Many years on into ministry, as I read and reread the Easter accountings – and they do vary from Gospel to Gospel – and mull on the details, I can only conclude that the evident miracle of Jesus’ rising from the dead is not the central point of these tales, as much as this would otherwise appear so obvious.
From a simplified perspective, we perceive this story as encompassing a clean plot line, simple and direct, without any subtlety or subtext. Jesus arose from the dead, glory alleluia, beginning and end of story.
As with so much, however, the message lies in the details, and specifically in regard to the resurrection episodes, the dynamics around how those who encountered the risen Jesus responded when he presented himself.
In the John recounting, we are told that even when Mary, a very close friend, saw Jesus standing right before her, she did not recognize him. Indeed, and this is such a telling detail, we are told that she first supposed him to be the gardener, who would have been a relatively insignificant personage.
Mary and others needed prompting before they could identify the familiar figure of Jesus among them, and therein lies a pointer for us who claim to be believers some two thousand years on.
In short, the story of Easter is not so much as we tend to cast it, as Jesus appearing radiant and sublime and fully visible. Instead he is a figure that is at first obscured, even disguised, and only over time does he emerge into recognizable form from an indistinct background — much as numbers might appear from one of those mosaic backgrounds on a color blind test, or a pattern evolve on one of those images designed to confuse us, like the illustration depicting either/both the outline of a vase or a woman’s profile.
Other parallels come to mind in this regard.
When we have our eyes dilated, we don’t see well. We are partially blinded by the light, having to squint. This can all be confusing as we wait for images to come back into focus.
Likewise when we view pictures on our mobile phones, we sometimes use our fingers to enlarge the image so we can identify it, or we tilt it so the light is just right.
Like any of us trying to blear our way through the haze of dilated pupils, or fussing with a picture on a screen, the Easter morning recountings conveyed in the Gospels divulge that those who first met Jesus could not identify him right off and that they struggled in a state of confusion before the situation became clear.
There was uncertainty before there was certainty, and that is a very important detail.
It raises the question of whether we are willing to embrace an uncertain faith over a sure one if that requires us to challenge our presuppositions, assumptions, and ready answers. It raises the question of whether we are willing to work at our belief structure–that is truly engage them and try to bring them into fresh focus–or just treat Christianity as a take it or leave it proposition with simple formulations like “Jesus loves me, this I know,” without ever probing the depth of what that and other such platitudes might mean. Is our faith a metaphorical garb we don when we walk into a church and then leave at the door or the parking lot when we take our leave?
When I was young, people told me I should become a minister. I was just that kind of kid who seemed to thrive in a church setting. For a long time I thought I could not be a minister because I didn’t have the answers I thought ministers had. Eventually I came to the realization that the heart of the matter lies not in the answers, but being willing to frame and engage the questions, being willing to stare into the unknown, being willing to enter the empty tomb and look for life in there.
Echoing the words of St. Francis in his prayer, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief,” faith calls us to go to the frontiers of what we believe or think we know, and then step forward from there not sure what we might encounter
So I do not view Easter as a once-and-done event but as something that goes with us 365 days a year, and dares us as we go to consider that all may not be as it seems at first.
Easter, I believe, challenges us to embrace the notion that Jesus did not rise just once from the dead, but that he is present throughout the world in diverse forms. Easter presents us with the notion that death and resurrection exist in many forms and manifestations that we may not always at first recognize. Easter challenges us as well to become as those witnesses who rushed to the tomb on that first Easter morn eventually to become heralds of the good news that Jesus, or his spirit, remains with us and that we have seen him.
Recognizing the Risen Jesus
And what does this risen Jesus look like when he shows himself today?
A recent Worcester Magazine article spoke about the state of AIDS victims, some thirty years on, and spoke to the history of AIDS Project Worcester — although the reporter was apparently unaware that that organization had its roots in this very church as the AIDS Support Group and failed to reference those early years.
