this story that it wasn’t in the mad rush of Peter and the beloved disciple’s belief that the risen Jesus was encountered, but rather in Mary’s wrestling with her grief and confusion. There’s a blessing there for those who mourn. (…For they shall be comforted.)

img_2434And so I hope that we can give ourselves permission to allow this process of moving from grief, through confusion, and eventually to joy to play out in our own lives, to allow the Spring to do its important but often frustratingly slow work in our hearts. Whether you’re unable yet to be joyful at a pregnancy after several miscarriages; whether you can’t quite yet believe your cancer is in remission; whether you don’t trust the new relationship that feels too good to be true after a far-too-long exile in the dating wilderness — it isn’t a lack of faith that’s holding you back. It’s your heart doing its job. Joy takes time. You’ll get there. We’ll all get there. And in the meantime, we can know that Christ will meet us where we are.

(Holy mother Mary Magdalene, pray for us.)

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