There is a strange moment described in the gospels regarding the resurrection of Christ (in fact, there are several such moments). When Mary Magdalen first encounters the risen Lord, we are told that she “took Him for the gardener.”
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). (John 20:11–16 ESV)
It is an encounter that some seek to explain as a product of Mary Magdalen’s grief. She is so grief-stricken that she fails to recognize the risen Christ. I think this is incorrect. A second example underscores what is taking place. St. Luke shares the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who encounter the risen Lord. They do not recognize Him throughout the journey – until they sit at table with Him:
“So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”” (Luke 24:28–32 ESV)
In this case, there can be no notion of a grief-stricken lack of recognition. Indeed, their conversation with the risen Lord as they walk along causes their hearts to “burn” within them. Their recognition of Christ in the context of the breaking of bread is described as their eyes being “opened.”
This issue of recognition weaves in and out of the resurrection appearances. It would seem that there is something more than the merely “objective” about the resurrected Christ. I have pondered this over the years. There is no “hiding” or “change” going on in Christ – He is not disguising Himself. Rather, the change seems to be a matter that is taking place in those who are encountering Him. For St. Mary Magdalen, the change takes place when Christ speaks her name. I think of this as Mary “coming to herself.” It is beyond grief and shame and is the recovery of the truly personal. For the disciples on the road to Emmaus we see something extraordinary – an extended walk and conversation, where their hearts are “burning,” and yet recognition has not occurred. Instead, it is in the breaking of bread (a Eucharistic reference, “took the bread, blessed, broke, and gave”) that their “eyes were opened.”
The encounter with the risen Lord is personal and eucharistic. I think that this is made known in the resurrection encounters but that it also reveals the truth about our present encounters with one another. As such, it has something to say about the nature and truth of our identities. By and large, we do not know nearly as much as we think we know.
If you spend time with small children, you may have noticed a lack of self-awareness that is common. A child runs through a crowded room, having shed a diaper. Utterly naked, the tiny streaker laughs with joy to a parent’s dismay. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, they are naked and not ashamed. There are many other elements that reveal their lack of self-awareness. I see in our congregation some Sundays, children playing in the floor. Frequently, their voices are lifted too loudly and find a quiet rebuke from a parent. I’ve heard parents saying, “Use your inside voice!” and “Whisper!” By the same token, I’ve seen slightly older children singing along with the Creed in tones loud enough to rise above the choir.
Such behaviors exhibit a lack of self-awareness, which, in truth, is a lack of shame. Our socialization, acquired slowly, and not without pain, is the acquisition of various shaming moments that instruct us on approved behaviors in the presence of others. Much of what we think of as our “identity” (which will shift and change somewhat in various settings) are the constructs we have managed to assemble over time, while our true self remains hidden.
I can remember at least twice in my life when I fell under the “spell” of an influential personality. My public persona shifted and took on colorings that I “borrowed.” I blush when I remember these now and see what was taking place. Likely, similar things have happened along and along without my noticing (such was their subtlety). There is within me, however, some very quiet memory of a time before such borrowings. There are a very few things I can see through a young child’s eyes – their magic still shines.
At what must have been age 4, my mother taught me how to take the city bus into downtown in order to get to my kindergarten (at a downtown Church). The first time, with a dime(!) in my pocket to pay for the bus, and a second one tied up in a handkerchief and stuffed in the other pocket, I made my way onto the bus while my mother looked on. I paid the driver and found my seat. My mother followed in her car to reassure me that all was well. I later repeated the operation for my ride home. I have no remembrance of fear, or any particular self-awareness. But I remember the bus, the seats, the passengers, the windows, and the unbridled wonder of it all.
What was my identity in that moment?
The same identity as I have today – though it seems largely inaccessible – hidden under layers of acquired experiences with their successes and failures.
Who does Jesus know?
St. Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Ga. 2:20) The “I” who now lives in the flesh is St. Paul, the true St. Paul. It is St. Paul without shame or fear (as we pray in the Liturgy). It is the gift of God, perhaps last seen mirrored in the innocence of a child, but then made manifest and glorified.
We are promised an identity – a new name – something St. Paul describes as “hidden with Christ in God.” It is made known as we behold Christ face-to-face. There, we will see who we are, and have always been, waiting to be revealed in the Last Day. We will know, in that moment, the meaning of the word “personal,” just as we will see, at last, the meaning of the Eucharist.
At present, we see glimpses, teasing at the edge of recognition, as our hearts burn within us.
Come, Lord Jesus!
Photo: With my father – age 5