When I ask the question of what Jesus looks like today, I am reminded of those who were a part of the AIDS Support Group – and when I do, I see a Jesus who is blemished, emaciated, hollowed out, isolated, and powerless. I see Jesus standing among this body of persons calling us to enter the tombs of their existence and help them make their way to the light.
I am reminded as well of the millions of refugees who are today wandering homeless and bereft in barren places not of their own making. I hear them asking, do not suppose me to be the gardener or look upon us anonymous pawns swirling in the crosscurrents of world politics. Rather I hear them pleading for us to see in them those who have been consigned to a form of death and who want to be recognized and called back to vital life.
And the tale is true for so many who for countless reasons are consigned to exist in lifeless places just waiting and hoping for the rest of us to give them enough acknowledgement and support that they may free themselves from the suffocating tombs and shackles and restraints imposed upon them by a world blind and callous to their circumstances, and only too willing to dismiss or denigrate their basic humanity.
A Resurrection Story
Let me tell you about a woman whose name for the moment I’ll omit. She is long gone from this world, but hers was one of the many, many souls whose pathway I crossed in my years of ministry. I have spoken of her before, but her story bears repeating.
I first met her when I started out in ministry. She wasn’t very old, but already her life had gone off the rails. She became enmeshed into the world of alcoholism at a young age, and I don’t know what else beset her, but she was deep in a chasm, from which frankly I fully expected she’d never emerge. She was a near lifeless soul living in a tomb. I visited her on her many hospitalizations, but I really held out no hope for any significant positive change.
Her mother I also knew, as a member of my first church, and she was beset by her own health problems. But, in spite of her own stresses, she alone hung in there for her daughter. This mother told me how a former minister had encouraged her to never give up hope, and she held by that advice. When I would hear her speak of her daughter, I frankly thought, what tortures mothers go through when there is no hope.
Well, years passed and bits of news would reach me about this woman, and it was never good. But sometime, somehow, this person actually emerged from under the pall that had lain on her nearly her whole life, and miraculously, she found herself restored to vitality. It was all quite a tale, almost as if she had come back to life.
In the end, she died of AIDS, which she picked up along the way somewhere. But before that happened she became a resource for others. As a person who knew recovery firsthand, she turned herself to helping others in pulling themselves out of what was pulling them down. She gained more than her fifteen minutes of fame before it was all over, finding herself the subject of one or more human interest stories in the media and being celebrated as a positive influence in the community of downtrodden of which she was a part.
And even though death finally did overcome her, I am confident that she experienced life to its fullest, to a greater measure than I, for one, would ever have imagined.
And her name, by the way — which was really a nickname — was “Lucky.”
Seeking the Light
We linger at the entrances of the caves of our world, we stare into the dark places that others are forced to inhabit all the while longing to be ushered into the light, into the land of the living, yet we fear to enter. We often cannot bring ourselves to penetrate that darkness, believing, or letting ourselves believe as I did with Lucky, that some situations are helpless and cannot be changed, or that those who dwell therein are our enemies, or they have chosen their lifestyle, or otherwise deserve their fate.
When we close our hearts this way, we assure that death in its numerous forms will indeed win out.
But for those who dare, there are discoveries to be made, there are souls to redeem, there are lives to call back to dwell among the living.
We learn from those among us who dare to see life where others see only death, like Lucky’s mother who faithfully abided her until she was redeemed. And that is the reason why we gather and exist in community. We are called as Mary and the others who were the first to recognize Jesus were, to be as as messengers of hope and promise and transformation to one another and to an all too often cynical and condemning world.
It is for us, as it was for those first century witnesses, to peer into the gloom and proclaim and act upon Jesus’s transformative presence wherever he shows himself — whether it is in the scarred body of an AIDS patient, or the anguish of a person lost to alcoholism, or the burdened face of a mother who refuses to give up hope, or a fearful refugee lingering in shadowy corners, or a disheartened, soot covered coal miner bent over from years of tiresome labor and with sickened lungs, or a youth leaning against the wall of a bodega with a needle dangling from his arm, or a youth in a prosperous suburban community in the same circumstance.