When I joined other Friends in worship on the morning of the day called Easter, I was feeling vaguely sad. But in the clarity of silence I soon came to understand the sadness as something vestigial, a nonfunctional remnant of my evolution from pious Catholic boy to nontheistic Quaker elder. In childhood, I’d had a Christ to whom I could cling in hope, “Christ … risen from the dead, the firstfruits of them that sleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). But he would be taken away, and not only by the evils of institutions that worship him: years of critical work, along with reflection on the world’s infinite suffering, would lead me to see him as a mythological character, formed from the memory of a beautiful man who perished almost 2,000 years ago. And that loss would break my young man’s heart.
Sitting in silence with the dregs of that sorrow, I recalled the narrative, in the “gospel” book of John, of the discovery of the Resurrection by Mary the Magdalene. In that story, Mary speaks my heart. And, as have I, she moves from grief over loss of her God-object to trust in a Christ-spirit to which we cannot cling.
In this meditation, a development of the seed of ministry that came to me during that time of worship, I reflect upon a close reading of that pericope, John 20:1-23. (Much of the remainder of John’s 20th chapter tells the story of “Doubting Thomas,” which I have discussed here.)
John’s book does not clearly indicate the day of the week on which Jesus died. If Jesus was killed and interred on a Friday, his body would have been placed in a tomb before the Sabbath began at sundown. Sabbath ended at the next sundown, but it would have been too dark for Mary to visit his burial place then. In any case, our pericope begins when, no doubt eager to get there as early as possible, Mary sets out for the tomb just before sunrise on the first day of the week.
When she arrives at the tomb, Mary sees that the stone which had covered the entrance is not there: the tomb is open. She immediately concludes that the body of Jesus has been removed, and, distraught, turns and runs toward home and friends. Encountering fellow disciples Simon Peter and “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” whom we’ll call John, she blurts out her assumption as fact. Recalling her words, I feel as if she speaks my sorrow:
“They have carried [eran] the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know [oidamen] where they have put him.”
I perceive [Gk. oida, as above] some irony there: in order to carry Jesus away, a human being would have had to lift him up. Indeed, the Greek verb eran is a form of airo, which includes the sense of raising or lifting up. But the verb used (v. 9) for rising from death is anastenai. As the story unfolds, the author will teach that human agency, although repeatedly assumed, is not a factor here.
On hearing Mary’s announcement, Simon Peter and John run to the tomb. John, the (Johannine) author tells us, outruns Peter and is the first to look in and see the burial linens lying in the tomb. (Presumably, by this time dawn is breaking literally as well as metaphorically.) But he allows Peter, who soon arrives, to precede him as, stooping down, they go in. Together, they stare at the linens: the body of Jesus is gone.
Again, irony is apparent. Simon Peter and John “saw and believed,” the author tells us; however, they believe not in the living spiritual Christ but in Mary’s (erroneous) assumption that the body has been carried away by human agency. “For,” the author explains (and here we may have an insight into the development of the resurrection faith: see “Resurrection?”), “as yet they had not perceived that the scripture requires that Jesus rise from the dead” (v. 9).
Leaving Mary alone with her grief, the two men go away. Although Mary must feel certain that her belief is true, still she stoops to look into the tomb for herself. But she sees more than the folded linen that Peter and John had seen: two angels now sit where the body had lain.
Angels are messengers of God: surely they have a divine communication for her? But instead of imparting words from God, they ask Mary why she is weeping. Again, her words speak my sorrow, this time more personally:
“They have carried my Lord out of the tomb, and I do not know [oida] where they have put him.”
Strangely, the angels seem to continue refusing their role: they say nothing in response. Even angelic revelation, which would after all be second-hand information, is ruled out. Receiving no reply, Mary straightens herself and turns away from the tomb – her second turning – only to see a man, a stranger, standing nearby. The author clues in the reader: the man is Jesus, but Mary “did not know [edei, same as oida] that it was Jesus” (v. 14).
