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Paschal Body - a Sermon for Easter Sunday

Easter Morning: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24;

1 Cor. 15:1-11; John 20:1-18

The Rev. Cameron Partridge

March 31, 2024



Good Morning, St. Aidan’s, and Happy Easter!

I wonder if you might be familiar with this icon written by Robert Lentz. It shows Mary Magdalene, whom our gospel story features this morning. Mary is known for her closeness to Jesus, her witness at the tomb, and her proclamation of his resurrection. Lentz notes being inspired by the post-biblical story that Mary journeyed to Rome and, because of her apparent status and wealth, was received by Tiberias Caesar at a meal. After decrying the ineptitude and injustice of Pontius Pilate and the trial at which Jesus had been condemned to death, she declared that Jesus had been raised from the dead, picking up an egg from the table as a sign of resurrection life. The emperor was said to have responded that a human being rising from the dead was impossible, as likely as the egg in her hand turning red. At which point, of course, the egg did just that, inspiring a longstanding tradition in Eastern Christian households of dyeing eggs red and exchanging them at Easter. Mary is also said to have gone on to preach the Good News of Jesus and his resurrection around the Mediterranean, ultimately dying by martyrdom just as the male apostles did, though her leadership was not recognized in the wider church for centuries and indeed in many corners still is not. The original version of this icon was commissioned by Grace Cathedral here in San Francisco to celebrate the election of Barbara C. Harris, the first woman bishop in the Episcopal Church and global Anglican Communion, who was elected in 1988.[1] You can see the icon next to the chapel of Grace today. I will always remember seeing it along with Bishop Barbara, who had been one of my bishops in Massachusetts years ago, when she came here and preached at our Diocesan Convention in 2017. Whenever I look at this icon I see layers of meaning, depths of good news. I see Mary Magdalene gazing fiercely out at us. As she did for the emperor, she holds and points to an egg as a sign of resurrection, of newness of life come to birth, ready to grow. I see a woman in leadership, standing with conviction and strength, whatever adversity may come. In another passage in the Gospel of John, earlier than our iconic story, Jesus said to Martha of Bethany, “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” (John 11:40). Behold God’s glory looking out at us through the layers of this icon. Behold and believe, believe and behold. Be changed in your believing and beholding by resurrection Good News.

Our passage features Mary Magdalene along with Peter and the unnamed person John refers to as the Beloved Disciple. It takes place at the garden tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid. We are meant by that garden locale to be reminded of the story of the first humans made from the earth to tend God’s creation. John’s garden scene is also likely meant to remind us of the Song of Solomon, or the Song of Songs, which depicts a lover and beloved and which had come to be interpreted as “a hymn of the covenant” between God and Israel.[2] It is a scene of new creation, of longing and desire, of grief and astonishment. It is an icon that invites seeing, believing, transforming. Mary Magdalene has come to the tomb alone here – in other accounts there is a group of variously named women who were among Jesus’ disciples, closest beloveds who had brought the traditional spices and ointments to care for his body at dawn. But the stone sealing the tomb was gone and there was no body. Grief cascaded immediately upon grief: who would have taken him away yet again, yet further? Where had they discarded this body already desecrated by shameful execution? After Mary rushed to tell Simon Peter and the Beloved disciple, they race to the tomb. As Mary stands weeping outside, they carry out an odd chain of seemingly competitive actions: the Beloved Disciple arriving first and bending to peer in; Peter actually entering and taking in the array of empty graveclothes; the Beloved Disciple following him, viewing the same array but seeing it differently. The face veil in particular, biblical scholar Sandra Schneiders has argued, seems to play a special role in activating these disciples. The Beloved Disciple sees it and, despite not having previously understood that Jesus would rise from the dead, believes.[3] 

It is such a brief yet powerful phrase: “he saw and believed.” What might the relationship between seeing and believing be here? What do both of these actions – seeing, believing – refer to? Schneiders points out that the Gospel of John has a distinctive way of understanding the act of believing. To believe “suggests primarily an active spiritual state of personal adherence to Jesus the revealer and readiness for whatever he will do.”[4] Jesus is the revealer in John, one who shows forth God’s glory, urging us to see and respond to it in him, and in the world about us. Believing has the quality of a posture, a way of being spiritually alert, looking out for what Jesus is showing, open to being transformed by that revelation. It asks us to cultivate an openness to wonder and unexpected insight, to being inspired and challenged by the world God has made, the world we have distorted through so much greed and disregard. Believing invites us to watch for signs of the mystery of death and resurrection in the most unexpected places, to be shocked and changed by that seeing, to deepen our believing through that perception process, and to go out into the world as fellow gardeners, cultivators of resurrection perception, transformative proclaimers of life out of death, of what Bishop Barbara Harris proclaimed as Halleluia Anyhow.[5] Back in the tomb, the Beloved Disciple had seen in the face veil a sign of glory. It had spoken to his senses, to his memory, to the stories he knew of Jesus his beloved and of the tradition they shared, perhaps indeed of Moses who had worn a face veil in connection with his encounters with the living God.[6] Adhering to Jesus his beloved revealer, this disciple saw and believed in a new and deeper way.

