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God with a Human Face by John C. Purdy


John C. Purdy is a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), which he served for 26 years as an editor of curriculum resource. He is also the author of Parables at Work (Westminster) and God with a Human Face (Westminster/Knox). God with a Human Face was published by Westminster/John Knox in l993 and is used by permission of the author, who also prepared the text for Religion Online.


Chapter 12: God Goes Ahead of Us (Matt.28:1-8)


P>When she was "discovered," April Epner was thirty-six, single, and teaching Latin in a suburban high school. Her discoverer was her natural mother, Bernice Graverman, hostess of a television talk show. April's adoptive parents, survivors of the Holocaust, were both dead.

April and Bernice are the protagonists in Elinor Lipman's Then She Found Me. The theme of the novel is transformation through discovery. At first April hated being found--and she hated Bernice. Because Bernice pushed men at her, April invented a romance with Dwight Willamee, the school librarian. Then she discovered that she was in love with him. The final chapter describes their wedding. After the ceremony April discovered, to her amazement, that she was calling Bernice "Mother."

On a Sunday morning 1900 years earlier, two other Jewish women came back from a garden outside Jerusalem to report an amazing discovery of quite a different sort: Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead.

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you." So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to tell his disciples. (Matt. 28.1-8)

By this story Mary Magdalene is joined forever to the select crowd of witnesses who went public with remarkable discoveries. In 1493 Christopher Columbus returned to Spain to report the discovery of the New World. In 1898 Marie [Mary!] Curie and her husband announced the discovery of radium and polonium. In 1929 Edwin P. Hubble came down from the observatory on Mt. Wilson with an astounding message: The universe is expanding; space stretches uniformly in all directions, carrying the galaxies with it. Astronomer Allan R. Sandage said, "To cosmologists that is the most amazing scientific discovery ever made."

Mary Magdalene doesn’t seem to fit this company. We should have expected one of Jesus’ disciples to have the honor of discovering and announcing his resurrection. Peter would have been the logical choice. Or it might have been one of the others of that select group whose feet Jesus had washed. But it was none of them who were first at the tomb that Sunday morning. Rather it was a couple of women named Mary.

As so often happens, the great discovery was the work of amateurs. An amateur is, in the primary sense of the term, a "lover." Surely the Marys went to the tomb out of love. They may have been believers in the resurrection of the dead; they may have been hopeful of something extraordinary. But if we know anything of human nature, we know that love was the primary force that drove them there. Love is a more reliable alarm clock than Faith or Hope - more likely to get you out of bed and get you going early in the morning.

We also know that piety restrained the Marys from going sooner. Being respectful of the opinions of others - if not devout themselves - they waited until the sabbath was over before they made their visit. They did not want to break the commandment against journeys on the sabbath. Possibly they did not want to bring more disrespect on the already tarnished name of Jesus by disregarding the sabbath rule.

The accusation is sometimes made that piety is a fatal hindrance to discovery, that it puts blinders on the seeker, that it serves to conceal part of the truth. But were not the likes of Copernicus, Darwin, and Mendel pious men? Nicholas Copernicus, who discovered that the earth revolves around the sun, was a doctor of canon law. Charles Darwin, the proponent of the theory of evolution, spent three years at Cambridge studying theology. Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, was a monk.

Don’t be misled by the references to scientific discoveries:The Marys did not discover the resurrection in the same way that Marie Curie discovered radioactivity or Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding. The women did not begin with a hypothesis; they did not make careful observations and mathematical calculations. Nor was their discovery a colossal accident, like Columbus setting out for Asia and bumping into Santo Domingo. Nor was theirs a sudden insight furnished by "feminine intuition." Nor did the Muse of Poetry whisper in their ears that he whom they had loved was not dead, but lived eternally.

The so-called discovery was an act of divine revelation. The Easter journey of the Marys took them to the place where God pulled aside the curtain and let them have first peek. Knowledge of the resurrection came to those who went adventuring, true. But it came through no wit or wisdom of their own. It was given to them, like a gift. The resurrection story is indeed that of a discovery; but that discovery might with justification be named a disclosure.

This disclosure was accompanied by some spectacular special effects. Cecil B. DeMille couldn’t have dreamed up anything more stunning. (It was literally stunning for the men who were guarding the tomb.) There was an earthquake, caused by something like a sonic boom. An angel in shining raiment came plunging down out of the sky like a stealth fighter; he rolled back the tombstone and sat on it. The men who were guarding the tomb were scared to death - or at least so frightened that they passed out and lay like dead men. So dazzling was the heavenly messenger that it was reported - presumably by the women - that he flashed like lightning. One can only guess at the timbre and resonance of his voice. Charlton Heston and James Earl Jones, eat your hearts out!

How matter-of-fact is the angel’s message. One might have wished for something a bit more grand, something that could be memorized and recited on special occasions by children. Something with rolling cadences, like the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address. Something that Bach or Handel could have set to music. Something more akin to "Fear not, for I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be to all people" Well, you get the picture. It does have a neon angel in it. But it lacks "alleluias" and "forsooths." Not even a single "Hail, Mary." Just the facts, ladies: Jesus is risen, as he promised. See for yourselves, the body is not here. Tell the disciples that if they go to Galilee, they will see him. He goes on ahead of you.

