Our eyes deceive us. They blind us to what is real and make us believe what isn’t there – just ask anyone who’s seen a magic show. And when we see the familiar in unfamiliar places, it blocks our minds from recognizing both what and who we know.
Have you ever been part of a group that meets on a semi-regular basis? It might be church, but I was thinking of something a little different. Maybe it’s the Lions or Rotary or a bridge group or something of that nature that meets either once a month, or maybe weekly for a certain time of year. You get to know them fairly well within that group.
But here’s what happens, or at least what happens to me: while knowing the people in the group, it’s hard to know them outside the group. We compartmentalize them into a certain place in our lives. So when we head off to the Rotary meeting we know we’ll see Tom, Dick, Harry and Jane. We know this because that’s the setting we expect them. But what happens if we run into those people in the dairy aisle at Martins or Weis? The chances are pretty good that we’ll recognize their face but not quite grasp their name or why we should know them. I hate that.
A good example of this is when I happened to be channel surfing one day and came across an old episode of Andy Griffith. A young actor, probably all of 25, was playing the part of the new town doctor and he looked very familiar. I knew I had seen him in another place, but I couldn’t identify him in this unfamiliar place. I spent over half the show trying to figure out why I recognized him.
We’ve all done this from time to time. We see someone out of context and we rack our brains trying to figure out why and from where we know them. The problem is that we are blinded by sight. Our eyes deceive us, like at a magic show. They block our minds from recognizing the person standing in front of us.
Mary Magdalene was in the same position on that first Easter morning. According to Luke, she had been one of Jesus’ disciples for quite some time. Luke implies that Jesus had healed Mary of seven demons. He also writes that she helped provide resources for Jesus and the disciples. If she was indeed a long-time disciple of Jesus, she would have followed him into the towns and villages where he healed the sick, cured the lame and raised the dead. In other words, Mary was used to seeing Jesus as the center of attention in the midst of large crowds. This motif continued up through the Passion. You can’t get a much bigger crowd than the one that sang “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday, or the one that screamed for Jesus’ crucifixion a few days later.
We were right there with her. We were part of the crowd that marched with our palm branches. We were part of the crowd that waved those palms and shouted, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” We were part of the crowd that clamored for the release of Barabbas. And we were part of the crowed that shouted, “Crucify him!”
But now, in today’s gospel, there are no more crowds. Jesus is dead. Deserted by his disciples, nailed to a cross, crucified until dead, and buried in a borrowed tomb, John writes that only Mary returned to that lonely tomb in the garden to mourn the loss of the man who changed her life forever. She returned to pay tribute to the man who healed her of her demons and saved her life. So she goes to the tomb, alone, to be with her thoughts, memories and prayers.
In her experience, in all of our experiences, dead people stay dead. Although we believe in the resurrection, we can’t say exactly what it looks like. We live with the duality of the faith of resurrection belief held in tension with the fact that we’ve never seen it. Dead people stay dead. So it’s not surprising that when Mary arrives at the empty tomb she assumes the body has been stolen. And it is under that assumption that she returns to town to tell the other disciples, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb.”
Peter and John run to the tomb and Mary follows. After examining the tomb for themselves, they return to their homes, deserting Mary just as they had deserted Jesus days earlier and leaving her alone. She’s as alone in her grief now as surely as Jesus was alone after his arrest that awful night seemingly so long ago.
Through her tears she looks into the tomb to reaffirm what she had seen earlier, or, rather, what she had NOT seen, and she sees two angels where the body should have been. “Woman,” they ask, “why are you crying?”
She turns away and answers, “Because they have taken away my Lord.”
Maybe she turns away from the angels because she doesn’t want to embarrass herself by crying in front of them. Maybe she turns away because that’s how she can keep her composure. Maybe she turns away because if they can’t see her cry, they’ll leave her alone. Maybe she turns away because if she can’t see them, then she can maintain her feeling of being alone.
But when she turns away, she is confronted with another man. She came to the tomb to be in a quiet place and mourn the death of her Lord. This place is anything but quiet as it’s turned into a major hub of post-funeral activity. There’s not much worse than trying to escape to a peaceful, quiet place for some quality alone time only to be continually interrupted.
Turning away from the angels she is now is confronted with another man who is also asking her whom she is looking for. She sees the man, but her eyes deceive her. She is blinded by her own sight. And those eyes blind her to the reality of the resurrection. They see a familiar face in an unfamiliar place. The face is familiar, but there are no crowds. The face is familiar, but Jesus is dead. Like the actor in Andy Griffith, the face is familiar, but the setting was wrong. Her eyes deceive her and convince her she’s talking with the gardener. And because she wants to be alone, because she’s fed up with all these intruders, rather than continue to face this latest intruder, she turns again.
Our eyes deceive us. We are often blinded by our sight. When I meet a familiar face in an unfamiliar place, I try to keep them talking in the hopes that their voice will trigger my memory of why I know the person. I did the same thing with Andy Griffith – I closed my eyes and let his voice tell me who he was.
Mary has turned away a second time. She’s moved from sorrow to anger as all these people keep interrupting her and she demands to know where this lowly gardener has taken her Lord, the one person she has come to love more than any other.
Puzzling over this young actor on Andy Griffith and closing my eyes, no longer blinded by sight, I heard the calm and soothing voice of Fr. Mulcahey from M*A*S*H. And Mary, blinded by sight and having turned away, is now able to hear a familiar and gentle voice. It is the same voice that healed the sick and raised the dead. It is the same voice that said to her, “Your demons have left, you are healed.” That same voice now says, “Mary.”
NOW she knows! It’s not the gardener, it’s Jesus! And she turns and throws herself at his feet in a wave of emotional relief and in the complete knowledge and understanding of the risen Christ. This is the same Jesus that her eyes and mind deceived her from recognizing. What her eyes could not accept, her heart and soul now did.
This, I think, is one of the things Jesus is calling us to do – to stop being deceived by what we see, to stop being blinded by sight, and to find the familiar face of Jesus in unfamiliar places. This is more than seeing Rotary members at Martins, or identifying an actor from an old TV show. This is recognizing that the familiar Jesus we’ve come to know in this place is now residing in very unfamiliar places and faces.
Jesus is resurrected and he’s asking us to turn from what our eyes are telling us to look at what our heart and soul now. If the homeless, sick, destitute and those we define as Others remain homeless, sick, destitute and Other, then the resurrection is pointless. If we ourselves can’t find a way to see the resurrected Jesus in unfamiliar places, then the resurrection is pointless. The resurrection moves us from death to life. The resurrection allows us to see things like we’ve never seen them before. The resurrection changes us if we are not blinded by seeing things how we’ve always seen them.
Alleluia, Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.
As we go forth from here into the world, how will that proclamation and the knowledge that Christ is alive change what you see?