And then he and Peter ran away!

Meanwhile Mary Magdalene, still outside the tomb, weeps amid this strangely spare moment of insight by her less than communicative fellow apostles. It is at this moment that she encounters not simply the grave clothes in the tomb, and not only the angelic personae at each end of the tomb, but the glorified, resurrected Jesus himself. Initially she has no idea who he is. I love that she mistook him for a gardener. Because of course, he is a gardener. The divine gardener par excellence.[7] He had risen, glorified in John’s gospel through the process of being “lifted up from the earth,” a seed who had fallen into the ground and died, as the gospel from two Sundays ago phrased it (Jn 12:24), arising more powerful than imperial Roman oppression could possibly have imagined when it tried to bury him. Now standing before Mary in resurrection glory, he calls her by name and gives her the mission to tell her fellow disciples of his risen glory. Soon he would come to them all, gathered in the upper room as next week’s gospel conveys. He would breathe the Holy Spirit into them in an act of new creation, calling them in the active, open heartedness of their believing to bear the wonder of their risen revealer out into the world, to intentionally receive the Spirit who would call them into acts of resurrection repair in a deeply broken world (Jn 20:19-23). But now in the garden, he gives Mary her mission, to declare what she has seen, to testify to resurrection glory. Behold, she announced to the disciples, she proclaims to us: “I have seen the Lord.”

I have seen the Lord. Mary’s proclamation, her witness to an open, transformative believing also prompts a question for us: where have we seen, I wonder, the glory of the risen one? How might we look for such glory in our world? How might we open our hearts to be changed by what we see?   

Mary’s iconic declaration, her upholding of a sign of resurrection life, and her challenge to us makes me think of a further sign I encountered years ago in Massachusetts. Kateri and I are not morning people, but we had been told for many years about the Easter Vigil service at the Society of St. John the Evangelist. It was hard core, old school: it started in their courtyard at 4 AM. (Ours by contrast takes place at a very civilized 7 PM on Saturday evening.) Exhausted and shivering, I stood in the courtyard and observed the lighting of the New Fire – a controlled bonfire in a fire pit. Then came the Paschal Candle. As the presider traced the Alpha and Omega, and the year on the candle, declaring Christ the beginning and the end, a sense of sacred temporal layering, the presence of deep time, washed over me. Then the presider pressed into the candle red nails, their wax encasing grains of incense – marks of the wounds that are present in Christ’s risen body, as next week’s gospel reading emphasizes (Jn 20:19-29). I was so struck by the sentence that was then spoken: “By his holy and glorious wounds, may Christ our Savior guard and keep us.” In that moment, gazing upon that candle and taking in these prayerful words – the same we prayed in our vigil last night – I took in this holy, physical presence that burns throughout the Great Fifty Days of Easter, accompanying our most profound moments throughout the year, from baptism to burial of the dead. But I didn’t just see a candle. I saw a body. A Paschal body. A risen body, resplendent in all its waxen plasticity as all bodies are. I saw in its layered depths all the stories we have passed through and over. It is a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. It is a light to all peoples. It is marked by wounds the prayer so rightly names as glorious, as one of the Wesley hymns invites, “with what rapture gaze we on those glorious scars.”[8] In that predawn moment, I thought of my own journey, all the pathways I have traveled, losses and delights, mysteries yet to unfold. I thought of the marks on my body as a trans person, the stories I have lived. There in that candle all of it was lifted up as glorious. On this Trans Day of Visibility I share with you this sign of glory that I have seen. I say to you, you who are trans, you who are non-binary, you who are cisgender: in you, in your body, Christ is revealed in glory. And we, all of us together, reaching across our chasms of experience and understanding, in solidarity and hope, in the face of death and denunciation, are invited to be changed by that sight. We are called to make our way back out into the world as Christ’s fiercely compassionate gardeners, as people on whom the Spirit of resurrection life is breathed even now, even in a world so full of toxicity spewed at our fellow humans and at our planet, targeted to tear us apart. See and believe. Believe and see. Show to the world around you – your neighbors and friends, your family, your work, your layered communities: resurrection life is profoundly present even as it also awaits us in final fulfillment. Christ is among us in glory. May we declare with Mary: I have seen the Lord. May it be so. Amen.

 


[1] Robert Lent’s description of his icon and the stories behind it: https://trinitystores.com/collections/st-mary-magdalene-rlmam

[2] Sandra Schneiders, Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (New York: Herder and Herder, 2003), 217.

[3] Schneiders,207-210

[4] Schneiders, 209

[5] Barbara C. Harris, Halleluia Anyhow (New York: Church Publishing, 2018)

[6] Schneiders, 209

[7] Schneiders, 217

[8] Charles Wesley, “Lo! He comes with clouds descending” in The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Publishing, 1982), 58.

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