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Let me begin by naming the elephant in the room. I don’t want to get distracted by this and I certainly don’t want to spend all day on it but it has to be said. It’s like the question that comes up at Christmas about the virgin birth. At Easter the stakes are higher and I dare say our lines in the sand much deeper. The Easter elephant is of course: was there a bodily resurrection?
I have my opinion on it, though I admit the older I get the more open I am to being convinced otherwise. A bodily resurrection might be a requirement for you or maybe you are sure it is completely impossible. It’s a fascinating conversation and one I will gladly have, but not today. Let’s each find our place on the resurrection spectrum and get on with the much more interesting bits of the story.
Have you ever noticed that there were no witnesses to the resurrection? Doesn’t matter whose version of events you’re reading, everybody misses what went down in the tomb that morning. All we have are incomplete, messy and deeply personal accounts of what happened after the fact. Theologian Frederick Buechner once said of the biblical characters on Easter morning “They are not trying to describe it as convincingly as they can. They are trying to describe it as truthfully as they can.” And the truth is, we’re still trying to figure it out!
After the disciples have run away, Mary is left at the empty tomb weeping in front of the angels. She turns around and sees the gardener. He asks her “why are you crying?” She explains about Jesus and how she just needs to get the body back. It isn’t until the supposed gardener calls her by name that she knows it’s Jesus. “Teacher!” she bellows.
This is the moment when, if I were directing this drama, I would cue the music to crescendo, insert one of those slow motion running embraces. I’d have Mary nearly knock Jesus off his feet; it would be visceral. But that’s not how it plays out. Mary doesn’t had a chance to extend her arms when Jesus says “Stop: don’t touch me, go tell the others!” I would have been crushed. These two were tight; we’re talking the inner ring of the inner circle.
Why would he push her away? The text has Jesus making a remark about the fact that he has not ascended to their Father yet. Apparently the way it’s been translated in English, the phrasing is a bit off. The comment about not ascending is intended as a statement of fact that she is to tell the others, not a reason to push off the embrace.
All the more reason that it seems so out of character for Jesus to push her away. He always had time for people, especially the weeping and broken ones. The only way I can make sense of it is to consider how urgently he wanted her to get on with the work of turning the world upside down. Had she embraced Jesus that day I suspect it would have brought her back, back to how things used to be and Jesus needed her to go forward. It was a call to be present to the moment, not dismissing the past but being present to the now.
There is a Nobel prize winning psychologist named Daniel Kahneman. He makes a distinction between memory and experience. Experience is what we are having right now; this moment is our experience. Moments, according to the people who study this stuff, last about three seconds. We have some 28,000 moments every single day. Most of them, however, are completely lost because it is our remembering self that maintains the story of our life. The remembering self immediately takes a moment and tells the story of it.
Imagine, for example, that you have just spent the afternoon strolling the seawall in the sunshine, enjoying the sights and sounds of the city and having a deliciously good time. Ten minutes out from home the skies open up and you are completely drenched to the bone by a typhoon-like spring rain. Your remembering self will tell the story of that day in an unfavourable way. It won’t matter than ninety five percent of the experience was entirely pleasurable.
Kahneman explains that even when we think about our future we tend to think about anticipated memories. He calls this the tyranny of the remembering self. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at a school concert only to see most of the parents sitting behind their phone screens, so focused on creating memories that they don’t actually experience the concert.
Perhaps Mary was at risk of telling herself that those times with Jesus, when they were healing the broken and feeding the hungry and calling out the tyranny of the Roman empire were the good old days, the stuff memories are made of. Or maybe he hunched that since endings are so very important in the memories we make, she might focus on the events of Good Friday and determine that the past three years were for nothing. Maybe he knew that one way or another the memories were not going to advance what he had come to do.
Jesus’ life was always about the moment, three seconds at a time. If the moment presented him with a person in need of healing, he healed; one in need of food, be fed; one in need of knowing that there was room even for them at the table, he challenged the rules that kept the table closed.
I wonder if resurrection can teach us to stay with the experience? Even Easter can’t take us back to what was. Resurrection can’t restore a perfect memory any more than it can put all the of the broken pieces back together. It doesn’t replicate what promised to be a perfect future. Resurrection is actually far more powerful than that. It opens the way for something new, something that just yesterday couldn’t even have been dreamed of. It opens a way where there was no way. It turns crosses into empty tombs. Maybe resurrection is not about bringing us back to life so much as it is about opening us to live life, here and now.
At the end of the day resurrection, life from death, life in a world where we have long settled for oppression and persecution and critique, resurrection can only be lived one moment at a time. Today more than any other seeks to teach us about abundant life. When I say abundant life I don’t mean more fine meals and nice cars. I am talking about what Jesus named the kingdom of God, a world order where no one is left behind, where love and justice are the core values underlying all actions, where we are not satisfied until all are satisfied.
If we relegate Easter to a memory that happened in some beautiful and mysterious way 2000 years ago we will miss the call to go and tell the others, go and tell the others right now in this moment that we don’t have to settle. We don’t have to settle for children going hungry, for strangers being turned away because they pray differently; we don’t have to settle for rhetoric of hate and a victimizing those who are different. We don’t have to settle for nothing can be done and it’s always been this way.
Maybe this Easter we could take life three seconds at a time and go and tell the others that the impossible has just become possible.