Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Easter Day Year C

Easter Day Year C
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Acts 10:34-43 (see also First Sunday after the Epiphany A); OR Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2,14-24; I Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:1-18 (see also Easter Day A) OR Luke24:1-12 (see The Great Vigil C)

In his Acts of the Apostles, Luke uses the occasion when Paul witnesses to an officer in the Roman army, named Cornelius, to provide a concise summary of the church's proclamation.  Essential themes are made: this message is addressed to all; "Jesus is the Lord of all;"  his story begins in Galilee, where he was given power by the Holy spirit; he traveled ceaselessly to tell and to perform God's transformational  acts; he was executed "by hanging on a tree;" "but God raised him on the third day;"  we are witnesses to all he did before and after the resurrection; "he commanded us to preach and to testify."


The mighty Book of Isaiah reaches its thematic and emotional climax with bold promises of "new heavens and a new earth"-- a fresh start for all creation.  The second promise is for a restored, happy, safe, prosperous Jerusalem, which in the past has been the site of many tragedies and much sorrow.  The final promise is made in the form of a striking image:  "the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent [that reminder of our falling away from God's design for us] -- its food shall be dust!  They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain."  

Paul's first letter to God's people in Corinth bluntly addresses reports of their slipping away from the core of the gospel in content and practice.  In this excerpt, he writes two crucial reminders.  First, the resurrection of Christ permeates every aspect of the gospel, gives Christians reasonable hope and guarantees the resurrection of all in Christ in due course, following his "first fruits."  Secondly, because death came through a human being, Adam, so now resurrection comes through another, Jesus Christ, who now reigns over "all his enemies;" "the last enemy is death."

John's gospel provides portraits in clear colors and delicate details of those who discovered the empty tombIn this excerpt, he paints a triptych-- Peter, "the beloved disciple," and, in the centerpiece, Mary Magdalene.  The woman "who had stood by the cross" (19:25) with the mother of Jesus, (and is also the woman most mentioned collectively in all four gospels!) another Mary and the beloved disciple goes alone to the tomb of Jesus early in the morning "of the first day of the week."  She discovers the stone has been rolled away from the tomb and returns to tell Peter and the beloved disciple.  The two men rush to the tomb.  The beloved disciple reaches first, but defers to Peter who looks in and sees the discarded burial clothing.  The two men return home, but Mary Magdalene stays behind, weeping at the tomb.  She peers back inside and this time sees "two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been laying, one at the head and the other at the feet."  They ask her why she is weeping.  She is in despair because "they have taken my Lord," she has no idea where.  Someone comes up behind her, whom she assumes is the groundskeeper.  He also asks her why she is weeping.  She only wants to know if perhaps he has taken the body.  The man speaks her name and she instantly recognizes Jesus, addressing him "Rabbouni! (which means Teacher)"  Jesus instructs her not to touch him for he has not yet ascended and to go and tell the disciples, "I have seen the Lord."  Mary Magdalene is the sole and first person to see the Risen Lord in John's narrative and to relay the news to others. 

In his sweetly provocative essay Noli me tangere!: On the Raising of the Body, Jean-Luc Nancy considers in considerable detail the encounter in John's narrative between Mary Magdalene and the Risen Christ.  He notes that every major artist in Western art has been captivated by this incident.  Many are reproduced in his text and he adds a list of more than fifty of the most notable at the end.  Now he adds his interpretation of this episode unique to John's narrative.

Jesus' deflecting Mary Magdalene's impulse to touch/embrace him represents the reality that, although fully human in Jesus, ultimately God escapes our grasp.  It will be the absence of the earthly Jesus that will make possible the "glory" of the Risen Christ:  "he is withdrawing into the dimension from which alone comes glory, that is the brilliance of more than presence, the radiance of what is in excess of the given, the available, the disposed." (p.17)  Only after looking into the tomb, staring down death, confronting the abyss, is Mary Magdalene-- and by extension are we-- open to what Nancy calls a new "stance" toward death.  "This 'stance' is literally anastasis or 'resurrection,' that is, the raising or upraising (insurrection' is also a possible meaning of the Greek term).  Neither regeneration, reanimation, aplingenesis, rebirth, revivification, nor reincarnation: but the uprising, the raising or the lifting as a verticality perpendicular to the horizonality of the tomb-- not leaving it, not reducing it to nothingness but affirming in it the stance...." (p.18)   The final insight from Nancy's essay for our consideration here is that the removal of the body of Jesus from the earthly plane of John's narrative turns the action over to those who still have bodies, beginning with Mary Magdalene.  "A spirit can do nothing of the sort.  A 'pure spirit' gives only a formal, empty index of presence entirely closed in on itself.  A body opens this presence; it presents it; it puts presence outside of itself; it moves presence away from itself, and, by that very fact, it brings others along with it: Mary Magdalene thus becomes the true body of the departed." (p.48)

A few brilliant flashes of radiance that  is "in excess of the given" illuminate the mundane of human existence (even including death)-- that is the method of the gospels.  These rare but reorienting flashes do not belittle the mundane, just the opposite, they hint at a "glory" that puts all that is human, even death, in a new light.  And they entrust this vital news to other human beings, in John's case to Mary Magdalene.  Something more concrete/corporeal/overwhelming escapes our grasp.  All we really have is one woman's claim: "I have seen the Lord."  Is she telling a truth?  And does this truth illuminate all the rest of life?

In the prologue to his essay, Jean-Luc Nancy establishes "There is no 'message' without there first being-- or, more subtly, without there also being in the message itself-- an address to a capacity or an aptitude for listening.  It is not an exhortation (of the kind 'Pay attention !  Listen to me').  It is a warning: if you do not understand, do not look for the reason in an obscurity of the text but only within yourself, in the obscurity of your heart." (p.9)