It was Good Friday a few years back at a California diner, when waitress Karen Hendrickson was delivering a stack of pancakes, looked down and was amazed to see the face of Jesus looking back, the features appearing in the shades of the griddle marks on the top pancake of the shortstack. As she describes it, “he’s got a mustache and a beard and what looks like a receding hairline,” which to her is apparently “strikingly similar” to the face of Jesus. Today, she keeps the pancake in the freezer, right on the same plate. Not everyone sees what she does, but Hendrickson says if you stop for a moment, if the light hits it just right, if you let your eyes adjust, you can see him.
It’s similar to what Alex Cotton saw just a few years back, right around Easter. She and a few friends were about to eat dinner, when one friend glanced across the living room and said, “There’s Jesus on the drainpipe.” They all crouched down to look at the pipe, where Cotton could see a crown and a beard in the rust marks. She was so convinced she tried to invite the Pope to come verify. Of course, not everyone sees it like she does, she admits “Some people think it looks like Abraham Lincoln.” But to her, if you crouch, sort of turn your head to the side, he shows up.
Such claimed appearances seem to happen somewhat regularly, especially around our holy days when eyes are searching. It’s a phenomenon known as “miraculous imaging.” It’s examined in the 2007 book, Madonna of the Toast – a title referencing a likeness of mother Mary thought to appear on a grilled cheese sandwich in 2004, before being sold at auction for $28,000.
Hardly a new phenomenon, it’s as old as the Shroud of Turin – a centuries old linen cloth that seems to bear the image of a crucified man. It’s probably the single most studied and scrutinized artifact in human history, as still some see it and some don’t. Is it really him?
However outlandish it may seem to us, today, here, it’s a phenomenon founded on a deep fascination and a still deeper need: to see for ourselves.
It’s what started it all. Easter begins with Mary of Magdala, early on the first day of the week. The morning light is just beginning to break through the trees, as her eyes adjust, and she turns her head to the side, and there he is. And Easter begins for all the rest of us down through history when Mary runs from that garden with those jolting, jarring, impossibly earth-shaking words of testimony: “I have seen the Lord.”
As the passage begins, it’s the last thing she expects to see. She’s lived through the agony of Friday, the dull silence of Saturday, and early on Sunday she comes – just to see to the body, you understand. Perhaps she planned to clean his face or comb through his hair, expecting to see only the confirmation of death. Maybe she’d see someone to help roll the stone away. Perhaps she’d see a guard, maybe a gardener, but nothing else, no one else.
John accentuates this limited vision by reminding us “it was still dark.” In this gospel of symbolic settings where faith occurs in the light of day, darkness suggests the shadows of our knowing and the limits of our belief. In the dark, it’s hard to see. You can imagine only a candle guiding her steps that strike the path slowly with that rhythm of grief. Her light flickers against the early morning as she tiptoes carefully, holding her breath like an acolyte of this first Easter vigil, knowing with any step the flame could go out.
We know this time. When light flickers. When death is all the world can see.
I wrote some of this sermon by candlelight, in fact – well, that and computer light, but next to me a candle was lit as a flickering prayer for the mother of a dear friend, who but a month ago was visiting amidst the glee of a grandchild’s birthday, when a fainting episode revealed much more: a grim diagnosis, “advanced, stage 4.” And then early this week there was an urgent move to the hospital as they consider next steps, every one of which is fragile and breathless. “Mom loves candles” we learned, so we’ve been invited to send a candle, and light a candle ourselves. So I wrote words about resurrection next to the flickering flame – a reminder in my peripheral vision that Easter happens now as it happened then: when it is still dark and there is no Messiah risen for us to see. It happens now for those for whom it happened then: for grieving disciples, whose number includes my friend, his mother, father and family, and how many more of us.
The great Baptist preacher and character, Carlyle Marney, was an esteemed philosopher and lecturer and was once guest lecturing at a Christian college when he was asked by a polished religion student to explain the resurrection, to which Marney said, “I will discuss resurrection only if you discuss with me how you are a person who has known honest-to-God failure, heartache, impotency, solid defeat, brick walls of mortality… only if you’ve lived more than 30 miles from home, been more than 20 minutes into the New Testament, or come within close range of the issues that matter to the kingdom. In other words, I only speak of resurrection with people who know something of a world that makes sense only if Christ is raised.” (1)
Resurrection is for those who sit near loved ones, or disciples who walk the dark paths of mourning, or those who grieve for violence and injustice, or those lost to abuse and the brokenness of our world, or those who have cried with Jesus at the center of his suffering “My God, why?”
