Easter Day, Year B, Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville, March 31, 2024

When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus” (Jo. 20:14).

Mistaken identity: it’s launched a thousand plot lines, from B-movie romances (pick your favorite!), all the way back to Shakespeare’s comedies and maybe further. You know the sort of thing: boy meets girl, but girl thinks boy is really someone else. Misunderstanding and confusion follow, propelling the plot (such as it is) forward. Eventually, of course, everything gets sorted out. There is reconciliation as identity is revealed, and love and harmony prevail. There is at the last “the marriage of true minds.”

This may seem like a trivial example to bring before us on Easter Day, but it’s a reminder of the old meaning of comedy. That is, as classically conceived, a story told in a popular style that concludes with a happy ending. If you know Dante’s Divine Comedy, his great poem of the fourteenth century, you know it conforms to this classic pattern, and ends with heaven and earth reconciled. “O joy no tongue can tell! O ecstasy! / O perfect life fulfilled of love and peace/ O wealth past want, that ne’er shall fade nor fly!” (Paradise, Canto XXVII). It’s comedy of the highest sort.

The screwball comedy and confusion at the tomb on Easter Day is revealing. Mary Magdalene mistakes the risen Lord for the gardener, come to trim the hedge and to tidy up after the weekend. A natural mistake, since it’s spring and things are blooming. But the reader of John’s Gospel is meant to be mindful of another garden, planted in paradise at the beginning of the world. In that garden, things began to unravel as a result of human sin. Chaos crept in, through the hedges, and human hearts became hard. Division followed, and murderous violence. Remember Cain and Abel? The original gardener, Adam, and his mate were exiled to the east, and angelic guards posted at the garden gate to keep them from returning.

When Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener, she’s still stuck in the earlier story. It’s a tale of sin and shame; a tragedy of lost hope and lost love that culminates in crucifixion. True, she’s seen the angels posted in the empty tomb, where Jesus’ body had been laid, but she still does not know where he has been taken. Mary’s encounter with the person she mistakenly thinks is the gardener is still part of the old universe, the old narrative: a story that ends with humanity still locked out of paradise and still wrapped up in despair.

It’s when Jesus calls her name that Mary recognizes who he is, and everything changes. That’s the key: God knows who we are. He knew Mary, and he knows us. We may be prone to mistaken identity, but God is not fooled. Jesus pierces through the fog of sin and death and recognizes us for who we really are: sinners, yes, but sinners who have been redeemed by him. We have been reconciled to God by God’s own gracious and loving act of self-giving on the cross, which gives us back our true selves. We are revealed as God’s own children, brothers and sisters of Christ, through his sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection.

Now Mary knows him for who he really is. It’s comedy of the highest sort. The blinders are off, and Jesus Christ is seen to be alive. Jesus’ resurrection, of course, does not provide a classic happy ending. It’s not simply a comedy. There was a mistake, but it wasn’t just a misunderstanding. There was a fault, in fact, but now it has been repaired at a price. “Christ is our peace,” St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “in his flesh he has made both groups [Jew and Gentile] into one… that he might create in himself one new humanity… and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross” (Eph. 2:14-16). Reconciliation comes at a price. Jesus’ body still bears the marks of the nails. That’s how we know it’s really him.

He knew Mary, and he knows us. Today, this Easter morning, we too will encounter him. St. Ambrose wrote centuries ago, “You have shown yourself to me, O Christ, face to face. I have met you in your sacraments” (Apologia Prophetae David). It’s in the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist that we encounter Jesus Christ, who is alive (present tense!) and not dead. In the sacraments, we come in faith and repentance to take on the new life that he’s won for us. In faith and repentance, we discover he’s alive and the source of our life in him. There’s no mistaking his identity. There’s a new story and a new universe! Jesus stands today in our midst, as we gather round the altar and celebrate the Holy Eucharist. This Easter, he knows us, and we know him, in the breaking of the bread.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee