How Could They Not Recognize Him??
He is not here, for He is risen!
Happy Easter! Today is Easter Monday - the day of the White House Easter Egg Roll, a day when many school kids have a day off, a day for some folks to travel home from family gatherings, a day of chocolate and jellybean hangovers, and a day when I still haven't moved the cloth from the table to the laundry. At least the dishes are done.
It is also a time of reflection. In the church, Easter lasts for 7 weeks, and this year the Easter season ends on June 5. It is during this time that we remember the times that the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples.
Most of us know the Easter story: Jesus celebrated the last supper with his disciples on Thursday (Maundy Thursday), was crucified and died on Friday. He was buried in the tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimethea. According to Luke, the tomb had never been used, and once his body was wrapped and laid in the tomb, the women who accompanied Jesus saw that all was as it should be. They went and prepared spices and ointments to anoint the body, but as the Sabbath was beginning that would have to wait.
I imagine Holy Saturday as a day that the disciples marked the Sabbath even as they grieved and tried to make sense of what had transpired.
On Sunday morning (which, I will point out, was NOT three days later), Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women went to the tomb, according to Luke, where they encountered two angels who told them Jesus wasn't there because he was risen, and didn't they remember what Jesus had told them? They went and told the disciples and Peter went and saw for himself (Luke 24)
John's account is a little different. John says that early in the morning Mary Magdalene went to the tomb alone and found the tomb open. She ran and found Simon Peter and "the disciple whom Jesus loved," and told them that someone had removed Jesus' body from the tomb, and she didn't know where they had taken him. Peter and the other disciple then ran to the tomb. The disciple looked in and saw the linens, but didn't go in. Peter went in and saw the linens, but they couldn't quite make sense of it, so they went home. Mary stood outside the tomb, crying, and a man - she assumed him to be the gardener - came and asked her why she was weeping. She asked the man to tell her where Jesus' body was. The man said to her, "Mary!" It was then that she recognized Jesus and began to spread the word that she had seen the risen Jesus. Jesus told her not to hold onto him, as he had "not yet ascended to the Father." (John 20)
Matthew says that a guard was posted at the tomb, and a great earthquake came and rolled the stone away and stunned the guards so they became as "dead men." Mary and "the other Mary" went to the tomb and found an angel who told them not to be afraid. "I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised as he said." They left the tomb in "fear and great joy," and ran to tell the disciples. Jesus himself met them on the road and said hello. They grabbed onto his feet and worshipped him.(Matthew 28)
Mark says that it was Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome who went to the tomb. They worried about who would roll the stone sealing the tomb away, but found that it was already moved when they got there. The three women entered the tomb and encountered a "young man, dressed in a white robe" (I've always imagined him to be an angel) who told them not to be afraid, Jesus had risen, and directed them to go tell the disciples and Peter that he would meet them in Galilee. The women were too afraid and said nothing.
Four different accounts.
I've been reading the book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism by Bishop John Shelby Spong. Bishop Spong writes that he loves the Bible and the truths one can encounter there, but that if we try to take it literally, it doesn't work. In fact, he says, if we insist on taking it literally, the Bible and Christianity are unsustainable. The Bible was written by and for people in the first century, and to try to insert our 21st century understandings and world views into the words there does a disservice to the writers, the people who lived then, and to those of us who live now.
If we insist that the Bible is all fact, that Jesus really said these things and that these miracles actually, really and truly happened as they are written, then everything falls apart pretty quickly. In the accounts I have just shared, one from each gospel, we see perfect examples:
Why do we believe that Jesus was dead for three days, but the story in Luke doesn't bear that out?
Who went to the tomb first - Mary, Mary and the other women, Mary and Mary, or Mary, Mary and Salome?
Who figured out that Jesus wasn't there - Mary, or Peter and the disciple Jesus loved (and just who WAS the disciple Jesus loved?)
Who spoke to Mary - angels, or Jesus? John doesn't mention angels; Luke doesn't mention Jesus in this part of the story. Was there one angel or two?
Matthew says Jesus met Mary on the road; John says he spoke to her at the tomb.
Matthew says Mary and Mary held onto Jesus' feet. John says Jesus told her not to hold onto him at all. Which was it?
No one mentions guards or earthquakes but Matthew.
John and Luke say the women went to the disciples and told them what they had heard and seen. Matthew doesn't say what the women did, but says the guards went and were told to tell everyone someone had stolen Jesus' body. Mark said the women said nothing. Two of these accounts can't both be true - either the women said something or they didn't.
Basically the things that the resurrection passages have in common is that Mary and Peter were part of the story, Jesus' body was gone, if Peter was there he freaked out and went home, and Jesus appeared to his disciples somewhere.
And let me just say that if I encountered my "risen" loved one, I don't think I'd go off rejoicing. I'd go off in hysterics, confusion, guilt - how could I have allowed someone to tell me he was dead when he wasn't?? If he was dead long enough to have a "stench" (Lazarus, John 1:39), I would be completely undone and question my sanity.
That's what I was thinking about as I went to church yesterday. How was I to believe any of this?
Well, as Bishop Spong points out, it is clear that SOMETHING happened:
Obviously something happened after the death of Jesus that had startling and enormous power. Its power was sufficient to reconstitute a scattered and demoralized band of disciples. Its reality was profound enough to turn a denying Peter into a witnessing and martyred Peter, and to turn disciples who fled for their lives into heroes willing to die for their Lord. Easter was so intense that it created a new holy day, the first day of the week, and in turn a new liturgical act, the breaking bread, turning both into a weekly celebration of the presence of the living Lord in their midst. Easter was of such power that Jewish disciples taught from the time of their cradle that God alone was holy, that God alone was to be venerated, prayed to, and worshiped now could no longer conceive of God apart from Jesus of Nazareth. They could also no longer look at Jesus of Nazareth without seeing God. (Spong, p. 223)
So what could I do but accept Easter as a mystery? Something happened, no one today knows exactly what, but it was something very powerful and life-changing.
