All Real Living is Meeting by Daniel Adams

All Real Living is Meeting by Daniel Adams

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb where Jesus’ body was laid to rest and found that the stone had been removed (John 20: 1). Yet what Mary first experiences as a profound moment of fear, loneliness and despair is in fact a moment rich with the ‘possibility of being a threshold instead of a dead end, a new creation instead of a grave, a meeting place instead of an abyss’ (Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out). It is here in John’s Gospel that the many-sided truth of the resurrection bursts forth from darkness into the light, warm with deep and dramatic human characterisation, pregnant through and through with new possibilities. New possibilities that carry profound significance for both Mary’s own spiritual journey as well as our own.

New Creation instead of a Grave

While Mary comes to the empty tomb in the darkness of ‘mourning’, we as post-resurrection readers are given insight into new possibilities not yet know to Mary. John stresses that the following events take place ‘Early on the first day of the week’ and again ‘When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week’ (20: 1, 19). John doesn’t waste words – when he says something twice he wants us to pay attention. He makes it quite clear that Easter morning was to be understood, post-resurrection, as the first day of the new creation, the first day of God’s new world. The New Testament scholar N.T. Wright notes that on the sixth day of the previous week (the Friday) Jesus finished all his work with a great shout ‘Tetelestai’ – ‘It is finished!’ (19: 30), an echo of God’s finishing of the initial work of creation on the sixth day with the creation of human beings in his own image. ‘Now, says John (19: 5), “Behold the Man!” here on Good Friday is the truly human being’ (Wright, The Challenge of Jesus). John then suggests that the seventh day is the day of Sabbath rest; as God rested so too Jesus rests in the tomb.

‘On the seventh day God rested
In the darkness of the tomb;
Having finished on the sixth day
All his work of joy and doom.
Now the word had fallen silent,
And the water had run dry,
The bread had all been scattered,
And the light had left the sky.
The flock had lost its shepherd,
And the seed was sadly sown,
The courtiers had betrayed their king,
And nailed him to his throne.
O Sabbath rest by Calvary,
O calm of tomb below,
Where the grave-clothes and the spices
Cradle him we did not know!
Rest you well, beloved Jesus,
Caesar’s Lord and Israel’s King,
In the brooding of the Spirit,
In the darkness of the spring.’
(N.T. Wright)

Then on Easter morning, the first day of the week, creation is complete: instead of a grave, God’s new creation has begun! Mary goes to the tomb early in the morning and encounters Jesus. She mistakes him for the gardener, which in one important sense he is, as Wright points out. This is the new creation, experienced through an encounter with the gardening Saviour.

Meeting Place instead of an Abyss

As Mary approaches the empty tomb, though, she is unaware of the possibilities of new creation, unaware that this day is the first day of the week, rather than the third day after Jesus’ death. Mary goes to Jesus’ grave expecting an abyss of despair and loss. Shocked by the removal of the stone, she runs back to get others to come and see. This time Simon Peter and the disciple that Jesus loved come running with her. The movements by these three characters appear to be restrained by an element of fear. The disciple who reaches the tomb first looks in to see but does not enter (20: 4–5). Peter, arriving second, enters the tomb and sees but does not yet believe (20: 6–7). Finally, the disciple who arrived first enters, sees and believes (20: 8). Upon seeing, believing and understanding the scripture, the disciples ‘returned to their homes’ (20: 9–10).

‘But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb’ (20: 11). So much seems to hang in tension suspended upon the conjunction ‘but’... The pace and movement of the proceeding section is quick: it involves running, looking, believing and returning home. But did the other disciples believe to quickly? Did they return home because they feared exploring the mystery of this event further? Did they miss out on being the first to encounter the risen Jesus because they were too eager and willing to find resolution and closure? Too quick to believe that they understood. Can one even pose these questions in the light of Jesus’s later words: ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’ (20: 29). I cannot say, but the narrative seems to suggest that as Mary lingered in the garden and wept, as she continued to wrestle with questions, refusing to find resolution or closure too quickly, she looked into the tomb for herself. There she saw not an empty tomb as the others had but two angels in white (20: 12). Richard Rohr (Things Hidden) observes that such experiences are a testimony ‘that the people who find God are usually people who are very serious about their quest and their questions, more so than being absolutely certain about their answers.’

Even the visitation and presence of these divine beings is not enough to stay Mary’s weeping or her determination to find Jesus. Her devotion is set upon Jesus alone, no other substitute will suffice. Yet she is still looking into an abyss restlessly, unprepared for the possibility of actually meeting Jesus in the garden. Finally Mary’s questioning leads her to Jesus, but not in the way that she was expecting (as is often the case). Knowing that Mary has found the source for which she was weeping, Jesus asks her ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’ (20: 15). This second question, as Carson (The Gospel According to John) suggests, must have lingered in Mary’s mind after the fact (just as it should in the mind of John’s reader), ‘as an invitation to reflect on the kind of Messiah she was expecting, and thus to widen her horizons’, so that she might come to meet the risen Christ in the face of the gardener – a task all the more provocative in a South African context. Embarrassingly, but not unfamiliar to South Africans, Mary, in her anxious pursuit of what has been lost, questions the supposed gardener, implicating him as the thief.

