This semester, I'm taking a course entitled "Preaching about Death." It's a charming class, as I'm sure you can tell by its title. Charming and fascinating. As part of the class, we have to write sermons on different death related topics. Most recently, we had to write a sermon for a death-related event in the church year--Good Friday, Easter, All Saints Day, Maundy Thursday, and so on.
I chose to write a sermon for Holy Saturday. I've never actually been to a Holy Saturday service (not to be confused with Easter Vigil services which occur late that same night). In fact, I'm not sure I've ever heard a sermon preached on this passage--the story of Jesus' burial. As you read, be mindful that this sermon would be one of many preached during Holy Week beginning with one on Palm Sunday journeying through the Last Supper and to the Cross and ending with the Resurrection. Here's what I came up with for one of the in between days--one of the days when we have to wait.
To Sit and Wait
John 19: 38-42
What a week. Six days ago we were on a high. We sang songs of Hosanna. We saw the prophecies fulfilled. The words of the Psalmist were shouted by the people of Jerusalem: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” This past Thursday we heard the stories of the last days of Jesus read to us. We listened to him instruct his disciples (and so us) to love one another. We broke bread together, shared the cup, and watched as the symbols of our faith were stripped away from this sacred space.
The next day we returned and listened as our worst fears were confirmed. Jesus was crucified. We sat together in silence, then ate in silence--everyone feeling like they should say something, no one knowing quite what to say.
And today, we find ourselves gathered here again--not exactly sure why we returned to this space, but positive it needed to be done.
Today is one of the hollow days of Holy Week. A day where there isn’t much to be said or to be done other than to sit and keep watch. This is a common theme during the church year, particularly during seasons of preparation. As we look toward coming events, we are often exhorted to keep watch. It’s a central theme of Advent, and today we find ourselves reminded to do it again.
The season of Lent, like Advent, is not just a season of preparation, but also of waiting. Specifically, it’s a season of waiting for new life, of hoping for the resurrection, and of longing for redemption. But before any of that can happen, we must wait. And during Lent, our waiting isn’t filled with joyful anticipation, but with mourning.
This story of Jesus’ burial is found in all of the gospels. In each telling, we see Joseph of Arimethea, considered by many to be a member of the Sandhedrin (the group of powerful Jews who were influential in Jesus’ death), receive permission to take Jesus’ body and place him in a tomb. In all the stories, the stage is set at the start of Passover, a central holiday in the Jewish tradition that focuses on the story of the Exodus.
One element the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) tell us, that John is missing is the presence of the women. They aren’t central to this story, but they are crucial in their actions. They follow Jesus’ body to the tomb, and they wait.
The Markan account is sure to tell us that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus saw the body in the tomb. This, of course, is a necessary literary element. Ensuring that the women saw Jesus in the tomb makes their coming claim of the Resurrection more viable. What they once saw was no longer.
Luke, always the historian, expands upon Marks version, adding that after the women saw Jesus in the tomb, “they returned, and prepared the spices and ointments.”
But Matthew offers us a different detail. The author of Matthew tells us that after Joseph of Arimethea had rolled a rock in front of the tomb and left, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb."
Sitting. Waiting. So often, when we are met with death, we find ourselves sitting and waiting. For some families, death is a welcome relief from hours and hours of sitting and waiting for the inevitable to come. For others, death is so sudden that it doesn’t seem like there is anything to do but sit and wait for the reality to sink in.
The women in our story seem to realize this: that after everything that had happened, there was nothing left to do but to sit and wait. Surely, it was difficult--difficult to see years of miracles and healings and teachings sealed in a tomb.
Even in death, however, we find a model for how to live in the Gospel. Namely, we are called to sit, to wait, and to keep watch. We aren’t told what these two Mary’s were thinking. We don’t know whether they were weeping or whether their tears had dried hours ago. We aren’t told if they spoke to one another, remembering the good days, or if they sat in silence, mourning. We are simply told that they are sitting across from the tomb.