At the start, that’s all they could see, confirmed in the question that comes to Mary in the early morning haze: “Whom are you looking for?”
It’s one of those beautiful moments in John when the literal, the theological, the existential all meet in this key question for this gospel. It recalls the very first question posed to the disciples in John, when Jesus approaches them and asks: “What are you looking for?” The question comes again to the soldiers in the arrest scene, when Jesus emerges from the garden and says, “Whom are you looking for?”
And there was a time when Mary’s answer – our answer – the answer of all the disciples was so clear. They had hoped for Messiah, the one who would bring more and more of God’s kingdom come and God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven.
But not any more. The death of Jesus brought an abrupt end to these growing hopes. It was a death of the fragile notion that love is stronger than fear, that it is better to give than to receive, that peacemakers are blessed and little ones are signs of the kingdom, that the cast out are welcome in God’s hospitality, that the broken are whole in God’s sight, that your life is found when you are actually giving it away. All of that died, too, rolled behind the Roman stone so the world could continue as it was, and the sensible people give up the naïve notion that anything can change.
“Whom are you looking for?” came the voice from behind. The truth is, at one time Mary was looking for a Savior. But now, she’s merely looking for a body – a corpse of a past dream.She’s come to make sure he’s sealed and safe, to begin in those early hours to adjust to life without him, to accommodate herself to death and defeat, which were all she expected to see.
And then…and then…one of the most beautiful moments in all of the gospels and the moment when Easter dawns for Mary. Jesus calls her name. The voice at once familiar and compelling, the inflection known, the scene so personal and poignant. “Mary.”
At first he looked to be but a gardener to her, but then the light crept through the trees and hit him just so. Then her eyes adjusted. And then that gardener knew her name, “Mary,” and she saw that striking similarity, and she sort of turned her head, and there he was: “My Lord, and my God.”
As John tells it, at that moment Mary “turns.” And with that motion the literal, the theological, the existential meet again, for when Jesus calls her name it is a turning point not only for Mary but in all our stories. She is turning for all of us.
For in turning, she sees the one we come to see for ourselves, not in empty tombs and not in an earthquake or otherworldy display, but as Mary sees him: in the natural light, in common places, unassuming people, mundane settings.
He comes to us in the places like a garden, or times when we’re breaking bread, walking familiar roads, or casting our nets into the sea.
He comes as he said he would, when he told of the kingdom we encounter in things like kneading dough, and planting seeds, in every act of kindness we give to another, in those moments when we share our lives with another, those times when we are vulnerable and open to one another, when the stranger no longer feels strange.
He comes to us like a gardener – familiar, understated, easy to overlook.
So when Mary sees, he tells her to run with the news and tell the others. Give testimony. Give color and life to this vision. Because he must have known in the absence of vivid, animated, bold pictures of who he is, people will start seeing him anywhere. In pancakes or drainpipes. They’ll see him in Abraham Lincoln or any number of figures, however heroic and inspirational, who still have not been raised. They’ll see him in places that can never approximate the full elegance of his life and his kingdom.
And he knows that the evidence that he has risen is in her. The evidence is in those that see and how it changes them, how they listen to his command to make him known to this world, how they resist the urge to settle down and remain in place. For even as Mary starts to worship him, the risen Christ says directly, “Mary, don’t hold on to me.” She was trying to grasp. She was tempted to ask him to remain there, in that place of such assurance, just as so many times in my life I have wanted to hold on. I have wanted Jesus to stand still and be a Christ that I can hold on to, not so elusive, and constantly compelling me forward, “Don’t hold onto me.” I‘ve wanted him to remain in that safe and secure place, near to me, loving what I love and hating what I hate, and he says again “Don’t hold onto me.” If our Jesus stays in one place and fits all of our expectations, then we can be sure it is not the Jesus that left behind an empty tomb, and not the one that appeared in the early morning light. The risen Christ says, “Don’t hold on to me, Mary… I need you to go, and to tell.” For we don’t discover Jesus by sitting outside the tomb as the early morning light rises. We see Jesus by doing what he tells us to do and by being what he asks us to be.
