Tears Transformed to Joy
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, April 23, 2000
Easter Sunday


Isaiah 25:6-9 The Lord will swallow up death forever

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

John 20:1-20 The resurrection of the Lord

Early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the entrance. She went running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and told them, "They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!"

Then Peter and the other disciple went to the tomb. The two of them were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and saw the linen cloths, but he did not go in. Behind him came Simon Peter, and he went straight into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the cloth which had been around Jesus' head. It was not lying with the linen cloths but was rolled up by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, went in also; he saw and believed. (They still did not understand the scripture which said that he must rise from death.) Then the disciples went back home.

But Mary stood crying outside the tomb. While she was still crying, she bent over and looked in the tomb and saw two angels there dressed in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. "Woman, why are you crying?" they asked her.

She answered, "They have taken my Lord away, and I do not know where they have put him!"

Then she turned around and saw Jesus standing there; but she did not know that it was Jesus. "Woman, why are you crying?" Jesus asked her. "Who is it that you are looking for?"

She thought he was the gardener, so she said to him, "If you took him away, sir, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and get him."

Jesus said to her, "Mary!"

She turned toward him and said in Hebrew, "Rabboni!" (This means "Teacher.")

"Do not hold onto me," Jesus told her, "because I have not yet gone back up to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them that I am returning to him who is my Father and their Father, my God and their God."

So Mary Magdalene went and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and related to them what he had told her.

It was late that Sunday evening, and the disciples were gathered together behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities. Then Jesus came and stood among them. "Peace be with you," he said. After saying this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were filled with joy at seeing the Lord.

Apocalypse Explained #660 Joy and gladness come from love

All joy and gladness relates to love, since we rejoice and are glad when things go in harmony with our love, and when we go after and get what we love. In short, all of our joy comes from our love, and all of our soul's sadness and grief comes from things that attack our love.


The Lord of hosts will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces. . . . It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. (Isaiah 25:7-9)

This prophecy achieved its greatest fulfillment on that first Easter Sunday, in the resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

But it certainly didn't seem that way at first.

In hindsight, it's easy for us Christians to say, "Of course Jesus rose from the dead! That's the way the story goes!" But Mary Magdalene did not have that story to read. She was going to the tomb in order to tend to Jesus' dead body, as her final way of showing her love and paying her respects to the one who had become her Lord and Master.

He had been her Lord and Master. But now he was dead. And when she came to the tomb and saw that the stone over its entrance had been rolled away, and realized that the tomb was empty, she knew what it meant. Grave robbers. She ran back to tell Peter and John, two of the Lord's closest disciples and friends. "They have taken the Lord from the tomb," she exclaimed, "And we don't know where they have put him!" She still thought of the Lord as the dead body in the tomb. It is a human way to think of death.

Peter and John (who refers to himself a "the disciple Jesus loved) ran to the tomb and saw for themselves that Jesus was not there. Oddly enough, though, his grave cloths had been left behind by whomever had taken the body. And it says that they still did not understand the scripture which said that he must rise from death. I suspect that as they went back home they were scratching their heads, wondering what was going on.

But Mary stayed behind, crying outside the tomb. And perhaps because of her great love and persistence, when she looked back into the tomb she saw two angels dressed in white. This apparently did not make a big impression on her. Perhaps since she was still thinking materially--that death was the final end of her beloved Lord--she was not able to see the bright radiance that often surrounds angels.

The angels asked her why she was crying. We don't know what their tone was in asking her this question. Being angels, I like to think that there was a tone of concern for her, a sense of the grief she was feeling, and a desire to comfort her. And yet, from a human perspective, it seems like a rather thoughtless question to ask someone who has just lost the dearest person she had ever known. Of course she was crying!

On the other hand, angels have a very different perspective on death than we do here on earth. For us, death and the grave mean loss--the absence of someone we love. Death means loneliness and sorrow. Angels, however, see death from the other side. Every time we see death, they see a new birth into the spiritual world. Emanuel Swedenborg mentions this difference of perspective at one point, when he has just rather paradoxically interpreted "the grave" (in the Bible) to mean "restoration to life." He writes:

It does indeed seem strange that "the grave" means a restoration to life; but that strangeness is due to human ideas about the grave. We make no distinction between the grave and death, nor even between the grave and the dead body lying in it. But angels in heaven simply cannot think about the grave in this way. They have an entirely different view of it than we do: namely, the idea of resurrection and restoration to life. For when our body is committed to the grave, we ourselves are raised into the next life. So when angels think about the grave, they have no idea of death, but only of life, and therefore of a restoration to life. (Arcana Coelestia #5551.2)

So when the angel asked Mary Magdalene, "why are you crying," perhaps he really was a bit perplexed. From his perspective, something wonderful had just happened!

However, Mary did not have that perspective yet. Even when she turned around and saw a man standing there, she remained so firmly embedded in her sense of death as final loss that she did not, could not recognize that it was her beloved Jesus. Instead, she thought it was the gardener. The man continued the angel's question: "Woman, why are you crying?" he asked, "Who is it that you are looking for?"

How gently he broke the news to her! He knew it was he himself that she was looking for. Yet he was patient, giving her a chance to absorb what was happening, to adjust her thinking to this new reality. It would be a real shock to have our worldview changed in an instant. Like a car speeding down the highway (to use a modern metaphor), our mind needs time to slow down and prepare to make that U-turn. If we slam on the brakes and crank the wheel while still going sixty-five miles an hour, instead of turning we will crash.