It seems to me that we rush death when it occurs. Official periods of mourning have shrunk from potentially years to perhaps a day or two off from work. We might send flowers or a card if someone close to us dies. But, convinced that life goes on for the rest of us, we hardly pause for the dead. Maybe we can make it to visitation tomorrow night--if I don’t have to pick Tim up from soccer practice. I want to go to the funeral, but I’ve got a meeting I just can’t miss.
Mary and Mary were faced with a similar quandary. They had spent the day at the execution site, their hope that Jesus might live slowly turning to a hope that the mercy of death might come quickly. Sundown was approaching, and with it the Sabbath.
The Day of Preparation in the Jewish tradition is the time to make sure that all the chores and tasks that need to be completed for the Sabbath are done. The strict rules of Judaism concerning labor on the day prescribed to be one of rest made the day before the Sabbath critical. There was bread to bake, houses to clean, goods to purchase. Anything not completed by sundown would have to wait until after Sabbath.
To put it another way, these women had things to do. They needed to go get the groceries, needed to vacuum before the family came over. They needed to make sure the kids were all cleaned up and all the food was cooked.
But instead of running to do these chores, they sat and waited. Were they destroyed by what had just happened? Perhaps. Were the disappointed? Probably. Were they lost? Absolutely.
It certainly would’ve been easy to rush back into a routine. There’s comfort in routine, in knowing what’s next, in accomplishing something you set off to do. They certainly had plenty to do, and the rhythm of the life they knew before surely would’ve provided some reassuring structure.
But they didn’t leave. Not just yet. Instead, they sat and waited and kept watch.
Maybe they were waiting on the Resurrection, Jesus’ words of return echoing in their minds. Perhaps they were so devastated that they simply didn’t know what else to do. Or maybe they knew they had to be there, that as long as they stayed the reality of what happened simply wouldn’t be true. But the fact remains, they sat and the waited.
John O’Donohue, author, poet and spiritualist, writes in his book Anam Cara that “it takes a good while to really die.” He relates an Irish mourning tradition called the Caoineadh. He explains that “One of the lovely things about the Irish tradition is its great hospitality to death. When someone in the village dies, everyone goes to the funeral...All the neighbors gather around to support the family and to help them. It is a lovely gift. When you are really desperate and lonely, you need neighbors to help you,support you and bring you through that broken time.”
Despite our desire for solitude during the painful times and emotions surrounding the death of a loved one, it is important for us to be gathered in community. The women waited at the tomb together. This is important to us as a community of faith because our memories of a person who had died are not solely individual. We share corporate memories as well. We remember the ways that person has influenced the life of the community, their contributions and gifts.
But there is a second part to this Irish tradition of mourning. O’Donohue tells us that the people who gathered, “women mainly, came in and keened the deceased. It was a kind of high-pitched wailing cry full of incredible loneliness. The narrative of the caoineadh was actually the history of the person’s life as the women had known him. A sad liturgy, beautifully woven of narrative, was gradually put into the place of the person’s new absence from the world. [It] gathered all the key events of the person’s life. It was certainly heartbreakingly lonely, but it made a hospitable, ritual space for the mourning and sadness of the bereaved family.”
What a beautiful thought, to have friends and neighbors come and sit and wait with you. Your wailing, your crying out, becomes their wailing. Your grief is theirs. We have some of that still. I think of every Southern funeral I’ve been to and the feast that is laid out afterward. I think of my own mother’s funeral, and the swell of support from the Candler community that was evident in the over 50 students who joined us for lunch after the service.
The women at the tomb knew what we all know, that they had to mourn--that sometimes, all you can do it mourn and sit and wait. And they knew they couldn’t do it alone. This is the model, and indeed the good news, that the Gospel lays before us--that we don’t face death alone, that mourning is part of it all, but that we don’t have to encounter death deserted. Even facing death, we find community.
And so, we find ourselves here, today. Sitting and waiting and mourning. Hoping against hope that we will wake tomorrow to hear the Good news that Jesus is alive.
But for now, we will sit. For now we wait. For now, we will keep watch. And we will sit and we will wait and we will keep watch together.