Location: [Home] [Eric S. Anderson] Holding Christ Essay
This essay was preached as a sermon at the Oxford United Church of Christ, Congregational, on Easter Sunday, March 30, 1997. I present it here rather differently, for two primary reasons. First, preaching is an oral form, and a written essay requires different use of language for good effect. Second, I preached the sermon from notes only, and I couldn't remember my exact words an hour later, let alone a month!
I place it here with some diffidence. It is not designed or intended for non-Christian readers, but I invite them to read it anyway to better understand Christianity or at least my life in it. Nor is it a road map for Christians to follow for an improved spiritual life; at best it is a general map of the land's contours, inviting a pioneer to discover his or her own path. I do hope somebody finds it valuable. At base, I suspect I am writing this anew because of my own affection for the text of John 20:1-18, and the power it has within my own soul.
On the first Easter morning, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb where Jesus had been laid to grieve. She found the tomb empty, and John's gospel records a flurry of activity. Peter and the "disciple whom Jesus loved" run to see, look around a bit, and go. Mary looks in again and finds two angels who ask her why she is weeping, to which she gives the obvious answer. How can she grieve if she cannot find the body of Jesus?
Turning away, she sees a man she misidentifies as the gardener. He, too, asks about her tears, and she asks him where he has put Jesus' body. His reply to her is to simply say, "Mary." Suddenly she recognizes him as Jesus, and cries "Teacher!" with wonder.
Jesus' words to her are translated in the NRSV as "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to my Father. but go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" But the Greek words for "Do not hold on to me" imply an action that has already begun, something more like "Stop holding me." And what else would you expect? Mary, finding Jesus alive, did what anyone would do: she ran and threw her arms around him in a joyous embrace. Jesus has to unwrap her arms so that he can do what he must do, and so that she can bring the news to the disciples.
Mary embraced the risen Christ. I have stood in awe of this scene for years. What does it feel like to embrace Jesus, and to be embraced by him, I've wondered. What could it possibly feel like?
The truth is, and the wonder of it is, I know what it feels like. Certainly it has been rare in my experience, but I have known times of embracing, and being embraced by the risen Christ. It is nearly indescribable, of course. It is a very powerful feeling, but not necessarily one that has given me great power. I have found it heartening, but not necessarily exultant. I have felt forgiven, but not perfected. The best I can do is to say, out of my somewhat homeless existence, that Jesus' embrace feels like home. It is the place of comfort, and sustenance, and renewal. It is the basis for the rest of my life, the center from which I move out and to which I return. Jesus' embrace is home.
For the Christian, or at least for me, Jesus' arms are the place to be. So how to get there? Mary certainly didn't expect to find them when she went to the tomb, and how many of us can afford a trip to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and would we find Jesus' embrace if we got there? Perhaps, but perhaps not.
So how do we find that embrace? I think Mary's story in John 20 gives a good outline, a contour map, if you will, which we can use to find our way there.
Mary went looking. She didn't expect to find what she found, but it's so vital that she went looking. So look! Look everywhere!
Look particularly in the places where hope seems lost, where Jesus seems most dead. Mary found him just outside his own tomb! Where are the tombs in your life?
In my life, many of these metaphorical tombs have been real tombs: my mother's grave side, or my daughter's life-threatening illness. I have felt Jesus' embrace very closely in those places. But there have been other kinds of tombs in my life as well: catching myself in serious errors; "dry times" in my professional, romantic, and spiritual lives; living in situations where I did not want to be.
The time which most readily springs to mind was the three years I spent in seminary. That three years ran beyond my endurance for the process of formal education--I had had enough of being in school. I wanted to work, and I bitterly resented the time, and the process, of more class work. I'm still amazed that my wife stayed married to me, and that any of the friends I made in seminary put up with my moods and frustrations.
Yet that three years was spiritually ripe. God was constantly there, adding a bit more to my endurance, marking the way with great lights whenever I showed signs of leaving it (a fairly common occurrence). Sometimes those arms did more dragging than hugging, but much of that three years I was firmly in Jesus' embrace.
Jesus is hard to recognize. Nearly every gospel account of a meeting with the risen Christ includes some variant on the phrase "and then their eyes were opened." His closest friends don't know him; how will we? In John 20, Mary knows him when she hears her name. Just one word turns her tears into realization, and joy.
I don't suggest you simply listen for your name (there are others who know what to call you), but I do suggest you listen for someone to call you as if they know you, and love you. When Jesus says, "Mary," in John 20, I hear also the tones of love. Julian of Norwich wrote of her mystical experience of Jesus that he asked her if what he had done on the cross was enough for her. When she said yes, he replied, "I would do it again." Listen for that tone, that sound, that naming of yourself that says "I would do anything for you, and then I would do it again." That one who knows you best and loves you best will be the risen Christ.
In truth, this is the trickiest place in the journey. "Test the spirits," say the Scriptures, because not all are of God. The Holy Spirit, the risen Christ, will love you and challenge you, correct you and forgive you, know you and free you. Jesus probably will not look or even feel familiar, but he will know you as nobody else ever could.
Don't wait for Jesus to hold you. Mary didn't wait; I can't imagine that a single heartbeat elapsed between Jesus' naming her, and her flight into his embrace. Why should you wait? He might reach out for you, but why take the chance that he won't? Reach out yourself; what else is faith but such a reaching out?
Of all the spiritual errors I have made in my life, this has been the most common: to find Jesus standing there and hold back; to fear the intimacy, the commitment, the love standing before me. That's what turns an embrace into dragging, like the child who won't leave the toy store with his parents. And besides, that's why you came looking and listening in the first place, isn't it? So fly! Reach out! Hug!
I don't know why this has to happen, but it seems it does. All those who have recorded their experiences of the risen Christ have had to end the experience, have had to let go. Mary did, and Julian of Norwich, and Peter, Paul, and Thomas, and I as well. Apparently we can't live all the time in this kind of embrace. So be prepared to let go, and go on.
As Jesus asked her, Mary went to tell the disciples. "I have seen the Lord!" she said. John doesn't record their reaction, but Mark says that when those who first saw the empty tomb told of it, they were not believed. You can expect much the same, I'm afraid. It isn't any easier to say "He was dead, and now he is alive!" after nearly two thousand years; in fact, it sounds more unbelievable than before. So don't expect to be believed.
But do be prepared to talk about it, especially if Jesus asks you to do so. Some embraces, I am persuaded, are simply between Jesus and one person, and not for sharing, but you may be asked to go tell other disciples. And why not? Others need their chance for an embrace; others need to hear that they can find Jesus waiting near their tombs, their places of hopelessness.
So be prepared to lay out the contour map, and invite other followers to pursue their own course to a place they can find the ultimate sense of home--the sense of home found only in the arms of the risen Christ.