A reflection on the readings for Easter Year B
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
by Janine Goodwin, M.A., M.S. Ed.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
What on earth could that possibly mean?
Easter can be bewildering. Something has happened that changes everything, and we don’t yet know what that means. For some of us, Lent is easier to grasp. The ideas of temptation and resisting temptation, penance, giving up unhealthy things, taking on new ways, and making room for new life are comprehensible, but the overthrow of death itself is beyond our understanding. For those of us facing the loss of a loved one or of a cherished hope, health problems or domestic violence, addiction, the destruction of the natural world, or the continuing effects of long-held prejudices, Easter may seem unconvincing, like a happy ending we can’t quite believe. Some of us today may have said Alleluia as a kind of obligation, feeling like fakes for being unable to rejoice on cue. The trumpets may sound a bit tinny and the lilies smell a bit cloying. Resurrection, when we are in turmoil, can seem like something for the distant future, after death, but not seem to touch our daily lives. On some unexamined level, we may feel that our grief disproves the Resurrection, thinking, "If this had really happened, I wouldn’t be suffering like this, would I?"
Those of us who are bewildered by the Resurrection are bewildered in good company.
All the Gospels show the disciples, male and female, as thoroughly confused by the Resurrection and throughout the post-Resurrection appearances, though the accounts vary in other respects and details. There is rejoicing in these stories, to be sure, but there is also doubt, fear, and amazement. In today’s Gospel passage, Mary Magdalene talks with angels but is still lost in her grief and mistakes the Risen Christ for a gardener, recognizing him only when he calls her name. I wonder how often, in our grief, we forget to ask where Jesus is and miss hearing him call our names.
As we puzzle through what the Resurrection can mean in our lives now, it may help us to remember that the post-Resurrection life of Jesus’ followers is not just a story of triumph. There are miraculous conversions, healings, and escapes, yet Paul is not healed of his mysterious “thorn in the flesh,” and martyrdoms and persecutions are inflicted upon the believers. There are conflicts between and within communities, and arguments over what the Gospel means. Even the eyewitnesses to the Resurrection are not freed from the limitations of human life or of human thinking. We aren’t, either.
One of the tasks of a disciple is to spend our lives questioning our assumptions in the light of the Gospel. One of the limitations we all face as we take up that task is the set of social assumptions we learn early in our lives. It is worth noting that one of today’s readings, the Gospel of John, like all the gospels, places women in central roles in the story of the Resurrection, but Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians does not mention the women at all. Paul, who knows and says that in Christ there is no male or female, does not acknowledge the women who were witnesses of the Resurrection in this passage. Jesus accepts women as followers and equals, but his followers have trouble getting over what their culture has taught them.
This is a problem that echoes down the centuries, and it is particularly obvious in the history of Mary Magdalene in the churches. While the Orthodox church calls Mary Magdalene “the Apostle to the Apostles,” the Western church, over the centuries, has conflated her story with that of an unnamed woman who had committed unnamed sins in Luke, and has further assumed those sins were sexual ones. In a world that has insisted, over the centuries, on defining women by their sexuality whether it idealizes them or uses them in pornography and prostitution, Mary Magdalene has been described and depicted in art far more often as a beautiful, sexualized, penitent woman than as a woman healed by Jesus, a follower of Jesus, and as the first witness of the Resurrection. Another set of ideas, not affirmed by the tradition of most Christian churches but recently popularized in fiction, would call her Jesus’ wife, a role which still defines her primarily through her sexuality and in relation to a man.
The Mary Magdalene of John’s Gospel, the Apostle to the Apostles, is a woman who followed Jesus at a time when women were expected to stay home. She is one of the last witnesses of the Crucifixion, someone who stays with the suffering Jesus until his death, someone who returns to the tomb to grieve when she could have just gone home. She is also a woman who, when Jesus calls her, answers instantly, “Rabbouni!” or “Master,” which the Gospel tells us means, “Teacher!”
I hear that cry of “Teacher!” as one of the things the Resurrection means to me, as a sign of the redemption of relationships between men and women. In a world where study was largely limited to men, “Teacher!” says to me that Mary Magdalene identifies herself as a student, the equal of her brother apostles. Her importance in this story does not originate in her sex, her gender roles, or her sexuality; those things are certainly a good part of who God made her to be, but they do not define her. She is a student and a friend of Jesus, as all Christians are.
Friendship and learning are not limited by any other part of who we are. We can all be students, teachers, and friends to each other. We are not required to define ourselves and each other by our sex or by our sexuality at the expense of everything else we are. I suggest to you that this is as radical a challenge to transformation for the twenty-first century as it was to the first.
Mary Magdalene showed up at the tomb, called her fellow disciples to witness that it was empty, stayed with her grief, asked for help, and recognized the voice of her Teacher when she heard it. We can all do these things, male or female, gay or straight, married or single.
The redemption of our relationships and the healing of the wounds that come from sexism is only one of the many possible ways the Resurrection can bring change and healing into our lives. That change does not negate our griefs. The transformation of our experience may be slow and hard to recognize or understand. Everything is changed, but everything is not all better. The change will not be complete in our lifetimes, and our limitations will still trip us up. Still, we can continue as sisters and brothers, fellow students and equals. Sometimes, we will argue and misunderstand, run from the Cross, mistake Jesus for the gardener. Sometimes we will hear and recognize his voice, answer it, and tell each other how we have seen him, and what he has said to us.
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!