There was only one person who knew the whole story. Only one person who was there at the beginning and at the end too.
Matthew leaves open a tantalising possibility. Could the “other Mary”, who went to the tomb with Mary Magdalene, have been Mary the Mother of Jesus? The woman who had been the first to wash and dress Jesus, preparing to do this thing for the last time.
Mark and Luke tell us that it wasn’t, that it was Mary, the mother of James. But John tells us that Mary, the mother of Jesus was a witness to her son’s death, that she was with him on Golgotha, that he spoke to her from the cross, making arrangements for her care. Christian tradition holds that she cradled his body when it was brought down from the cross. Some of the most moving Christian art depicts this scene, the Pietà.
On Friday evening, we listened to the imagined voices of women, witnesses to the last days of Jesus’ life. We noted that the stories of the faith we have were written by men, and most prominently featured men, often doing things men do, seeking power, striving for advantage, resorting to violence. But occasionally, these masculine narratives are interrupted by women, often subtly challenging the way men do things.
The faith, as we have received it, has been profoundly shaped, and sometimes misshaped, by men. But perhaps, on a deeper level, it has been formed by women, and by one woman in particular, Mary the mother of Jesus. We have to retune our eyes and our ears to see and hear how deeply she is the mother of our faith. For she was there at the beginning. As a young woman, it was she who had been approached by an angel, telling her that she had found favour with God, that the Lord was with her.
She was the first to hear that God was about to inaugurate the never ending reign of his son on earth. It was she who, after the initial shock, had rejoiced that God was about to do new things in the world, lifting up the humble, filling the hungry with good things, extending his mercy to all the descendants of Abraham. It was she who heard from the shepherds that her son was born to bring peace to all humanity, with whom God was well pleased. Luke tells us she remembered these things and thought about them often, long, long after.
Is she the source of these early stories of Jesus? No one else is more likely to be.
Why does this matter? Why talk about annunciation and Christmas on Easter morning? Because you can’t properly understand the end of the story without understanding the beginning. And if you hold the beginning together with the end, and the middle, as one story, it leads to quite a different understanding of Easter from one which is, perhaps all too often, offered.
It has become standard to say certain things about the events of Good Friday and Easter and to offer particular interpretations in a way that implies they are beyond question. Such as that the purpose of Jesus life was to die. Such as that there was no other way to save sinful humanity. Such as that the cross is the culmination of the gospel. Many people sincerely believe these things, and these beliefs nourish their faith, but they are not the only way to understand the gospel. Others find them profoundly off-putting, a barrier to faith; because they start from the premise that God is angry with humanity and needed a sacrifice to mitigate his wrath.
But is this true? Is God’s predominant feeling towards us a deep and burning anger?
Long, long before Jesus was born, there is a story about God being angry and, at the end of it, God is profoundly sorry for his anger and, with the sign of the rainbow, promises never to be angry to the point of destructiveness again.
And, as we have just seen, the Christian story does not begin with anger. Quite the opposite. The angels say nothing about God being angry, but tell the shepherds, as Gabriel told Mary, not to be afraid. They spoke of good news, of great joy, of rejoicing in God, of peace on earth, of God’s great pleasure in humanity. It seems that God sent Jesus, that God gave us Jesus, not because he was angry with humanity, but because he was pleased. His coming in human form is a gift motivated by the most profound love possible.
It doesn’t stop there. There are all sorts of other good objections to the idea that the purpose of Jesus’ life was to die. The Old Testament tells us that God utterly detests human sacrifice. If the point of Jesus was his death, what value should we place on his teaching? Why did he do so much and say so much that was life enhancing if death was all he was for? And what did Jesus himself say about the purpose of his life? He said, “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.”
It is time, in the brightness of Easter morning, when Jesus rose and faith was born, to affirm that Jesus came, not to die, but to show us how to live.
And he showed us how to live by showing us God. He showed us that God wants us to live lovingly because that is how God lives. He showed us that God wants us to act justly because that is how God acts, and there can be no justice in killing your own entirely innocent son. He showed us that the ways of God are truth and beauty, kindness and compassion, gentleness and meekness. He showed us that God is love, not anger.
Jesus calls us to live godly lives, lives in imitation of God. Never once does he tell us to do something but that God will do the exact opposite. He showed us that we are not to repay evil with evil, not to retaliate when we are sinned against, to be kind to the ungrateful and wicked. He shows us that God can stand with sinners and say, “Neither so I condemn you,” because that is what Jesus actually did. He shows us that God can forgive even those who try to destroy him, because that’s what Jesus did, praying forgiveness for those who nailed him to the cross.
Yet the fact is that Jesus died. He died because too many people, jealous of and fearful for their own power, opposed him. He died too because death, like birth, is an inescapable part of being human. Jesus’ birth and death equally show God’s commitment to entering completely into humanity.
But death could not have the last word. Resurrection had to follow so that humanity could enter into divinity.
Early that first Easter morning, two women, two Marys, approached the tomb. Twice over, they hear the words that Mary, the mother of Jesus, heard, back when it all began. Do not be afraid.
They were filled with joy as, in the emptiness of the tomb, they began to glimpse the very truth of Jesus, the reason he came to us.
They saw that love is stronger than death. They saw that life was triumphant and death was vanquished. This morning of resurrection, they were the first witnesses to the ultimate truth of God, that God is the God of life, that God will always overcome death with life, that God will always overcome evil with good, that God will always overcome hatred with love, that God will always overcome violence with peace. The resurrection of Jesus confirms the truth first demonstrated by his birth, that the Christian story is a story of love, not anger.
The killing of Jesus was the most hateful act humanity could commit against God. The raising of Jesus was the most loving act God could perform towards humanity, the ultimate non-retaliation towards being sinned against, for it says to us, even if we do our absolute worst, God will still love us, God will never abandon us, God will always come back to us and for us.