Unable to embarrass Mary any further, Jesus speaks, possibly with a hint of nervous laughter in his voice, ‘Mary!’ (20: 16). Now, at last, through her tears Mary encounters the truly human being in the garden, and is faced with the significance of God’s new creation. Significantly, it is in being named that she encounters the other as Jesus her Lord, that she is called into being once more. All of Mary’s searching and questioning is resolved in this living encounter. And as Martin Buber the Jewish Philosopher put it ‘All real living is meeting’. When there is encounter with the other, when there is mutuality, when there is presence, when there is giving and receiving, both are changed in the encounter (Rohr). Whatever the cause of her confusion, the single word ‘Mary’, spoken from the mouth of a friend, was enough to remove it. Mary’s anguish and despair at the tomb is instantly swallowed up and that very place is transformed instead into a meeting place. It is a movement from restless senses to a restful spirit.

Mary’s encounter rings true with Emmanuel Levinas’ claim that ‘we are not converted by ideas’ as were the other disciples, ‘but by the face of the other’ (Rohr). It is the presence of the risen Jesus, whether in the face of the gardener, in the knowledge of being known by name, or in the reciprocity of presence that we are converted to faith and hope.

A Threshold instead of a Dead End

Overwhelmed by the surprising presence of Jesus, Mary turns and clings to the one she knows as ‘Rabbouni! (which means Teacher)’ (20: 16). While this simple verse is brief in words, it is not short of human emotion. Mary’s mournful lingering at the face of the tomb – now put to rest in Jesus’ resurrection – was much more than self-absorbed depression. Why did Mary stay in the garden while the others returned home so quickly? Did Mary in some way sense that she had more to lose? Any such questioning is mere speculation on my part but I am grasped by the realisation that what is absent in the text inspires the imagination as much as what is present. For Mary and all other women who had so devotedly followed Jesus, his death surely signalled not only the death of their teacher but the death of his teaching. Jesus’ ministry and teaching had centred so profoundly around words and actions of hope, comfort and liberation for women – offering a counter voice to the socially defined patriarchal world of the first century – that his death could have only been received as the death of their own liberation; and the death of their prominent role in the community. This interpretation gains impetus in looking back to the women who waited with bated breath, ‘standing near the cross of Jesus’ as he took his last sprit-filled breath (John 19: 25–27). Mary Magdalene was there too, alongside many other women, watching a dream die along with its dreamer, a dead end to a journey just begun.

Seen in this light it is all the more understandable why Mary exclaims ‘Teacher’ and clings to Jesus, once again grabbing hold of a ‘dream deferred’ (Langston Hughes, Harlem). Yet Jesus responds, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”’ (20: 17). It is here that the encounter becomes transformational as Jesus calls Mary to a fearless vocation instead of a fearful clinging. Mary’s dream is not only reborn with Jesus’ resurrection but it is now to be in-fleshed. ‘The command not to touch is part of Mary’s commission to go tell what she has seen rather than stay clinging to Jesus’ (Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament). It is a new threshold in Mary’s life instead of a dead end. This is a time for dreams to be realised, for Mary to share the good news, not for clutching Jesus as if he were some jealously guarded private dream come true. Accepting this commission ‘Mary Magdalene becomes the first witness to the resurrection and the first bearer of the good news to the disciples’ (20: 18). Thus, in Mary, ‘women fully share and embody the mission of the community to confess and proclaim Jesus to the world’ (Hays).

Mary’s encounter with Jesus in the garden reveals the deeper mystery in all true encounters, ‘wherein the self-disclosure of one evokes a deeper life in the other … It is actually a transference and sharing of Being’ (Rohr). Jesus’ relationship with the Father is transferred through encounter, through presence, through mutuality, and through reciprocity, onto Mary and to the disciples through Mary’s message. Jesus’ teachings and his relationship to the Father are now to be lived in true humanness by all. For all who follow the living Christ the resurrection is a threshold instead of a dead end.

A New Task

The resurrection thus presents the followers of Jesus with new possibilities – that all of life and its many encounters might be a new creation instead of a grave, a meeting place instead of an abyss, and a threshold instead of a dead end. To live as ‘resurrection people’ is to live in the first days of God’s new creation rather than the ‘last days’. It is to be open to encountering the living presence of Jesus come to us in the most unsuspecting face of the gardener. It is the willingness to live in hope without resolution or closure, to be passionate about our quest and our questioning without always being certain of the answers. It is a calling to a fearless vocation instead of a fearful clinging. It is a dream deferred yet now in-fleshed. It is women fully embodying and living out the commission given to Mary, to go and tell other disciples that they ‘have seen the Lord’. To live as resurrection people is to live, and all real living is meeting; it is transference and sharing of being, it is mutuality, it is reciprocity, and it is transformational. So that we might be able to join together in God’s new creation and say face to face with the other, my Father and your Father, my God and your God.