Death and Life

By Aian Macpherson

A reflection on Mary at the grave (John 20:1-18)


It is dark, but not the dark of John’s gospel up until now, not the light verses the dark. Jesus has won on the cross ‘it is finished’. This is the dark before dawn. Dark and cold, air that slaps your cheeks and makes dry sleep deprived eyes water. The grave yard still, and eerie? The grave, open and empty. What do you feel? Anticipation, but not hope, just hoping that hope won’t prove false, expectancy, mystery, the unknown, the grave is open at our feet. A tremor of butterfly’s wings.


Every life has moments like these. The moment where you teeter on the edge, you peep round the corner. And once this moment passes on everything will change.

The baby waiting to be born, to go from the safe cocoon of the womb through water into the wide world.

Noah in the ark, riding on the flood waiting for a new world to emerge.

People who are slaves in Egypt, a land of civilisation, running between the waters of the sea towards… what?

Israel crossing the river Jordan into the promised land, a new land, an unknown land.

Mary on the edge of the grave, teetering and filled to the brim with the moment. Like a radio trying to tune in, to catch on to a clear signal. Like the fuzzing snow on a TV set, years ago, all black and white hiss. How does it feel?


And we hear the voices start. To Mary it was suddenly plain, ‘They have stolen him, all I had left of him. He who heeled me, is gone, taken.’

Death is a thief, and the grave is empty. Even scripture says so, ‘you are dust to dust you return’ ‘you have a short time to live’, ‘like a flower in a field the wind will blow and you are gone’ ‘life is meaningless, a chasing after the wind there is nothing new under the sun.’ The pagans agree: ‘I was not, I was, a am not, I care not’ words written on their graves. We are born and we die – Full Stop

Physics agrees. All the energy of your mind will dissipate, you physical body end up, at best, in a star, plasma glowing in a fading universe. Even Sci Fi tells us that only hope for immortality is with the monsters, the aliens, and the machines, you can’t be human and live forever.

Noah got out of the ark to find the animals now feared him; the new world would be just a broken as the old.

The slaves left Egypt and civilisation, and the security of self-reliance to find a desert where God expected trust for daily food, where they rebelled and wonder 40 years.

Israel entered the Promised Land. Everyone doing what they saw fit in their own eyes, doing as they pleased: oppression, power, greed, betrayal of the working class by the rulers, money, lies, politics, sound familiar? And so finally exile.

And Mary has gone to tell Peter and John that the grave is empty, the body stolen, there is no hope for the flesh.


Mary loiters on after they go. Finally she looks right inside the grave and faces it. Instead of nothing she sees two angels, creatures of lightning, like the angels on the Ark of the Covenant, at either end of the box, and the grave slab between them like the mercy seat of God. She sees, but it is still not Him. They say ‘He is not here’. That is clear, anyone can see. Then the shadow of a man through tear filled eyes, a gardener? ‘Where is he?’ a final desperate question shouted to the universe. ‘Mary’ her name and finally she sees. ‘I have seen the Lord’.

The grave is not empty and death is not a thief. The grave is the place of the new promise of God, ‘if you die, you will live’, death is not the final word. It is only the end of the old, the end of the beginning, the birth pain of the new world.

early christian grave

Photo:  Early Christian grave in Ireland. Graves like this are thought to be built in the same proportions as the Ark of the Covenant.

‘I am going to my God and your God, my father and your father’. Look Jesus is risen, he is seated on the thrown of God. I AM, who always was, came as a man ‘who was not, was, and is still, and cares so much’.

We don’t see as Mary and John and Peter saw, we see and we perceive, by faith and the Holy life giving Spirit of God, that death is swallowed up in victory, because Jesus is alive.


So whether we are in Syria and Egypt, as a suffering and persecuted church, or in Hull facing the trials of life: of birth, change, cancer, dementia , depression, imprisonment, unemployment, or anything ells that causes us trouble and makes us long for the dark before the waters came, we can look the grave in the face and stand on the edge because death could not hold on to Jesus.

If we are there with Mary on the graves edge in the early morning whilst it is still dark, then we pray, ‘lord I believe, help my unbelief’.

We are the ones who know that all the stories of new beginnings, birth, Noah, Exodus, Israel, point to this one story – Jesus is alive, and we live in his risen life, born of the Spirit, born from above. I am because He is. Jesus is alive.


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