Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!
There’s a poem by Emily Dickinson that fits the occasion of the morning. It goes like this:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
It feels to me like an Easter poem. Or at least a poem about how to talk about Easter. About resurrection. Tell all the truth, but tell it slant. The Truth must dazzle gradually, or every one be blind. Christ is risen indeed, but is easily mistaken for a gardener, or a stranger, or something else.
On Friday I had the chance to attend for the first time the Way of the Cross, Way of Justice event put on by the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center, IJPC. It is held down at Fountain Square and is a service based on the Stations of the Cross, with different groups leading different stations. What’s particulary powerful about the service is that it makes direct connections between the suffering of Jesus and the current suffering of our time. The inside of the bulletin for the service read, “United with the suffering Christ in our midst and throughout the world, we gather this Good Friday to pray and to remember. Today, we stand in union with those who are broken, tortured, and bearing crosses in our world just as Jesus of Nazareth did 2000 years ago.” The station of Jesus being stripped of his garments in humiliation was connected to the current plight of immigrants who are stripped of their dignity and face the jeers of those you are threatened by their presence. The station of Jesus dying on the cross was connected to our treatment of creation and how we have injured its life, to our own detriment.
Tell all the truth, but tell it slant. Rather than simply retell Jesus’ sufferings, or simply recount the struggles of our day, the service held them up alongside each other and allowed us to see them both in a new light.
If the slant didn’t come through clear enough it seemed to me to be broadcast pretty directly in a way that I don’t think the organizers had planned for. As we were processing to the Freedom Center for the second part of the ceremony, I couldn’t help but notice the huge banner that is posted on the outside of the Freedom Center building, visible from blocks away. It’s a quote by WEB DuBois which reads, “We must remember, because if the world forgets evil, evil is reborn.” This quote relates to the current exhibit at the Freedom Center, Without Sanctuary, about the over 4000 lynchings that took place in the US from 1882-1968. Along with summing up the spirit of the Good Friday service, it also carried its own warning of the opposite kind of resurrection that we celebrate today. Something we counted for dead being reborn.
One of the benefits of the approach of the Good Friday service, it seems to me, is that it frees up our imaginations to read Jesus’ life into the very stuff that surrounds our lives . It illuminates the present moment.
So if we are given this expanded vision of what all is involved in the sufferings of Christ, one that has direct impact on how we live our lives now, it can cause us to wonder what might an expanded vision of the resurrection of Christ look like?
The New Testament has a number of ways of talking about resurrection, and this reading from John today fits into what we could call the Emily Dickinson approach. Telling it slant. The resurrected Christ appearing incognito in a form not initially recognizable. In this case, Mary Magdalene mistakes him for the local gardener who is tending this garden plot where Jesus has been placed in a tomb. If resurrection isn’t always something that just reaches out and grabs us and instantly dazzles us, but something that we come to recognize in the process of searching for Jesus, as Mary does, then the world takes on a whole different quality.
Except for Mark, each of the gospels preserves some story of the unrecognized Christ, or the Christ who is only known in the last part of the encounter. In the original ending of Mark, Jesus never shows up. There’s just an empty tomb with the women who discover it running away in fear and amazement. It is left to our imagination to picture what happens after that point. How’s that for telling it slant? But each of the other gospels names some instance of Jesus being present, but not initially recognized.
In Matthew it comes by way of a parable that Jesus tells right before his death. Jesus paints the picture of a scene in which The Human One comes surrounded by angels and all the nations gather together with this one. And they are sorted out into two groups, with one on his left, and one on his right, according to how they have treated Christ during their life. This is Matthew 25, the sheep and the goats. What the two groups have in common is that they have no idea when they have ever seen Jesus at any point in their life. The righteous and the unrighteous both ask the same question of “Lord, when was it that we saw you…?” The one distinguishing factor between the two groups, Jesus notes, is the way they treated the most vulnerable people of society. The stranger, the naked, the hungry, the one in prison. Even though they didn’t know it, never knew it to their dying day, this had been Christ’s appearance to them in their life. Christ is present incognito in those who are weak.
In Luke’s gospel, there is the story of the two disciples walking away from Jerusalem, on the road to Emmaus. And they’re joined by a third member, who is a stranger to them and who engages them in conversation about the events that had just taken place in Jerusalem – Jesus’ trial and death and people’s hopes that he would be the Messiah. When they arrive at their destination, they invite the stranger to come in with them, a gesture of hospitality. And then, as they begin eating, this one took bread, and blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. And they recognize that this is Jesus who is eating with them. And they go and tell the others. Christ is present incognito when we offer hospitality and break bread together.
And then in John, Jesus is incognito in a gardener. This is a story that Hal Hess and Steve Rodenberg and Welda Ogle and Charlie Patty and all you other gardeners out there can get into. This is where Jesus shows up. “When Mary had said (these words to the angels) 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 mean Teacher).”
We don’t really know anymore details about this encounter, but we do have a sense of the symbolic universe that John is drawing from, what all he’s bringing in to tell this story of the meaning of resurrection. By opening his gospel with the words “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” we, the reader are taken back to the initial words of Genesis, in the beginning, and the creative activity of God, forming order out of chaos, separating light and darkness, speaking creation into being. Now at the end of his gospel, John takes us back to that primal scene, the place where humanity began, where we first found our vocation, the garden. We are created for the garden, but exile ourselves from the garden through our own waywardness, and now Jesus appears, in resurrection life, back in the garden, as if creation is starting over again. As if we can once again find our vocation and start anew in this world. Appearing to the first apostle of the new creation, his dear friend Mary, whom he calls by name. Speaking her into being in a new light.
The empty tomb, the absence of Jesus’ presence in the tomb, has left us with a faith tradition that has no shrine. No place to go back to and say that this is the place where Jesus now lays at rest. You can visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem over the site where Jesus was supposedly placed in the tomb, or you can visit the garden tomb which is an alternate site which has tried to gain acceptance since John’s account has the tomb in a garden, but going there will only confirm that this doesn’t really do a whole lot for you. It’s interesting, it can even be a spiritual experience, but this isn’t where it’s at.
Instead, Christ chooses to tell it slant, to show up in any corner of the planet he so chooses, any plot of this garden of creation. There is a sense in which any person, any encounter, any part of creation carries the potential of being a shrine of Christ. Genesis talks about this as each one bearing the image of God.
The theme for this Easter season, which extends seven weeks up to Pentecost Sunday, is taken from the writings of Isaiah: “New heavens and a new earth.” You may also recognize these words as being present at the end of the book of Revelation. The NRSV translates the Isaiah verse as saying “for I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.” It sounds as if it’s something that’s positioned in the near future, just on the verge of happening. But the text could be just as readily translated as “for I am creating new heavens and a new earth.” This is the translation given it by the Jewish Publication Society. Something already happening. Something ongoing. A new heavens and a new earth being created, taking shape, coming to fruition, right now, in the present moment.
And so, to somehow capture the meaning of what has happened, what is being offered here, of what resurrection is for us, we reach all the way back as far as we can go, back to the garden, and we reach forward as far as we can go, the new heavens and the new earth, and we say that all of that, all of the fullness of life that time has to offer, is being made available through resurrection.
And so we have this great freedom in how we live. We have the freedom to mistake people for Christ. We are completely free to pray ‘thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’ and to believe that that can actually happen today, in some way. We have the freedom to consider ourselves apart of a new creation, freed from the bondage of death, and growing into something beautiful that outlasts our own lives. And free to be dazzled by the light, that graciously doesn’t come all at once, but gently illuminates what’s in front of us, allowing us to see as if for the first time.