Sermon for Easter Morning, Sunday, April 5 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Is 25:6-9; Ps 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Cor 15:1-11; Jn 20:1-18
It is one of the most astonishing scenes in the Bible. Mary Magdalene, the last and most foolishly loyal of all the disciples, weeping in the garden at the loss of everything. The man comes towards her, and she begs him to tell her at least where the body is. “Tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away,” she says, apparently planning to drag the corpse back with her own two hands.
And I think of the mothers of the disappeared, in Argentina, in Bosnia. The mothers of the aboriginal women disappeared in Vancouver’s Lower East Side, or along the Highway of Tears. All those women standing forever beside an absence, crying, “They have taken away the body of my child and I do not know where they have lain her.” Asking for the body, or for some scrap of the DNA, or at least for the knowledge of where they were buried or burned or thrown away. The family of Cindy Gladue, a murdered aboriginal woman, even now trying to get back parts of her body which are being held by the court system as evidence of her murder. Because it matters, because when all else is gone the body matters, it is something we, poor human beings, need.
And Mary Magdalene will not leave this absence, she will stand by the void of this empty tomb, forever if it takes that long, if absence is all she has left.
But in this garden of death he speaks her name, and she turns, and she is known. Incredibly, she is given back not a corpse but the living presence of the Resurrected Christ, the One who names her, who creates her new, and the garden is the garden of life among the dead bodies.
And it is, in the brief dawn, all redeemed, and we are back in that garden in Genesis, and the whole long story which brought us here makes sense, each wound and each tear, as death is swallowed up in the great victory of God’s love.
Then there’s that strange moment: Do not touch me, or Cease holding me, or Do not cling to me, or whatever it is that is being said. We don’t know quite how to translate it, in part because we don’t know exactly what the writer intended—if Christ is preventing her from touching him, or asking her to let go as she embraces him, whether it is about physical touch or somehow about mental apprehension, because the Greek word that’s used covers both—and it may be that the ambiguity is deliberate.
But whatever picture we should imagine, we have stumbled here on something very strange, because in every other resurrection narrative, Christ, the Messiah who healed with human touch and spit and mud, either easily permits or actively encourages touch, is at pains to emphasize the physicality of the resurrection body, a body palpable and solid, a body intimately linked to wounds and food, to the material world. So what is different here?
I don’t think it has to do with any limitation on her part, Mary the first witness, the Apostle to the Apostles. It’s not that she is particularly barred from touching, or wrong in the way that she tries to touch. Perhaps it does have some mysterious thing to do with the shattering newness and immediacy of all this. The writer of this scene seems to imagine it taking place in something almost like an interim period, when the resurrection had in some way not yet been completed or consummated, the mysterious “return to the Father” not quite achieved.Or perhaps, as Lancelot Andrewes kindly suggested, her task of taking the news to the other apostles was so important and urgent that there just wasn’t time to stand around hugging.
Or maybe it’s something else. Mary Magdalene didn’t need to learn that the body matters. She knew that already. She knew already that matter, physical stuff, our lives in this muddy world, must be changed and renewed and resurrected, that a purely spiritual resurrection, a ghost or a happy thought, leaves out half our humanity. In fact, she is like Thomas in this; Thomas who knew that unless the risen Christ had palpable wounds, unless the body’s suffering was taken into new life, then new life was not entirely real. Mary didn’t need Jesus to eat bread or fish in front of her, didn’t need urging to touch him. She was ready, even in this first moment, to be led towards another stage of understanding. And it is a stage that we, too, are asked to reach for.
For we too are living in that moment in the garden, in resurrection achieved and yet not completed. What we know of new life is real, it is true, it is in our bodies and our souls, but it is also unstable, transient. An understanding that flashes across the mind and disappears. An interrupted embrace in an urgent moment.
It is no accident that we say that God’s presence in the material world, for us now, is crystallized, is most fully expressed, in consumable, perishable things. Bread, wine. Not stable objects but things which we eat and drink, things which are themselves created by processes of chemical change, yeast and fermentation and fire, things which we take into our perishable bodies, which metabolize, which change our bodies, and within our bodies change themselves.
For that is new life as we know it, flux and change, transience, impermanence. The garden is not stable ground, it is a place of growth and decay, flowering and fading, the very soil made up of death that breeds life that returns to soil again.
We have no stable home, in this life. We want to say, yes, God is here and will stay here; and the “here” will be different for each of us, but we want God’s presence to be something we can hold onto. In prayer or liturgy or theology or relationships with others, in our action for justice in the world, wherever we have known ourselves named and loved—we want to hold onto that, we want that presence to be stable, always there, we want to feel that naming and that love in a permanent way. Of course we do. But we cannot.
Instead, the resurrected Christ shows up walking along a road, is known in the breaking of bread, disappears. The resurrected Christ walks through doors, asks us to put our hands in his wounds, and disappears. The resurrected Christ turns up on a seashore at dawn, and fries up fish for breakfast, and says mysterious things about what will happen to us, and is gone.
We embrace, we understand, and then we are compelled to let go, and the presence and the loss are both utterly real, the undeniable fabric of these human bodies which we are. We are thrown back into this world of authorities and powers, oppression and injustice, loss and death, this world in which the evidence of resurrection can be so slight it is barely perceptible at times. Wars and rumours of wars, and the most vulnerable among us dying on our streets, and our own selves so much less than we wish to be, so little able to embody new life, tied down in our own angers and losses and pains.
We wait for the time of which Paul speaks, when all the hierarchies will be overturned in God’s love, when loss and death will be no more. We have traces, pledges. What we do not have, what we cannot expect to have, is a stable thing to hold onto in this meantime. We have uncertainty. And we have a name.
What does she have, Mary Magdalene? She has the body given to her for a moment, in the midst of transience. She has the certainty of her irrevocable real self, named in God, Mary. And she has, as Lancelot Andrewes pointed out, a task. She is the one who is to speak, to go and speak, to say the things she herself cannot hold onto, but the truth she can absolutely state: I have seen the Lord.
And so with us. What we are given, above all, is this task, this calling. Speak resurrection. Live resurrection, as your own, named, irreplaceable self. Even if you hardly believe it yourself, live in this world as if it were true. Live as if love defeats power. Tell the world that the humble and meek are raised up, and the mighty cast down, and do whatever you can to make it true. Speak whether anyone hears you or not. Accept that you will be ignored and forgotten, as you take your place among the little ones of God, that your work will seem to be in vain, that oppression and injustice are not yet swallowed up, and we cannot know when we may see this. But we can long for it, and work for it.
This was her work, and this is your work. You have your work, you have your commission. Do it. Do it not because anyone cares or remembers, but because the one who has named you has sent you.
We cannot hold on to the body. We cannot hold on to goodness or truth or peace or love in this world, we cannot hold onto the presence. But we can come forward now and take the body, and we can be the body, flawed and transient and always changing as we are in the world.
Speak as your one named self. Speak the body. Speak resurrection. Speak life.