Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Meditation

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father to and to your Father, to my God and your God.'" Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:11-18
This passage has made me cry, at least in recent years, every time I read it. As we heard this morning, it really is the most tender moment in all of the Bible: a woman restored to intimacy with the one man who gave her identity in a cruel world. In all of the gospel accounts, it is the women who see Jesus risen first. John makes this particular woman, Mary Magdalene, the first witness of the resurrection. Here is the woman who was once possessed by seven demons; Mary, who anointed Jesus' feet with costly perfume and wiped them with her hair. Gross speculation here probably causes us to shy away from the beautiful fact that Mary's love for Jesus was passionate and expressive. Here she is now at the tomb, crying alone, stooping in for another desperate look at the empty tomb. Here she is now, clutching onto Jesus so tightly that he has to say to her, "Do not hold on to me."

It seems in many ways crucial to this passage that Mary is a woman. Only a woman can have the same love for Christ which the church ought to have for him. The Lord has found his bride. Her tears are the manifestation of a fully realized faith, one which outshines the implicit rationalism of the male disciples--"for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead." The disciples returned home because they dismissed what they could not understand, leaving the hysterical woman to grieve alone. But Mary could not leave, not because she had some secret knowledge, but only because her heart burned within her. Love held her there, love which prefers the bitter agony of tears to the quiet contentment of reason. Surely she could not bring her beloved Jesus back with tears; but love needs no such justification.

Mary here represents faith; the male disciples represent skepticism. Indeed, in just a few more lines we read that Thomas will not believe "unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side." What is faith, then? Faith is a woman clinging to the man she thought she had lost forever. Faith is a vulnerable woman with no status or credibility announcing to the world of men, "I have seen the Lord." Faith is the epistemology of grace, which finds that which is worth knowing without earning it. Faith is the epistemology of love, which refuses to give up seeking the heart's desire. Skepticism, by contrast, is the approach of the powerful, the method of men who have status and credibility, the belief that righteous men have wisdom and foolish women don't. It is an epistemology which has no tears, but only resignation: we can only accept what is proven, and perhaps what is proven will never come.

Christian faith, then, is a feminine epistemology. The church is the bride of Christ. In her purest form, she has no status, no credibility, no presumption; she has only tears and a broken heart, followed by the beautiful sound of her master's voice. "Mary." That is the word which changes everything. The adulteress has been restored to her husband. Zion has been vindicated. A new creation has begun.

Christ does not denounce the skeptics; he calls them "my brothers." Christ, the Lord of the universe, calls men his brothers. Go to them, he says. Tell them what you have seen and heard. They are my brothers. It does not matter, as Matthew reports and as John elaborates in the story of Thomas, that "some doubted." They, too, are his bride, though "as yet they did not understand."

It is not for any of us to say which role we actually play in this story. Some of us are really skeptics even though we fancy ourselves faithful. Some of us are blindly faithful though we believe ourselves to be utter skeptics. Some of us look down on others for being too proud of their reason, and some of us look down on others for not having intelligence. In different relationships, the weak may become the powerful, or the powerful become the weak. We cannot identify ourselves as permanently fixed in an unchanging power structure. Perhaps, then, we can and we should identify with both the masculine and feminine, the skeptic and the faithful, in this passage. But the point is this: we all have a place in the story of Christ remaking the world, and that story is beyond human control. It is a story told first by those who were thought least deserving. I suppose that no matter how many times I hear it, I will never find it a simple matter to believe; but that is simply because I have not yet attained the wisdom of Mary's tears.

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