One of things I love about being a priest are the strange, sometimes unsetting, often grace-filled encounters I have with people. It can happen when I’m wearing my collar, running errands before or after work. As an example, my church in South Carolina was very close to the Home Depot, and I often stopped there after work to buy supplies for a home project. Once, I was stopped by an employee in the parking lot who asked me if I would pray for him. We stopped right there, and after inquiring about what was troubling him, we shared a prayer I anointed him, and offered a blessing.
It can happen when I’m out of uniform. I’ll be in a restaurant or store, or even at a social gathering among people I don’t know, and get a quizzical look from someone. They recognize me, but they’re not sure how. I may half-recognize them, too. We might engage in conversation, introduce ourselves, and when I tell them I’m a priest, it clicks for them. They’ll remember where they’ve seen me before, how they know me.
The jolt of recognition can be a good or problematic thing. It opens up avenues for conversation and connection, but it can also be a burden—it’s hard to be anonymous, just one of the crowd. It’s impossible to hide.
Sometimes, being known and recognized is a comfortable thing. It makes us feel at home in the world and in a community. Sometimes it can be onerous and painful. It’s not just that we can’t escape the attention of those we know, it’s that they may know too much about us, remember stories from our past, things we’ve done or said that were embarrassing, mistakes we’ve made, pain we’ve caused.
There’s a powerful sentence in John’s gospel. It comes at a transitional moment, when the gospel writer begins to tell the story of the Last Supper. John writes in his introduction to that episode, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he (Jesus) loved them to the end.” The reference is to Jesus’ disciples, to his friends and companions who had walked with him through Galilee and accompanied him to Jerusalem. It’s a beautiful but somewhat ambiguous statement—to the end could mean, until the end of the story. It could also mean to its completion or perfection. In any case, it’s a remarkable statement of Jesus’ love for his friends and companions, and curiously, it’s the first time the gospel writer made that point, the first time we learn that Jesus loves his disciples.
He loved them to the end. That encompasses not just what happened in that episode, the last supper, when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and gave them the new commandment to love one another. It also included everything else he did, especially the gift of love he gave to them, to us, and to the world when he gave up his life for his friends.
And after his death and burial, one of his friends, one of his disciples, Mary Magdalene, came to the tomb. John doesn’t offer a reason for her coming—she didn’t bring spices and ointments to the tomb. It’s likely she came for another, deeply human reason, to mourn the death of her beloved friend, her teacher. To her surprise, she discovers the tomb is empty and runs back to tell the others that the tomb is empty, that Jesus’ body has been taken, a final indignity.
After sharing the news, Mary runs back to the tomb with two of the others, Peter and the Beloved Disciple. Typical men, they didn’t believe the word of a woman and when they had seen for themselves that the tomb was empty and Jesus’ body was missing, they went back to the place where they were staying.
But Mary didn’t. She stayed behind, at the tomb. She still needed to grieve, to weep at the death of her friend, and on top of that, she was now worried about the desecration of his body. She lingered there, weeping and decided to enter the tomb herself, to see for herself what was there. And at the tomb, this time, she encounters Christ.
But she doesn’t recognize him. She doesn’t know him. Instead of her beloved friend, she sees a gardener, someone who might be able to tell her where Jesus’ body is, who has taken it. It’s not that tears have clouded her vision, or that Jesus has been so changed by the events that he is unrecognizable to those who knew him. No, she doesn’t recognize him because she doesn’t expect him. Of all the possible events that might happen, neither Mary, nor any of the other disciples, could have imagined that Jesus Christ might have risen from the dead.
Jesus calls her Mary. When he names her, when he calls her by name, when she hears his voice, her vision becomes clear and she sees her Lord. When he calls her by name, she recognizes him and she experiences resurrection.
Only then, only when he speaks to her, only when he calls her by name, does she know who he is. Only then does she see him. Only then, does she know him. Her tears of mourning are transformed into tears of joy. She sees Jesus, she confesses him Lord. And she goes to share the joyous news with the others. She, Mary, is the first witness of the resurrection, the first to proclaim the good news, the first to believe. She is our mother in faith.
We think resurrection is about power and miracle, and so it is. But resurrection is also, perhaps primarily, about relationship—about one who loved his friends to the end, gave his life for them, and when he rose from the dead, brought them into new relationship and new life. Resurrection is about the one who knows us and calls us by name, and one he calls us, he fills our hearts, wipes away our tears, and makes us whole.
Like Mary, we may be weeping. Like the other disciples, we may be weak, uncertain, all too aware of our faults and shortcomings. There are places in our hearts and souls that we hate, portions of ourselves that we want to hide, from the world and from ourselves. The pain we feel, the pain we’ve caused.
Christ knows all that and loves us still. Christ knows us to the very core of our being, and yet he loves us to the end. Christ knows us and calls us by name. And when he calls us, when he names us, he invites us to experience a life of resurrection, new life, transformed by the power of the spirit.
When Christ calls us, when Christ names us, it is not only that we are restored and healed. When Christ names us, when Christ calls us, we enter into relationship with him—we are among his beloved, among those he loves to the very end. And yes, we are made new, but the miracle and wonder is that we bring all of ourselves with us, our weakness, our pain, our scars. We bring all of ourselves, our past and present. Just as the Risen Christ bore on his body the marks of his crucifixion, so too we bring with us, we carry with us, all the marks of our frail humanity.
No matter. No matter who we are or what we’ve done, Christ loves us. He calls us by name. When he calls us, when he names us, and by the way, he never stops calling, when he calls us, when he names us, when we hear his voice and see his face, like Mary Magdalene, we know him, we are filled with his love, we are loved to the end.
Alleluia. Christ is Risen.