Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb. Dark. First light. Dawn. A few minutes of extraordinary encounter. This scene at the tomb of Jesus bestows a supreme gift upon the beloved of God. Time and place and character unfold and then reveal a threshold through which the hearer of the word may enter. Here, as in an icon, you experience Mary’s transformation from desolation to animation, from inertia to action.
Here’s how I came to know the real Cousin Thomas.
How do you say goodbye? It depends, I suppose, on the relationship—what it has grown to and what it will become. For Jesus, preparing to leave the close society of his disciples seems to have been a long process. Almost from the beginning he gently, or sometimes in exasperation, explained that the course his life was following would lead to profound changes in their lives. So he began saying goodbye early.
George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community, said that in order to form community, people must be engaged in a “demanding common task.” In his case the task was to rebuild the accommodation areas of Iona Abbey. The group that he led included people with considerable formal education, as well as people with little education. These men and women formed community out of purpose and in difficult conditions; they shared what they had and learned from each other. They built with stone and with their lives, even though they could not know what the results of their work would be.
"A virus breached the campus computer network last week and the entire system crashed. Repair has been difficult, but I bring a word of hope.” The director of information technology at the college where I was about to lecture on eschatology added, “This has been frustrating for everyone. Files have been corrupted and programs do not run properly. Please be patient. Some files have been restored. . . . Any day now we will be back to full operation.”
Medieval mapmakers, with their limited knowledge of distant lands and uncharted seas, sometimes depicted dragons on the far edges of their maps. Hic sunt dracones (“Here be dragons!”), they warned. Dragons do not appear on our modern maps. But bodies on the rail lines of Madrid and the streets of Fallujah leave no doubt that Something Ferocious stalks the edges of our political and religious maps. Nationalism, tribalism, empire and religion mutate in draconian forms, and we sometimes fail to recognize the beastly genes in our own DNA.
Christians tend to compare their personal conversion experiences to Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus. Not all of us, of course, talk freely about what happened in us and to us on the way to becoming Christian. Our levels of comfort with such talk vary widely depending on our congregational culture, our notions of evangelism and our ability to be self-revelatory. But when we do think about that journey, and when we’re willing to talk about it, we say that our conversion was—or was not—a Damascus Road. We tell our young people that their experience does not need to be a Damascus Road experience, although it can be. There are many paths of Christian transformation—and the light from heaven is only one of them.
Although the images of shepherd and sheep wind their way through these lectionary texts, they are difficult images for the contemporary church to embrace. I recall many of the adults in one congregation cringing during a children’s time a few years ago, when a well-intentioned volunteer tried to teach the children a song that had them “baa-ing” for Jesus. What are we teaching our children, some of us wondered: To follow the crowd without question? To have no mind of one’s own? To expect someone else to take care of us?
When I was in grad school, my family moved into an apartment in South Chicago. When we saw that the door of the apartment had four locks, we wondered why we needed so many. I soon discovered that the benefit was mostly emotional. When we got inside at night, after being worried about whatever, we could shut the door on the world and turn lots of little levers. “Click, click, click.” I think of that door when I’m listening to people describe how they cope with their fears.
Just like that, Jesus is gone. He reappears just long enough to say goodbye. Like a wraith, like a dream, he leaves behind no children, no estate, no writings, no trace of himself except this feeling that his presence was real, that his absence is temporary. Christians have this uncanny feeling that he was just here. He must have just stepped out.
Love is the lightest of responsibilities. The difficulty is when we take up the labor before the love.