It’s as Father Basil Pennington, a Trappist monk, was once told by a teacher of Zen as part of a retreat. Rocking back and forth with glee, the teacher said, “I like Christianity. But I would not like Christianity without the Resurrection. So I want to see the Resurrection in you. You are risen with Christ. Show me!” (2)
One of the people in my life who has shown me the risen Christ was the first person to ever walk the aisle after one of my sermons, giving testimony to his faith. My friend James* was the first new member of my first pastorate at Metro Baptist Church off 40thst in New York. It was a short aisle, but a long walk for James. James was a gay man, and he was living with AIDS, and that had made him twice the outsider at many a church. His illness had further led to him being undermined and pushed out of a successful career as a DC attorney, so he had moved to New York with big pieces of his life broken, unbeknownst to most beneath a polished and confident exterior. But his brokenness became known to us a few months later, as James attempted to take his own life. The people of the church surrounded him in recovery, candles flickering, prayers comforting, promises of friendship reassuring. When his extended hospital stay ended, he invited me to meet him and a friend as he returned home. As we toasted his homecoming, he told me how during his admittance in the mental health ward, he had met a young man who was also suicidal. When James checked out, he had said to his new friend, “Look, I don’t think you exchange numbers in a place like this. But I want you to know that if you ever need me, you can go to 40thand 9th. There’s a church there. And you can ring the bell, and someone’s always there. Ask about me…” And then he said the words that have defined “church” for me ever since: “They’ll know where to find me.” He wept these words in the middle of his apartment as he told me what it had meant to know he was found.
It became an Easter morning for him – the starting point of what he understands today as a resurrection in his life. James went from that personal garden of grief and began to tell others. He went on to be a leader in our church, Chair of our Board, trusted confidant and first phone call for me through many a decision, and servant to the community he still loves so. And while that young man from St. Vincent’s hospital never visited 40thand 9th and rang the church buzzer, others did – like the aging member in failing health, whom James drove to every appointment, a constant companion until her death; or the homeless woman whom he helped to maximize the assistance available to her in a move toward health and wholeness and recovery; or the immigrant, John, whose application for citizenship was at risk. He came to church one day, desperate, fearing what would happen to him and to his family if he was sent away from the Unite States. Admittedly, I didn’t expect there was much that could be done, and even more I knew that I didn’t know what to do. But I knew James would understand the legal complexities of the process, so in part to delegate and in part just to clear my mind, I asked him to look into it. I was copied on a few early emails, and it didn’t look good from what we could see. Last I heard, 5 years ago, John would probably be deported when his case came back up. It was very sad, but there was nothing more to do, or so I told myself. And then a couple weeks ago, an email was forwarded to me. The message from James: “I’m in tears,” and below the forwarded email from John – Subject: “I got my citizenship.” Message: “I want to thank you for caring, James. For always being so kind. For helping me find my home here.”
It was just an email. Maybe it was something about that computer light. But my eyes adjusted. And I sort of turned my head to the side, looked, and there he was – the one who said whoever welcomes the stranger, welcomes me; the Good Shepherd who knows the sheep by name, and calls out Mary, Lazarus, James, John; the one who would leave the 99 every time to find the 1 and bring them home.
Peter Gomes once said it this way: “The evidence of Easter is a reconfigured Easter people, people who are no longer afraid of the dark, people who dare to live by their affections and not by their fears, people who know that they need not die in order to truly experience resurrection living.” (3)
In other words, people like you and me, which means sometimes it happens right here. In us. In our lives lived apart from fear. In our faith flickering through the haze. In our love, so fully expressed to this world. In our welcome, in which all people can be found. Easter. Resurrection. The early light of dawn hitting just right. And eyes adjust, heads turn, and there he is, in all of his power, and all of his glory: Jesus Christ, risen indeed.
And Mary Magdelene went out from there and announced, “I have seen the Lord.”
- Kyle Childress, Commentary on Luke 20:27-38, The Christian Century (Nov. 2, 2010)
- “Who Do You Say I Am?”: Meditations on Jesus’ Questions in the Gospels (2005)
- What we Forgot to Tell You (2003)