Easter Sunday Evensong – sermon preached by John Conway, Provost – April 4th 2021

Song of Songs 3.2-5 & 8.6-7; John 20.11-18

What’s in a name?

I suspect most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about our own name. Our parents may, or may not, have agonised over the choice, but for most of us it’s a given that we live with, fairly unthinkingly. If people do change their name, it is usually the indicator of a profound transition that they are going through, a marker of significant change in life generally. But for most of us, we simply live with the name we were given. If I stop to contemplate my own name, I suppose I think John is a little boring – I used to wonder why my parents chose such a, at the time, common name – it’s now out of the top 100 favourite names, so perhaps there’s hope for me yet! And yet, I am still put out if someone gets my name wrong; and I know that for others John fits me – that’s who I am. We carry our names by and large unthinkingly, and yet they have an ability to get to our core. They do, literally, name us; and to get someone’s name wrong, feels like handing out an insult.

In our gospel this afternoon, it is as Mary hears her name, that the reality of resurrection breaks in.

Mary has gone in her grief to the tomb of Jesus, to find it disturbed, ransacked perhaps. She has fetched Peter and the beloved disciple, but is eventually left by them standing alone in the garden, weeping. And it is there that she has mysterious encounters; first with angels and then with a man she supposes to be the gardener. And each time she is asked, ‘Why are you weeping?’

Mary’s world has of course fallen apart, violence has been loosed on the man she followed and loved, and he is dead. Like women throughout the ages, she is left trying to pick up the pieces, and hold it together. She has come to tend the body of her beloved, anoint and care for it, offer the rituals of comfort to ease her grief and pain.

Perhaps that is why we too are here, doing something familiar, responding to fearful times with comforting rituals, with expressions of tenderness towards those we know. It’s a way of coping with the grief we feel as we lament the state of the world.

But that is not what resurrection is. Mary meets an absence – the body she seeks is not there, the comfort she seeks to bring and to find is denied her. Instead angels, strange figures mark the place of this absence – one at the head, the other at the feet. Woman why are you weeping? they ask. She is weeping because the one thing she thought she could do in her grief is not possible – he is not there, his body is gone.

And then Jesus himself, no corpse to tend, but a living person, stands unrecognised before her, and he too asks her, Woman , why are you weeping?

Why are you weeping? Because the times are fearful and we are troubled. The familiar, the expected, has been taken from us – and all is strange.

And then this stranger names her, “Mary”, and everything changes. I find that moment unbearably poignant. It is as she is given her name, that her eyes are opened. The ability of that name to get to the core of her being calls forth a response, a recognition, a moment of overwhelming, surprising, joy and grace. It is as if she hears her name for the first time, and yet knows it is absolutely her, and that there is only one person who could name her in this way. In knowing herself named, she knows that the man before her is Christ, is the one she came to weep over. She recognises him as alive, and is lifted into resurrection. In place of her fear and grief, here is the presence of him whom Mary had thought gone.

In the story of creation, God brings into being things by naming them: God said: ‘Be light’, and there was light. God subsequently asks Adam to name all the animals as they are brought into being. It is a primordial power – to name. And without doubt, the same happens for Mary: this naming re-creates her. No longer a woman of grief, but of resurrection, with good news to proclaim. ‘Mary’ – it is both her old self, and yet uttered by the risen Christ, her new self. Nothing has changed – Mary still names the same flesh and bone, and yet all is changed. Such is the power of naming.

In his Easter Sermon in 1620, the Anglican theologian Lancelot Andrewes said:

You thought you should have come to Christ’s resurrection today, and so you do. But not to his alone, but even to Mary Magdalene’s resurrection too. For in very deed a kind of resurrection it was, was wrought in her; revived as it were, and raised from the dead and drooping, to lively cheerful estate. The gardener had done his part, made her all green on the sudden.

The gardener had done his part, made her all green on the sudden. And Mary we are told, rushed off to proclaim this good news. Lancelot Andrewes is surely right – we have come to Christ’s resurrection today, and yet it is Mary’s resurrection we celebrate also. And yours, and mine. The gardener does his part, makes us all green on the sudden.

The resurrection, the gift of life beyond death, is what lifts Mary and us out of the familiar, beyond the violence and griefs and betrayals of our world, into new life. “Do not cling to me”, says the Risen Jesus. And so the resurrection gives new purpose, new energy – as Mary runs to proclaim to the disciples – I have seen the Lord.

Mary, and we, are summoned by the Risen Christ into naming the world afresh, into that task of re-creation. Such naming needs to be truthful – it must get to the heart, restoring an identity that is recognisable. The pandemic of the last year has left us battered and bruised and weary. And yet new life comes, and its accent is hopeful, the hope that has the power to change things. Leave your weeping, and go into the world to name it anew; give it the gift of its self, named in hope not despair; for the gardener has done his part, and we proclaim resurrection. Amen.


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