April 21, 2019: Seeing Without Seeing
April 21, 2019 Rev. Rhonda Blevins, DMIN
Seeing Without Seeing
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. 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 and 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.
It began in darkness. But don’t all good stories start that way? The ancient biblical writers knew this. In fact, that’s how they began . . . well . . . everything: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.”
Other great writers begin their stories in darkness:
· George Lucas’ 1977 movie “Star Wars” begins with the evil Galactic Empire in power.
· J.R.R. Tolkien’s the “Lord of the Rings” begins with the One Ring wielding incredible, malevolent power over Middle Earth.
· J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series begins with Harry living a lonely, miserable life in the cupboards under some stairs with the Dark Lord Voldemort (He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named) instilling fear and wreaking havoc at Hogwarts and beyond.
Outside of literature, in nature we see other great stories beginning in darkness:
· The darkness of the chrysalis sets the stage for the glory of the butterfly.
· Each day begins at midnight . . . when the world is at its darkest. How could the glory of sunrise manifest without the darkness that came before? How could the majesty of a Clearwater Beach sunset ever be known without the darkness that is to come?
· Even our own stories began in the darkness of our mothers’ wombs.
So, it should come as no surprise that the story of Easter begins under the cover of darkness. John, the Gospel writer, is intentional to tell us that it was “still dark” when Mary Magdalene made her way to the tomb. “Darkness and light” is a theme throughout his Gospel, beginning in the first chapter of the Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
John’s Gospel is also the place where we read of Jesus saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
The darkness in John’s Easter story is both literal and metaphorical. Certainly, the story begins in physical darkness when the world is still dark. The story also begins in spiritual darkness. The bright light that Mary knew in the form of Jesus has surrendered to the darkness. Mary’s hope is gone. Death has claimed victory.
But not for long.
You know the story. Mary walks in the darkness about two miles from Bethany to the tomb. She expects to tend a corpse. It falls to Mary to perform the ritual cleaning and anointing. This is not a job anyone would ever look forward to, but somehow Mary has mustered the strength to do this terrible, loving act. But when she arrives, the stone is moved, and the tomb is empty. Like salt in an open wound, Mary is upset by the thought that someone—the authorities perhaps, maybe the gardener—has taken Jesus’ body. As if the cruel and humiliating execution wasn’t enough, now they’ve taken his body. In her despair, she runs the two miles back to Bethany to tell the disciples what she has found. So, Peter and John and Mary run back to the tomb. They find the tomb just as Mary described. Empty. Cold. Dark.
Peter and John leave; Mary stays behind. She’s exhausted . . . physically, emotionally, spiritually. Mary looks through her tears into the tomb once again. She sees two angels. She’s so worn down that she doesn’t even seem amazed by this. They ask her why she is crying. She offers the reason for her continued despair, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
And then here’s the part of the story that most stirs my imagination this morning. When Jesus appears, he speaks to her, but she does not recognize him.
Why doesn’t Mary recognize her beloved friend? What prevents her from being able to recognize the one with whom she has shared so much? It’s possible the reason is physical:
· Maybe she can’t see clearly through her tears.
· It’s possible that Jesus is standing at distance.
· Maybe her vision is poor.
I’m inclined to believe, however, that the reason Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus at first has less to do with a visual impairment and more to do with a spiritual impairment.
To help explain what I mean, let’s consider the stem words that make up the word “recognize.”
· re- | again
· -cogn- | to learn or know
· -ize | to cause
· recognize | to cause to know again | to cause to learn again
At first, Mary does not recognize Jesus because she is not yet able to re-learn Jesus. She cannot yet re-know him.
Mary’s challenge in recognizing Jesus is the same problem most of us have. We know Jesus one way—perhaps the way we were taught growing up or the way we understood Jesus in our young adult years. Or we know Jesus, sometimes unfortunately, through the way his followers behave. We become so attached to how we have seen Jesus in the past that it prevents us from seeing Jesus anew in the now. Like Mary, we find ourselves looking straight at the Christ, without recognizing. Seeing without seeing.
When Jesus speaks Mary’s name, something clicks. The “light” turns on and shatters the darkness. Suddenly, Mary becomes keenly aware.
Awareness. Awareness changes everything.
In my own personal spiritual journey, I’m discovering that one of the primary keys to joy—not the fleeting feelings of happiness that change with my many moods, but abiding joy—the key to that kind of joy lies, at least in part, in the simple, yet profound, awareness of God’s presence in all times, in all places, in all people.
Sometimes my work as a pastor places me beside hospital beds in which hope has been decimated. As a younger minister I struggled with my place—my purpose in those situations. The medical professionals could offer tangible assistance—the doctors could prescribe and operate—the nurses could administer and tend. What did I have to offer? I quickly learned not to offer false hope. The best thing I can offer in those situations is the thing I believe to be truth beyond truth—I can offer a reminder of God’s presence. My hope, in those situations, is that I can give the gift of awareness.
Maybe you came here today from some dark place . . . confusion, doubt, grief, despair, trauma, hopelessness, frustration or even apathy. Maybe you came here today feeling more like Good Friday than Easter. I’m so glad you’re here. I’m not going to offer vacuous words of false hope. I’m not going to tell you that your suffering, in whatever form that has taken or is taking, isn’t real. No. It’s real alright. But what I can offer, what I believe in my heart to be truth beyond truth, is that God is with us in our suffering. God is with us in the garden of our despair. It’s just that sometimes we can’t see this truth through our pain or our tears—through our common spiritual impairment. Nevertheless, God is there, calling us by name, showing us that we can never give up.
If you ask me whether or not I believe in the resurrection, my answer will be “Yes!” Why? Because I’ve experienced it. I’ve known doubt transform into faith. I’ve known fear manifest into love. I’ve known despair rise up into hope. Even death isn’t final in light of the resurrection of Christ. The catholic funeral liturgy begins this way: “Life is not ended, it is merely changed.” That’s resurrection! The light at the end of every dark tunnel is Christ!
When Mary finally recognized Jesus, she tried to hold onto him. He told her not to. The fact of the matter is that we can’t hold on to light. We can’t capture it. We can’t bottle up light and hoard it for ourselves. Oh, but we try. We suggest the light is in this situation, but not that one. We claim that the light is in us, but not those people. We draw lines, futile, ridiculous lines of who’s in and who’s out forgetting what John tells us at the beginning of his Gospel: “The life was the light of all people!”
Easter people, may we go forth recognizing the light of Christ in all places, in all situations, in all people, especially in ourselves. And may the resurrection of the Lord remind us that even in the deepest, darkest night, the light will shine again, because . . .
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
 John 8:12 NRSV