I remember taking a group of students to Sydney on an art excursion. We visited many places including the NSW Art Gallery where we saw the best art has to offer. But the place, which took their breath away, was St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral. These were non-churched students who had barely stepped inside a church of its type before. Something truly remarkable happened. As they entered through the open door, the beauty, the silence and the sense of the holy transformed them. Students crossed themselves with holy water, went to pews and sat down in silent ‘prayer’, others knelt, others just respected these acts of piety and sat quietly soaking up the scene in front of them
I have witnessed similar in other places, for example after students have walked the Sandakan to Ranau Death March where almost 2 and a half thousand Australians died, only 6 survived. The visit to the war cemetery on Labuan Island takes on the aura of an encounter with something beyond the normal.
Easter day, today, was that kind of event for Mary, Peter and the other disciple who ventured out to the tomb. She had watched as they processed into Jerusalem in direct competition to the annual military parade of power and might. She watched as Jesus took himself out of the city, and often during that week, off into a place of solitude to pray, contemplate and reflect on where he had come from and what he had to do.
She was close enough to Jesus to understand that he accepted that his actions, words and presence tormented the political and religious powers and could only end in one way – death on a cross.
She stood on the hill outside the city and watched them nail him to the cross and she felt every nail, every jeer, and every tear. She stayed until they took him down and away to the tomb. She had died with him. Now she was back, resigned that it was over, but hoping she can see him one more time.
What happens next is more than she can hope for and, almost, more than she can believe. She is confronted by the risen Jesus, the Jesus that came again into her life and enlivened her faith, hope and purpose. Whatever happened outside that tomb, Mary was resurrected. She was alive again and so was Jesus. He was alive in her life and in the imagination of the world.
In Mary’s case the encounter with Jesus was mystical, transforming and loving, an encounter based on a devotion that could not be shaken by the events of the last few days.
Mystical experiences cross the thresh hold between the real and the mysterious. They are full of wonder, seem real and, at the same time, one questions if they actually occurred. Ronald Goetz suggests that “Maybe the various Gospel accounts are best read as innocent attempts — decades after the first Easter — to provide some historical hook on which first-century believers could hang their experiential faith.” Mary had an experience that was outside what seemed possible. Yet he encounter seemed real, concrete, visible. Had she not hugged Jesus? Had he not looked like the Rabbi she loved?
Experience is often a questionable quantity in this scientific age. Unless it can be weighed, measured, hypothesised and fits in with all proven theories (is that an oxymoron?) it is deemed to not have happened. Yet experience is the only thing a person has to judge the world by. What happens to me; how it makes feel, know and see, and how it changes me for the future is essential to our development as a person. We are not a package of theories, formulas and research papers wrapped up in human flesh. We experience, and what we experience determines who we are.
Mary and the disciples experience a risen Jesus, how they had that experience and how the ‘saw’ Jesus is not as important as what that experienced did to them.
It transformed them. It transformed Mary, the disciples and the world. Mary was longing for Jesus to return and to be and do just as he had been and done before. Craig Barnes writes “What we long for, what we miss and beg God to give back, is dead. Easter doesn’t change that. So we cannot cling to the hope that Jesus will take us back to the way it was. The way out of the darkness is only by moving ahead.” Transformation takes what was there before and infuses it with new meaning, a new sense and a new sensibility. Transformation rarely occurs on a bright sunny day – when life is rolling along and all is well. Transformation occurs when we disappear down the rabbits hole, to quote Alice in Wonderland or disappear into James Cameron’s Abyss. When we are in the deepest black place is when we have the greatest possibility of transformation.
Mary and the disciples were indeed in such a place. Their world had collapsed, there was nothing left of the previous superstructure to patch together and begin again. Something completely new had to occur. And it did. Some of us know that story personally. Life is rolling along fine and then along comes relationship breakup, a major illness, financial ruin, tragedy or an unexpected death. Everything we had is no more, or seems to no meaning any more. We wander in the wilderness, we feel like we have fell down the rabbit hole or into the abyss, and we can see no way forward. Then something happens. A word, a thought, an encounter with someone, prayer or something and we begin to build a new life for ourselves and move forward. That is transformation. Mary experienced such an experience. Where does it come from?
Love. In our case our love for self, for others or for life itself kicks in and we begin to live again. Without love life is a drudge, with love it wriggles it’s back to vitality. Mary’s transformation was based on love. It was love that introduced her to Jesus in the first place, that kept her going during what we now know as holy week, it was love that helped her stand while Jesus was crucified and it was love that brought her back to the tomb.
And it was love that allowed her to transform herself through her mystical encounter with Jesus. She didn’t understand what had happened. She didn’t have to. She loved Jesus and that was all that mattered. She grasped the idea that love and transformation, mystical love and transformation, have no need to be understood. They are as real as the experiences they embody and are to embraced as such.
Love is the key rational ingredient in the Good News that found its ultimate expression in three days in the life of Jesus. For Mary and those of us who have encountered Jesus mystically and been transformed, love is all we need. Barbara Brown Taylor .”What happened in the tomb was entirely between Jesus and God. For the rest of us, Easter began the moment the gardener said, “Mary!” and she knew who he was. That is where the miracle happened and goes on happening — not in the tomb but in the encounter with the living Lord.”
My prayer this Easter is that each of us gathered here and in churches throughout the world continue to live out of and to give witness to the power of an encounter with the living Lord. It will change your life and the lives of those you meet. Amen