An Easter Message in the Christian Tradition
Perceiving through the Empty Tomb: Mary Magdalene and the Gaze of Jesus
Michael Ramos, Church Council of Greater Seattle
Mary Magdalene is grieving at the tomb of Jesus. She does not see the body of the one who she had come to know, love, and follow. Her confusion and sense of loss are compounded by not having a way to say goodbye to this carpenter from Nazareth.
We feel with Mary in her sorrow and distress. With limitations on funerals and burials (now allowed with specific directives) in light of COVID-19 and physical distancing, some are unable to participate in sacred ceremonies that accompany the passage of a dearly beloved sibling, daughter, son, parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle or relative. While the need to follow health and safety guidelines serves our collective best interests, the separation from religious and cultural rites and practices is troubling emotionally, adding to the heartbreak of the death of someone whom we love. In addition, many of us have been unable to be with those with whom we are close in hospitals, nursing homes, or even our neighborhoods during this time of crisis. God, where are you in our tears and despair?
The virus has spread often unknowingly from person to person. Symptoms may not appear for quite some time. In some cases, intensive care is necessary. We remember the front line workers, those who have to work in an essential service, the people who allow the rest of us to go about our lives while staying at home. Jesus, the carpenter, Jesus, the healer, Jesus the food-sharer would have been an essential worker. As such, he would have been placed at risk of becoming infected and having his very breath compromised.
Mary has acute awareness of the vulnerability of Jesus. Betrayed, arrested, tortured, executed as a criminal, she saw him in his weakness and still was there when others – celebrated apostles and disciples by the church – could not bear the agony of this suffering servant. They lied, fled, defected.
Mary too was crushed by the circumstance of Jesus’ crucifixion at the hands of the Roman Empire, ushered on by the religious authorities who found him too threatening to their power and prestige. He was to be disposed of quickly and publicly. There was to be no intervention. Mary could not advocate to a court of appeals, nor be seen as having a claim to amend his treatment and his fate. Her devastation was total.
Mary is present to Jesus’ ultimate humiliation. Humiliation occurs today for people whose lives are treated as having little value. We are reminded that the dominant economic paradigm today treats people as commodities. Some are even considered expendable, less than human, or non-human. The global financial “structural adjustment” policies that outsource jobs, inhibit sustainable cultivation of land, abuse the earth, and destroy safety nets have come home to roost in the U.S. We are familiar with and perhaps are part of groups that have had to try to survive on the periphery of life, at the margins. These populations bear an additional layer of vulnerability in the context of COVID-19, both in terms of health and in terms of job loss and economic sustainability.
Mary sees the same vulnerability in the Jesus whose body she longs to see in the empty tomb, in order to complete her grief. Time stands still when is put to death. For Mary, his death is really real. It is not something that can be denied, averted, masked over by consumption, greed, privilege and supremacy. The empty tomb raises for her all manner of uncertainty and doubt. She stands in the gap of tragedy, faces the liminality – the in-between-ness, the borderlines – of human experience.
Love leads Mary to peer deeply in. Perhaps it is her daring to enter into Jesus’ suffering and death, the intersection of time and space, which unveils the angel of hope who says this tragedy, this human calamity, too will be turned around. Death will not have the last word, not for Jesus, nor for the global health crisis before us.
“What are you looking for?” Mary, in the depths of her being, seeks a different kind of life, a transformed existence, a confirmation that in a great turning of the soil from which we come and go, God-is-still-with-us and accompanies us without boundary or exclusion. She pivots and, naturally, thinks the voice she hears is that of the gardener. If the very stones could shout for Jesus as he faces certain peril on the way to Jerusalem, then a caretaker who tends the nutrients of the earth below the ground might speak to where Jesus is. The gardener of good soil might be able to identify the person of Jesus, who himself had sprung from the humus of earth, once a “sapling, having sprung, a root of abundant life in arid ground (Isaiah 53)” and now having returned to that same earth.
From a depth beyond comprehension, Mary hears her name called out. Jesus the Rabbi is recognized, known as fully human, fully alive, newly present, spirit and truth, for Mary Magdalene. She is transfigured by his gaze. The encounter is brief, yet everything changes. Though she wishes to come close, they cannot embrace. Their embrace needs to be socially distant. Yet, it is a meeting of souls, a communion of relationship, an unleashing of possibility. It is a flourishing. It is the first fruit of the resurrection principle, a movement in God’s freedom from affliction to delight. Hope unwrapped and extending in stunning light. Mary goes forth to share the sacred story. The revelation does not belong to her. It is incorporated and disseminated. And multiplies.
Bud and Bill rode the rails, homeless in the manner of some even after the first Boeing swoon in the 1970s. They were inseparable in their friendly forays into the Nativity House day center on wild Commerce Street in Tacoma. Then, they disappeared. Were they safe? Were they alive? One day months later, head burrowed in the tiny administrative office, a voice called out to me. I turned around and saw Bud smiling, the face of Jesus in my midst. He was back, just for a moment. Joy reigned that day on Commerce Street. The person without a home, back and forth on freight trains, was not marginal, but core to God’s design for an upheld and affirmed humankind.
Stephen Mitchell’s rendition of Psalm 15 speaks of the fruit of encounter with resurrection:
“Lord, who can be trusted with your power, and who may act in your place? Those with a passion for justice, who speak truth from their hearts; who have let go of selfish interests and grown beyond their own lives; who see the wretched as their family and the poor as their flesh and blood. They alone are impartial and worthy of the people’s trust. Their compassion lights up the whole earth and their kindness endures forever.”
Resurrection is rejuvenating awakeness to be daily bread for one another. Even as a birthing of unshakeable hope for future horizons, it is also, in the words of Richard Rohr, the power to “live and fully accept our reality.” We now have the capacity and audacity to “bear the mystery of God’s suffering and joy inside ourselves.” We are led out of our self-limiting and self-absorption toward one another into mutually-transforming relationship.
Fr. Miguel Vásquez from El Salvador spoke recently of the revitalized communities of rural El Salvador, having been through the ravages of war, earthquakes, and overwhelming poverty. In El Salvador, the word for “the Savior,” he said the key was that we have needed to “put heart back into a society, the fraternal way, to construct peace.” This is a message for faithful followers of the Risen One, in this season of COVID-19 and beyond. First responders, service deliverers, health providers, helping hands, all giving heart to communities throughout our land.
Mary, the first witness to resurrection, must share her fears about the empty tomb and her exhilaration at seeing Jesus, the Master Gardener, with her community of friends and disciples. She knows she is not alone, that we belong to one another. Some will prune, some will prepare soil, some will plant seeds, some will water, and some will harvest: all will gather together to eat at the equitable banquet table of dignity and justice. Celebrating in small communities and large, virtually and shoulder-to-shoulder, in a building or fields of while staying at home, these gestures tilt toward the God of Jesus raised up, whose gaze brightens our humble gala of wholesome food and festive company.
“Awake, O Sleeper, arise from death. Abandon the shadows of the night. The wind of the Spirit will be your breath and Christ will fill you with light.” (Marty Haugen)