If you were to ask my younger sister and illustrator if there was anything tentative in me with respect to the title of what is now Songs of Assent, she would begin her humorous romp through every title that was, in its season, the absolute right one. I had nine months of writing to name this creative baby…and it took all nine.
Sometimes I wish I could stay tentative with my unknowns, holding onto multiple possibilities lightly, and waiting until I really know the path before me. Even though the “real” is filled with peace, and the lack of compulsive thought that so easily plagues my interim constructions of the future, I still prefer a concrete scenario I may have to change rather than living in the vacuum of ambiguity. In fact, I rarely know that I don’t know, finite being that I am.
In these next few blogs during Eastertide, I want to focus on some of the people to whom Jesus appeared before his ascension, and what happened to them as they encountered him and thus had their understanding of reality turned upside down in a moment. So, to begin at the beginning, there is Mary Magdalene, who, healed and profoundly grateful, has traveled long miles with Jesus in his ministry, providing for Him out of her means (Luke 8:1-3). She is at the crucifixion, standing near Jesus’ mother (John 19:25) experiencing the horror of watching him die, and waits for Jesus’ dead body to be taken from the cross and placed in a tomb. On Easter morning, she goes to the tomb, apparently alone, and finding it empty, runs for Peter and John, who saw the empty tomb and then went back home.“But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb” (John 20:11).
And we know what happened: she meets someone she believes is the gardener until he calls her name. Ah, there is no voice like this voice. She falls at his feet…and is promptly a given a message to take to the disciples. She is the first witness to the resurrection. But something has to shift in Mary in the moment before she becomes that witness. Close to Jesus, Mary longs to embrace his feet with her tears and her love. Like so many other women in the Gospels, this is the only place she can imagine herself being. At Jesus’ feet. But as sure as she is of her place in this moment, Jesus swiftly reorients her: “Do not cling to me…but go to my brothers” (John 20:17).
I am leading a rich Songs of Assent study in Orlando at the moment. And as I sit with a very thoughtful group of Christian women, I am reminded again that, when God awakens the souls of his women, we become more receptive to our Lord. We taste the delight of simply being with him. We want to know and be known and we begin to exchange our restless activism or paralyzed passivity for a space of quiet confidence…as long as Jesus doesn’t rock the boat that has, at last, found a bit of smooth water. It can come as a shock to us, as to Mary Magdalene, that Jesus is now changing the rules. He appears to have another purpose, another season for us, like “go and tell my brothers.”
At the surface of things, Mary Magdalene’s reoriented direction wasn’t tremendously effective: the twelve also needed to see Jesus and not just receive second-hand knowledge about him. The Lord’s Spirit had not yet been poured out, and there could be no internal confirmation of Mary’s announcement. So they held her proclamation at bay and waited to see for themselves.
But I really don’t t believe that the disciples’ response to Mary is the point of this story.The point of Mary’s transforming encounter with the resurrected Lord is this: she must let go of the way things have been to embrace the new reality standing in front of her. She must exchange the comfortable “this is the way it has been,” for the uncomfortable “this is the way it now will be.” Ah, Mary, you teach us all, women and men, to let go of past seasons to which we so tenaciously cling, that we may receive the new thing our Lord Jesus is doing in and through us. We, like you, need a resurrection reorientation.
Lord Jesus, I am so frequently positive that I KNOW what you are doing, until the direction changes in front of me, and with it, my understanding of what it means to be going where you bid. Grant me the swiftness of Mary Magdalene’s heart to re-orient to the newness of your resurrected life and to obey you with swiftness of heart. Amen