Pay attention!

Homily for Sunday, April 1, 2018
Easter Day
John 20:1–18

empty_tomb-Saint_James_the_Greater_Catholic_Church_(Concord,_North_Carolina)Long before John crafted his resurrection story—an 18 verse masterpiece that includes an empty tomb, a missing body, a foot race, angelic messengers, a woman weeping, a case of mistaken identity and a joyful reunion—the Holy Trinity was wondering how to best script and cast the resurrection story.

In their discussions, the Trinity readily settled on things such as the time and place—What better time than at the Passover, the great Jewish festival to which Easter has so many connections?  And what better place than Jerusalem, the center of the Hebrew universe and home to its Temple?  And they quickly settled on some of the details: disciples arriving at the tomb early, the stone already rolled away, the appearance of angels, and the news beginning to spread.  On these, the Trinity readily agreed.

But they disagreed about whom the risen Jesus should appear to first.  One of the Trinity suggested Peter:  “Peter is the ‘cornerstone’ of the Church.  Whom better to appear to first than the one on whom we build the Church?”  “But remember Peter’s denial,” came the pushback.  “We’d have to really massage that first meeting.”  “What about the Beloved Disciple?” suggested another.  “But he already ‘believed,’” said the others.  “Might there be somebody for whom it would be more of a surprise?”  They considered, too, the mother of Jesus—Whom better for Jesus to appear to first than his own mother?  “People would eat that up!” said one.  “Jesus and his mother reuniting in a tear-filled embrace.”  “But I’m not sure how well people could relate to her,” came the reply, “She’s a little too… holy.”  “We’re looking for somebody—a resurrection ‘poster-child,’ as it were—to whom people can relate and whose reaction would make for a great story line.”

The Trinity batted names around for a bit:  “Thomas?”  “Not seeing it.”  “James and John?”  “Again, too holy.”  “Perhaps another one of the other twelve?”  “The twelve might be perceived as being too close, too invested, and then we might have credibility issues.”  The three sat in silence for some time until finally the Father spoke up: “Look, what we’re trying to do is help people understand that resurrection is both extraordinary, a once-in-the-life-of-the-universe-event—and… at the same time, resurrection can happen to them.”  “I think what we’re looking for is not just someone to whom people can relate, not just someone who has credibility, but someone who has the ability to pay attention and the capacity to be surprised.  They have to be somebody who can pay attention, to notice how we are always acting in the circumstances of their everyday life.  And they need to have the capacity to be surprised, because we don’t always act in ways they expect.”  The Trinity quickly moved to consider the women who followed Jesus.  “They were curious but not too close,” said one, “just our target audience.”  “And women,” said a third, “we made them in such a way that they notice everything; they do pay attention.”  “But who in particular?” they wondered.  Racking their brains for one woman among the many who followed Jesus, they had a eureka moment: “Mary Magdalene!” they said.  “She had seven demons; she’s certainly not too holy to relate to.”  “Yes, and we cast them out; she knows what resurrection is like.”  “And being close Jesus but not too close, she would be surprised!”  And thus it was decided.

Schongauer-Noli me tangere alt

Noli me tangere, by Schongauer

This morning’s gospel tells the story of how Mary Magdalene became that “poster child” for resurrection, “the apostle to the apostles.”  She paid attention.  Paying attention to Jewish custom, she came to embalm Jesus’ body.  Paying attention to how bodies decompose, she came early to embalm before the heat of the day.  Paying attention to her safety, she came while it was yet dark, to escape scrutiny.  Paying attention to her surroundings, she noticed even in the dark that the stone had been rolled away and that Jesus’ body was missing.  Paying attention to her community of faith, the first thing she did was to run tell the disciples.  Paying attention to what was going on inside of her, to her emotions, she lingered at the tomb, weeping.  And then, Mary was surprised.  She was surprised by two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying.  She was surprised by one whom she supposed to be the gardener.  She was surprised when the “gardener” spoke her name:  “Mary!”  She was surprised to see that the gardener was in fact her teacher—“Rabbouni!” she said.  She was so surprised to see him alive that she wanted to hold him, but he said, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”  In her surprise she went immediately and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”  Because Mary Magdalene paid attention, and because Mary had the capacity to be surprised, she experienced the risen Christ.

There is a poem about paying attention and being surprised.  Because it is by Emily Dickinson, the poem has no title.  But it might well have been called, “What was Going On for Mary Magdalene on Easter Sunday Morning.”  Here it is:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Not all at once, but after an empty tomb, a foot race, angels, weeping and a case of mistaken identity—after all these, Mary experienced Truth.  Coming into truth—what we know to be true, deep-down—can only happen gradually over time, because were it to happen all at once, “too bright for our infirm Delight” would be “the Truth’s superb surprise.”  Because God knows we can’t take Truth in all at once, God is patient, ever so gently, over the course of years, “slant”-wise and “in Circuit” calling us, reaching out, inviting us, to know the Truth that is within each and every one of our hearts.

Christ's tombFor years, the Trinity has been crafting our resurrection story, that story of our being invited to know truth.  Often—like the resurrection story—our story begins in the dark, unseen and unnoticed.  Often—like the resurrection story—our story involves emptiness and a sense of something missing. Like the resurrection story, our story may involve grief, our story may involve mistaken identity, our story may involve surprise.  And it may involve hearing a voice that is at once new and yet strangely familiar, from one whom we realize knows us more intimately than we know ourselves.  Like the resurrection story was for Mary, the revelation of this Truth to us is life-changing.

I can’t tell you— I couldn’t tell you—what that Truth is.  You will have to experience it for yourself.  All I can do is to invite you to pay attention.  Pay attention to what you hear here this morning.  Pay attention to what you see.  Pay attention to what is going on inside you as you pray, listen, watch, sing, and eat and drink.  Because if we pay attention, and if we are open to being surprised, there is a Truth that is superb waiting to surprise us.  A truth that dazzles and delights.  A truth that we cannot take in all at once but is best approached “slant” and “in Circuit.”  A truth that is about…  Well, I’m not going to say… [tapping my heart]  Pay attention!

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