Mary was still decelerating. She was not quite ready to see who it was, and to have her mind turned one hundred eighty degrees. So instead of seeing him as Jesus, she saw him as the gardener. "If you took him away, sir," she said, "Tell me where you have put him, and I will go and get him." Even in death, she was completely devoted to him. And this devotion was what finally enabled her to see the wonderful truth.

Jesus said to her, "Mary."

Have you ever had the experience of meeting by chance someone you had known years ago, and they recognized you but you didn't recognize them? It happened to me once several years ago when I was standing at the train station in my old hometown. There was a small crowd waiting for the train. And then I saw someone walking quickly toward me. I had no idea who she was. "Lee Woofenden!" she cried out with delight. And then it all came flooding back to me. She had been a high school friend of mine--one whom I had not seen since graduation some fifteen or twenty years before. And she brought those memories back simply by speaking my name.

I suspect that was how Mary experienced it when this man standing in front of her spoke her name. It all came flooding back to her. Everything Jesus had done for her; all the time she had spent with him, tending to his needs, listening to his words of life, watching as he healed others just as he had healed her; seeing this man transforming the lives of so many; realizing that this was no mere man, but was, in fact, her Lord and Savior. Yes, I believe that the single word, "Mary," her name, brought all of this back to her mind.

She turned to him and said, "Rabboni," "Teacher." Now she knew who she was. After a brief conversation, she once again went to the disciples, this time to bring them the joyful news that she had seen the Lord! That evening, the disciples saw him for themselves. They had gathered together behind locked doors, still fearful of the Jewish authorities who had sent Jesus to his death. Their lives had not yet been transformed by the resurrection, as Mary's had. It took their minds a little longer to make that U-turn. Jesus sent Mary to them to break the news second-hand, so that they might be prepared for it when he appeared in person. And when he did appear to them, very much alive, he brought them a comforting, transforming message. "Peace be with you," he said. Right then and there, their fear was transformed into a far deeper peace of the soul--and they were filled with joy!

These were the people who had been closest to the Lord; who had absorbed his teachings directly from him for three years. And their minds were actually able to turn around quite quickly to grasp a reality beyond anything they had ever conceived of as possible according to their worldly upbringing. To think that death could be overcome! It had never happened before!

Today the Lord gives us as much time as we need to turn our minds around--a whole lifetime, in fact.

Though most of us did have some religious teaching in our childhood and youth, we were still brought up in a society that tends to view death as the final tragedy, and any kind of physical or material loss as a somewhat lesser tragedy. We still tend to fix our minds on the things of the world. And while we rightly enjoy the pleasures this world can give, we also get our share of pain, sorrow, and loss. And we grieve those losses. We shed tears when something or someone close to our heart is taken away from us. It's only natural. We are creatures of this earth, and the Lord knows that we need time to grieve our losses.

Yet we are also creatures of spirit. We are also creatures of the Lord. Though it may take a little longer for us to turn our minds around and see things from the angels' perspective, the promise of Easter is that our minds can be turned around. That the Lord can rise from death in our minds as well. That the Lord Jesus--who sometimes seems so distant, so dead when we are experiencing the pain of loss--that the joy he offers will yet triumph over the pain and sorrow that tinges even the pleasures of this earth.

From the angels' point of view, every death and loss we experience here is the beginning of new life. And this is not only true of the literal loss of a loved one to death. It is true of all our other losses in life. Every time we experience the pain and the tears of loss, there is an opportunity for a new resurrection of love, compassion, peace, and joy in us. When we are in the middle of a loss, it may not feel that way. It does take time to turn our minds and hearts around. It takes time to see things from the angels' perspective.

It also takes something more than time. Mary Magdalene's mind was not turned around simply through the passage of time. It was turned around because she had a love for the Lord that would not rest until she found him. She had a devotion to the Lord that brought her back to him even when she thought he was dead. And through that devotion, her tears were transformed into joy.

The Easter message is a very powerful and beautiful one, telling us that the Lord has power even over death--that from God's perspective, death simply means the continuation of life on a higher level. But that message does not come to us automatically. We can hear the story of the Lord's resurrection every year, and still feel more of life's pain than of life's joy. As long as we remain stuck in our worldly view of events, we will continue to experience our losses here on earth as something that must simply be endured, with nothing but time to dull the sting of our pain. If the pain is too much, we may turn to various therapies, or to various addictions, in order to ease the pain. But for the deepest losses in life, none of those external things will work in the end--whatever temporary solace they may bring.

The Easter story gives us the only deep and lasting antidote to the pains and losses of this earthly life. The Easter story gives us the only true road out of our tears. And the centerpiece of that story is the Lord himself. It is the Lord himself who overcame death. And by doing so, he transformed the tears of his followers into the joy of new life.

He offers this same new life to each one of us. The only way our tears can finally be transformed to joy is when we ourselves are transformed by the love and power of the Lord, from the inside out. When we discover a new presence of the Lord awakening within us, out of the ashes of our old life, then we know that death and pain will not win in the end. Then we experience the Lord Jesus coming to us in the locked room of our heart, where we hide ourselves away from the fear and pain of life. Then we hear those wonderfully healing words of the Lord, "Peace be with you."

When we hear these words of our Lord within ourselves, we know that we no longer need to keep ourselves locked up inside. Like the disciples of two thousand years ago, we are freed to go out and transform both ourselves and the world around us. For now we know the message of Easter. Now we know that life is stronger than death; that joy is stronger than grief; that love is stronger than fear; and that God is reigning above all. Amen.