I've also, as I've mentioned, been reading the book The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr. In this book, which I haven't finished yet, Fr. Rohr differentiates between the human Jesus and the divine Christ. Christ can do things that Jesus couldn't, and it is Christ that dwells within all of God's creation - rocks, plants, animals, and every single person - even the yucky ones (can't think of any yucky rocks). Every. single. person. Even those we don't like, who disagree or are disagreeable, and who cause us to call into question everything that we have ever been taught or believed.
So yesterday, as I was trying to relax into the holy mystery of Easter and the resurrection, and having both of these books at the front of my mind, I caught a glimpse of something I hadn't seen before.
Mary encountered a man at the tomb that she presumed to be the gardener, but it was Jesus. How could she not have recognized someone so dear to her?
Later in Luke's account, two of the disciples were walking to Emmaus. They were talking about everything that had happened. A man joined them and asked what they were talking about. Cleopas, one of the two, looked at him in amazement and said, "Are you the only person in Jerusalem who doesn't know what has happened there?!?" They filled him in, including the accounts of the women who claimed to have encountered the risen Lord. The man told them they were foolish and hard-hearted not to believe what they had been taught by the prophets: Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. (Luke 24:25-27, NRSV). It was getting on to evening so Cleopas and his friend invited the man to spend the night with them. When they sat down to dinner, the visitor took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave them some, and THEN they recognized that the man they had been walking and talking with all afternoon was Jesus. How could these two disciples of Jesus not recognize one they had traveled with, studied with, broken bread with, and followed to within and inch of their lives not recognized someone so important to them?
How did they not recognize Jesus??
It was several years ago that these passages started niggling away at me. I decided that somewhere in the resurrection some transformation had occurred that rendered Jesus unrecognizable. But yesterday, as I watched the children reenact Mary and the disciple at the tomb, I had another thought. One I like better.
Why didn't Mary recognize Jesus, assuming instead he was the gardener? Maybe because the man Mary encountered at the tomb was the gardener. Mary didn't recognize the Christ in the gardener until he spoke her name.
Why didn't the travelers recognize Jesus? Maybe because the man on the road to Emmaus was no one more than a fellow traveler.
It wasn't until the risen Christ, present in each of them, spoke and Mary, Cleopas and the other disciple actually recognized the Christ within the people they met. Mary encountered Christ when the man she assumed to be the gardener committed the intimacy of speaking her name, since Jesus knew her in ways no one else did. The disciples recognized the Christ when their fellow traveler committed the intimate act of breaking bread with them.
This makes so much sense to me!
The stories don't match because the authors were writing to different audiences, from people's fallible memories, and using other gospels as references. Matthew was writing to the Jews (Spong, p. 156), Luke to the Gentiles (p. 172). Mark was written first and was writing to people who were being persecuted and martyred in Rome (p. 135). John uses poetry, metaphor and skillful writing to describe the essence of Jesus to reassure and empower those of the Jewish faith who were being forced to choose between the faith of their fathers and expulsion from that very faith (p. 201). They weren't there to see Jesus crucified and they weren't there to witness the resurrection. There were storytellers who were trying to impart faith, wisdom, courage, and the love of God to those who would be reading their stories.
What they all agree on, however, is that in Jesus, humanity and the divine came alongside each other and joined as one. As Bishop Spong writes, "...somehow in and through the person of Jesus of Nazareth the reality of God has become an experience in human history that is universally available." (p. 237).
Now I want to dance on the table, shout from the rooftops and bring it from soapboxes on street corners!! The details don't matter. What matters is that God is present with us and in us. The stories are only important in that they tell us of God's great love, presence in human existence, and resilience. God survives everything humanity can throw. God loves us and is present with us - and Mary and the disciples demonstrate how!
Mary looked at a man, saw the gardener and recognized the Christ. Cleopas walked with a man, invited him into his home, and broke bread with the Christ. Paul persecuted those who followed Jesus and had his own encounter with the Christ that changed his very existence (Acts 22:6-15). People throughout history have encountered the Christ and been transformed.
I think our challenge today is to look for the Christ in everyone, EVERYONE, EVERYONE we meet, and to let Christ shine through us.
I think of the Christ in each of us as a little orb of love (cheesy, I know, but I can't think of a better metaphor), that glows and warms and lights the way. Some of us have orbs that are polished, clean and glowing. Some of us have dusty or dirty orbs - all of our orbs will get dusty now and then - and some of us have piled the trash of hurt, pride, greed, abuse, disillusionment, and all kinds of other detritus around that orb so that it will take a lot of cleaning to even get to it to dust it off. But it is there, and it is worth finding.
Christ dwells within us. Mary recognized him. The disciples recognized him. Christ reached out to them and reaches out to us through those we encounter as we go about our day to day lives.
As we say in church each Sunday, "The Christ in me greets the Christ in you." Would that we could make that so. Think how our world could be changed - just like on that first Easter so long ago.
The Easter message is that Christ the Lord is Risen Today! I will say that Jesus Christ is risen, indeed!
Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe. New York: Convergent Books. 2019.
Spong, John Shelby. Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. San Francisco: HarperOne. 1991.
Wilkins, June. "Christ is Risen" (image). Rev. June Wilkins: Christ Is Risen! (revjune.blogspot.com). Accessed April 18, 2022.