By Paul de Vries, PhD, New York Divinity School
Do you realize how easy it is to get something wrong? God does, and he helps us in Scripture to perceive things we see and experience in a true light. The most elemental statement about the role of Scripture is Psalm 119:105, that the Word of God is a “lamp to our feet and a light to our path.”
It always matters how the light helps us see things. Scientists based near the South Pole have recently observed cosmic gravitational ripples that they say prove the Bing Bang happened. Let’s pray that the light of Scripture leads them in interpreting the meaning of what they see.
Let’s use the Resurrection of Jesus Christ – on one of the most light-filled days in history – as an example of how Scripture can shine light on our own realities.
On Resurrection Sunday morning, one who had an intensely memorable experience was Mary Magdalene, the first person to see the resurrected Jesus, and the first appointed messenger to let others know the Good News. But did you notice that first she got it wrong?
Why did she not recognize Jesus at first? What equipped Magdalene then, a moment later, to see who Jesus really is? How can what she learned help us train our senses now to be more aware of the living Jesus, present, greeting us now?
Sensory perception is always fascinating. With good training and self-discipline we see, hear, taste, touch and smell more accurately and with more meaning. Early in our childhood, for example, these words you are reading were just marks and spots. Now our trained eyes instantly see whole sentences with meaning. Advanced perceptual maturity and acuity depend on multiple personal factors—such as Barnabas’ mature ability to “see the grace of God” [Acts 11:23 ESV]. We can learn much from Magdalene’s example. What profoundly helps us on our own learning curve is that Magdalene remarkably failed to recognize the resurrected Jesus at first. Then, a very short time later, she became the prime witness—personally assigned by Jesus to inform the Apostles and others.
Two important and timely questions then loom over this riveting story:
- Why did Magdalene fail to recognize the resurrected Jesus at first?
- Why did Magdalene then quickly recognize the resurrected Jesus, only to be appointed by him to announce to the Apostles and to others his victory over death?
Magdalene’s failure is extraordinarily instructive for us. The Bible text itself—especially in John 20:11-18—suggests four reasons for her failure in recognizing the living Jesus—even though Jesus is standing right in front of her and speaking with her, and even though she is thinking only about Jesus at the time. Curiously, any one of these four Biblical “reasons” could be “reason enough” for missing the obvious presence of Jesus. Since each of these reasons relate to a different aspect of Magdalene’s person, personal aspects that we all share with her, all four reasons relate to us now, and to our own frequent failures in recognizing the Lord Jesus’ presence or voice in our personal time and place.
HEART: Magdalene’s heart is focused on finding and retrieving Jesus’ corpse, not looking for the healthy looking man now talking with her. She had just looked into the cave-tomb and saw that Jesus’ corpse was gone—the very corpse that she had watched Arimathea and Nicodemus lovingly place in the tomb on Friday evening. Since it is now gone, Magdalene reasonably assumed that someone had moved Jesus’ corpse. So focused on retrieving his corpse, she asks the first “stranger” she sees near the tomb, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” She is going to pick him up and carry him! How strong is this woman? A wonderful measure of Magdalene’s heart’s focus is that she is so pumped that she imagines, by herself, picking up Jesus’ corpse and personally carrying it back to the tomb, or heroically hauling it somewhere else. Such commitment! Such heart focus! Since nothing mattered at that moment but honoring Jesus by caring for his corpse, she is momentarily blind to the resurrected Jesus right in front of her, talking with her.
Can this kind of heart-induced blindness happen to us, too, so that we miss his obvious presence or voice? Can our hearts be so exclusively focused on the old stories of Jesus—and maybe some old testimonies of our own—that we are ironically blind and deaf to Jesus’ vibrant presence now? Can even great Christian traditions and wonderful denominational distinctives divert our attention from the active and living ministry of the resurrected Jesus around us?
BODY: The report begins with a double reference to Magdalene weeping: “Mary stood outside the tomb crying, and as she wept she bent over to look into the tomb.” Intense sadness had gripped her body. She had been one of the few of Jesus’ followers who had witnessed his death, and now she is even more deeply saddened, believing that someone has desecrated Jesus’ corpse, too. Her eyes so full of tears were not able to see clearly. Tear droplets cause light to refract, so that even near-by familiar faces look “wavy.” In addition, deep sadness and anger gum-up even the simplest adult perceptual and thinking processes. With her eyes flowing with tears and waves of extreme emotions wracking her body, Magdalene is not seeing or hearing clearly.
Does this kind emotion and body-induced blindness distort our perception of Jesus’ presence, even as he is with us now? Certainly, our sense of guilt distorts our seeing, hearing and thinking. We judge ourselves and often unnecessarily complicate our clear perceptions of his grace. We fear his just judgment, and often ignore his abundant kindness and forgiveness, even while he speaks amazing grace to us!
SPIRIT: Magdalene’s spirit had just been seriously “distracted,” in a brief conversation with two angels in the empty tomb—both sitting where Jesus’ corpse had lain in the tomb, one where his head and one where his feet had been. Tremendous as the angelic conversation was, Magdalene is not focusing on the immediate situation where Jesus himself is speaking with her.
