Our Easter faith is rooted in a real encounter

Resurrection | St. John’s Bible | Donald Jackson 

Reflection for Tuesday, Octave of Easter

She saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. 

Then she mistakes him for the gardener – actually, she accuses him of being a grave robber “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.” 

Mary Magdalene is in the thick of grief. In the three days since he has died she has barely come to accept the reality that he is really dead. It’s all really happening – he really was betrayed, sentenced by the authorities, tortured, made to carry the cross and hung on it until there was no life within him. It all must have felt – unbelievable. But we know, she kept her eyes on him – saw his suffering with her own eyes. 

So she knows in that deep knowing – he really has died. As unbelievable as it is that he would not walk this earth again or impart more of his wisdom again. 

Death can feel unreal. 

How many of us here have watched a loved one slip away – or heard the news afterward – and not believe that they are really gone, even when we’ve buried them. For some of us the grief takes years to not knock us over entirely, a fog remains. What’s real?  What’s true? What even matters anymore? Death – especially sudden death, untimely, violent, unexpected – hits like a tumultuous sea, battering the heart and spirit. 

So of course we do not blame her for seeing him and not knowing – not even being able to recognize angels in her midst who try to comfort her. She is one who has seen him killed with her own eyes and helped prepare his body for burial. And now this further insult – that someone would snatch his body. Who would even? Maybe this gardener… 

Then… The voice. 

I imagine for a moment, a loved one who has died, standing near me, calling my name as I weep near their headstone, Casey.

What would you do?

Now picture Mary – leaping at the impossible, unmistakable, recognizable, alive voice, calling Mary.

I imagine her rushing to embrace Jesus. It’s what any of us would do. We’d hold on – we’d never want to let go. 

And Jesus, I imagine, lets her. 

Now I know this is not expressly stated in the scripture. And it’s not what artists would have us imagine – for this very scene has been depicted in art for hundreds of years! From Giotto and Fra Angelico to Rembrandt, and Dali. “Stop holding on to me” was translated in Latin – noli me tangere“touch me not.” 

And so painting after painting shows a mix of fear and awe on Mary’s face – as she reaches for him, never touching him and as he gestures towards her – the space between them is emphasized. While there is some beauty in the restraint here – and, as one art historian friend pointed out – it was particularly apt as we lived through a pandemic when to not touch one another was an act of love….  

What I don’t love about this tradition in the artist’s rendering is that it makes Jesus something other than who he otherwise always was. 

God in the flesh was constantly touching others and letting others touch him: lepers, the blind, the feverish, the bleeding, the children, the lost, the lonely, his fishermen friends, Mary of Bethany. His touch healed, and he let the touch of others be a physical confirmation of their faith. Their courage to reach out to him through a crowd, to press through the whispers to kiss and anoint his feet was never judged or condemned. It was honored, recognized: 

Great is her faith. Your faith has saved you, go in peace. 

So let us not repeat the offense of adding judgment to the Risen Christ’s words to Mary – but instead – hear only mercy in his voice. Only tenderness. 

The God of Mercy, in flesh, held on to people and let them hold on to him.

She is like us – afraid that to let go of the loved one who had died would mean they might disappear once again.

Mary, it’s ok, you can let go. I am in fact on the path I promised I would walk in out of love for you; that I am alive is a sign that the God of all creation is in fact my father; that this God is YOUR God, the God of life abundant. And I am returning to him – but go on and tell the others this. I know you all are in the thick of despair, and it’s nearly impossible to understand – but with this God, my father – all things are possible.

And so I imagine his words help comfort her enough so she can loosen her grip – knowing in her bones that he is no mere ghost or figment of her mind. She pressed her arms around his – felt his bones and flesh in her arms, alive and warm. 

Our faith is not based on mere metaphor, symbol alone, or a construct. It is in the God who ate and drank with his friends after he had been killed. 

Our faith is in the REAL. Rooted in a real encounter. And this encounter – where a living God meets a disciple he loved in the depth of her grief, and reveals himself to her, ALIVE – well this one, as impossible as it may seem on so many days, it is one through which all other encounters might be viewed. 

All predictions of doom die right here. 

These next 50 days we are invited by our Church’s beautiful tradition to practice resurrection. This, in some ways, is harder than Lent with its straightforward practices of almsgiving, fasting, and penance.  What are the practices for Easter? How do we practice Resurrection? 

We do as Mary did: not turning away from the forces of death, not running from the grief that will come on this narrow way we walk, but letting ourselves be held by what we receive at the Eucharistic table – and the embrace of our faith community. 

We are a people called to embrace one another – to hold each other in our grief – and to share aloud the encounters we have that spur on the embers of our faith in this God, my God – and your God – the one who LIVES. 

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