Jesus now repeats the question of the angels, “Why are you weeping?” But before Mary can answer, he adds another: “Whom do you seek?” — the same question he had asked of Judas and those who arrested him (see Jn. 18:4). He would turn her inward by asking her to discern and judge her preconceptions, but Mary is still captive to those assumptions – and, as I have been at times, to grief over the loss of the Jesus previously possessed. Assuming from his latter question that the stranger is the groundskeeper, Mary replies with a plea.
“Lord, if you have borne him away, please tell me where you have put him, that I may carry him away [aro].”
Here again, the verb is a form of airo, which has the primary sense of raising up. Human beings may wish to raise Jesus, but they can do no more than carry his dead form — and even that is not allotted to them. For Jesus the Christ is spirit. He is not to be found among the treasured dead – nor, as Jesus had told the Samaritan woman in a similarly revelatory scene at Jacob’s well (see “A Quaker Reading of John 4:1-42”), in the dead letter. One encounters the Christ-spirit in a personal call received face to face with a stranger.
It is when the unrecognized other calls her by name that Mary perceives “the Jesus of history” in the spiritual Christ. And this is her third turning, the first having been toward the familiar, and the second away from the (shrine- or church-like) tomb with its holy relics and celestial presences: at his call, Mary turns, and is turned, to encounter him. And her immediate response is to submit herself to his guidance: “being turned, she says to him, ‘Teacher!'” Again, she speaks my heart.
Christ’s response to Mary can speak to all of us. “Do not think to cling to me [me mou haptou], for I have not yet gone up [anabebeka: different from the verb used for resurrection] to my Father,” he says. I read that not as rejecting Mary’s submission as a learner, but as constituting her – and our – first lesson in the new order of creation: don’t try to cling to Christ. The spiritual Christ, the living teacher, is revealed only in encounter with the other.
That teaching is followed immediately by an apostolic commission: “Go to my brothers and say to them [that] I am going up to my Father and your Father, my God and your God.” Mary is sent, not to explain “that the scripture requires that Jesus rise from the dead,” but to communicate the revelation received in her encounter with the spiritual Christ: that Jesus, as will those who trust in him, passes into the fullness of life in God. This time, Mary’s announcement, coming directly from Christ and not from her beliefs, will be true. I am reminded of Margaret Fell’s quotation of a challenge from George Fox to those who think to know and present the living Christ from scripture:
And then he went on, and opened the scriptures, and said, ‘The scriptures were the prophets’ words, and Christ’s and the apostles’ words, and what as they spoke they enjoyed and possessed, and had it from the Lord:’ and said, ‘Then what had any to do with the scriptures, but as they came to the spirit that gave them forth. You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of light, and hast walked in the light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?’ &c.*
Earlier in John’s book (16:7), Jesus had said to his followers, “It is expedient for you that I depart: for if I do not depart, the Paraclete will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he is come, he will convict the world of sin, and of justice, and of judgment.” Having been revealed as the Logos of God, Jesus disappears into God, but he will return that same first-day to impart his divine Spirit to his disciples.
The author has the unrecognizable Logos make himself known to the disciples as they wait that evening (in silent worship?) in a closed room. Christ appears from nowhere, shows the marks of human suffering so that the disciples recognize his continuity with the Jesus of history, and gives them all an apostolic commission.
Then Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you. As the Father has commissioned me, so I also send you.” And saying this, he breathed upon them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they shall be forgiven; if you hold the sins of any, they shall be held.” (vv. 21-23)
The inspirited disciples, now members of Christ’s spiritual body, are commissioned to continue Jesus’ ministry of discernment and judgment. It is the same commission which George Fox and other early Friends accepted: to discern the hearts of self and others and to judge what is discerned there in the spirit of Christ, the human face of that agapē which we rightly call divine.
With such considerations, I find myself far beyond nostalgia for my childhood savior. I, too, encounter the living Christ-spirit in the other, including the other who is I. And I, too, have the ability and responsibility to discern what to forgive and what to sit with. “They” – the churches and others who cling to Christ as object, the scholars and thinkers whose work speaks to critical reason, and the life experiences that disclose the merciless nature of the world – have taken away the Lord of my childhood, but I know [oida] that Christ’s spirit is not gone from the world.
* See my essay, “What Canst Thou Say?”