Does this kind of distraction-induced blindness distort our perception of Jesus’ presence, even as he is with us now? Certainly, each of our lives is complicated—with a huge variety of numerous distractions and distresses—so that a fruitful, vibrant focus on the Lord himself and what he is doing around us can be a huge challenge.
MIND: In Mark 16:12 we read that Jesus looked different after the resurrection—as you would expect! After all, he had just been through extreme Roman torture, a violent and painful death, and then some cosmic spiritual warfare – all between Friday morning and Sunday morning. Now Jesus is also experiencing the ultimate joy that his redemptive work is complete. Such recent pain, giant completed accomplishment, and ultimate joy would perhaps all show on Jesus’ revealing face. He certainly looked different. For those who were not thinking of hope and change, perhaps he was an initial challenge to recognize.
Does this kind mind-induced blindness distort our perception of Jesus’ presence or voice, even when he is with us now? Certainly our preconceptions of Jesus’ appearance can easily mislead us. On a simple level, too many attempted “portraits” of Jesus represent him as a European—which he certainly was not—and fail to represent how muscular he was, having worked for years in a carpenter shop without power tools. On a deeper level, Jesus himself revealed that he will often appear to us as “the least” brother or sister. Can you visualize all that this claim means?
Powerfully, all Jesus had to do was to say her name, and Magdalene’s senses “awakened” to see and hear Jesus’ resurrected presence and voice. Nothing else changed—but now everything had changed! What had seemed to end in terrible, unspeakable tragedy on Friday evening is now the beginning of the extraordinary, redemptive, grace-filled ministry of Jesus, his followers, and his church. Why is Mary Magdalene the first to see what had happened? Why is she given the awesome role of announcing the Good News to the Apostles and to others? As there were four reasons for Magdalene momentary blindness and deafness, there are also four reasons for her magnificent restored recognition of Jesus’ presence and voice. And they are the same four reasons—because the amazing grace of God can and does redeem everything. These are also the same four active resources for our own visual and auditory “awakenings,” to see and hear the resurrected Jesus now.
HEART: Whatever else is going on, Magdalene’s own heart is deeply focused upon Jesus. She is super-focused on finding and retrieving Jesus’ corpse only because she is even far more super-focused in her commitment to Jesus, her awesome Savior and Lord. In our own time, it has become far too easy for believers to focus on retrieving the lost greatness of some past era, and miss the voice and presence of the resurrected Jesus now, leading forward. Can our wondering hearts be reawakened to their primary love of Jesus now?
BODY: Magdalene’s body is racked with unfathomable sadness. Tragically, here at the empty grave she wept alone after others, even Peter and John, had “returned to their houses.” What were they going to do at home? Why did they leave her by herself? Alone, why did she then stay? Magdalene knew very personally and physically that Jesus, her Savior, heals all hurts. And she who was most honest in her hurt is the first to receive the amazing grace of Good News that heals. In our own time, it is still often through physical anguish that we can become the most open to seeing Jesus and listening to his voice. God still often utilizes either grief or sickness—or both—to awaken our senses. Can our bodies also be reawakened to Jesus vibrant presence and voice now?
SPIRIT: Magdalene’s attention is distracted by her conversation with two angels—as our attention would be, too, of course. And there is nothing wrong with giving our attention to a precious, elevated experience. For Magdalene it was a momentary disruption, as it should be for us. How easily we can be distracted even by an especially exciting, joyful, meaningful “worship experience,” but fail to take the next step and experience the living Lord, himself, leading us forward? In another situation, can we be so bursting with honest thanksgiving to God for a wonderful success, an exciting opportunity, a great moment—only then to miss completely the precious personal encounter with the resurrected Jesus that could us to another level? Can our spirits be refocused now to our living Lord and Savior, to see his presence and obey his voice?
MIND: Magdalene may have been a little slow in recognizing the risen Lord because of his “new look,” now the total victor over sin and death, now the eternal living Lamb that had been slain. However, Magdalene also understood quite a bit about change, having already been personally transformed by Jesus Christ’s amazing grace. And she also knew how superficial mere appearance can be. Since our “portraits” of Jesus are mostly wrong, and our stubborn “presuppositions” are equally mistaken, we especially need open minds, continually guided by the eternal light of Scripture and the true witness of the Spirit—as we seek him anywhere and everywhere, especially among the least of the brothers and sisters. And we shall see him. And hear him. Are we ready to open our minds?
THE POINT: Mary Magdalene’s famous failure and her supreme success are both instructive for each of us—in heart, body, spirit, and mind. Let us attentively hang out where we last saw and heard the Lord—and also in new places—so we can see and hear him again. After all, he has famously said, “Behold! I am with you every day until the end of this age!” [Matthew 28:20 (ESV)]
Paul de Vries, PhD (pauldevries.com), is the president of New York Divinity School, and a pastor, author, and speaker. He is a specialist in Biblical hermeneutics and ethics and a life-long advocate for Biblical Activism. You may contact Rev. Dr. Paul de Vries at DrPaul@nydivinityschool.org