The one element in the story that is not surprising is the reaction of the women. They are galvanized. They dash off with their message for the disciples. The women are joined forever in history with others who ran panting with great tidings, like the first marathon runner who announced the victory at Thermopylae. Joy lends wings to one foot, fear to the other. Talk about the carrot and the stick: Dread nips at their heels; exhilaration fills their lungs.

Well, there we have it. One of the greatest discoveries in the history of humankind tersely described in eight verses of scripture. It is a wild mixture of the awesome and mundane, of beginner’s luck and heavenly intention, of surprise and expectation, of spectacular special effects and matter-of-fact reporting, of fear and of joy.

What About Us?

The narrative leaves off with the women running to tell the disciples that Jesus is risen from the dead and that he goes ahead of them to Galilee. Where does that leave us? Are we, then, to run to meet our future, as it were, knowing that it has been unalterably changed for the better? Has God, in some mysterious way, rolled back the hindering stone that barred us from entering eternal life? Is the discovery by the Marys of Jesus’ resurrection a kind of metaphor of the life of faith? Are we, like them, to venture into the future, knowing that wonderful surprises await us?

Another question: Is Jesus the rabbit that God pulled out of the hat on Easter? In this Gospel story have we been led along like the audience in a magic show - so to speak - being set up for the one, great, big, final conjuring trick? Is the resurrection meant to make us disregard everything up to this point as mere preparation?

Jean Sulivan reports that one of his classmates at school, when asked what Jesus’ last words were on the cross, replied:

"I should worry, I should care; on the third day I’ll rise again."

If so, then what happened along the way to the poor who were to have the good news preached to them? What about the captives in prison? The paralytics, the hungry, the anxious, the storm-tossed? And what of the victims of corrupt institutions? And those whose souls need washing? Are they just some kind of stage dressing in this drama? What of the fate of humankind; does it no longer matter?

Moreover, if God can do tricks with tombstones, why may we not expect God to turn stones into bread, to feed the hungry? If God can send an angel to roll away a stone, why not send an army of angels to bear up the helpless and the orphan and the widow? If God is more powerful than our arch-enemy, Death, then how about some immediate attention to those other enemies of ours: Ignorance, AIDS, Tyranny, Racism, Alzheimer’s, Child Abuse, Schizophrenia?

Why, at the end of the Gospel story, are we presented with something as irrational, unscientific, impractical, and irrelevant as a resurrection? What is the point of it?

The mention of "point" suggests a fulcrum, on which everything rests, as with a balance. Whatever answer we give to that question will tip the scales one way or another. A wrong answer may throw out all that we have said up to now, rendering it as merely preparatory and therefore forgettable. A right answer may make everything fall into place. So a deep breath, a pause, a clearing of the throat is necessary.

All right, the answer is ready: What Mary discovered on Easter morning is that God goes ahead of us. God is not in the historic past, locked into an ancient time when people believed in miracles, spirits, and demons. Nor is God shut up in our personal past, along with our sins, our youth, our wasted opportunities, our dead parents and friends, our childhood certainties, our idealism, our first love.

No. God is ahead of us - in our future - as the one who will yet forgive sins, free paralytics, feed the hungry, make peace, wash our feet, raise the dead. If fear and joy struggle for mastery of Mary’s soul, it is because she has grasped - or has been grasped by - the knowledge that God has gone ahead. God waits for her - and us - to get moving.

According to Christian legend, Mary Magdalene was a prostitute whom Jesus befriended. Then it is possible that she was the inspiration for Jesus’ two best-loved stories - the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Do you know them? The first is about a Jew who was on a journey from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was set upon by thieves, beaten, and left for dead. Two religious types saw him and hurried by. But a hated Samaritan stopped and bound up his wounds and took him to an inn to recover - like an Israeli carrying a wounded Palestinian to safety.

We may suppose that something like that happened to Mary. As a prostitute, life for her was a journey to a beating. Maybe she had been an abused wife, who had also been an abused child; she learned early to expect nothing from men but use and abuse. And she found that religious people tended to walk around her as they would a piece of carrion. But one day she found a man smiling at her - a religious type - but not like the others. This man asked only to be her friend. His friendship restored her to health and sanity.

The Prodigal Son is the story of a heedless boy who wheedles his father into giving him his inheritance. He takes the money to a distant city, where he squanders it on women and drink. Penniless and hungry, he turns again home. The father sees the boy coming and runs to meet him. Jesus does not tell us what is in the son’s heart when he spies the figure hurrying to meet him. At first he may suspect that his father has sent a servant to warn him off. But then, when the boy sees that it is indeed his father, what can he think? He must expect wrath and vengeance, for he has been rehearsing a little speech about what a rogue he has been and how he deserves at best to be treated like a servant. He is ready to shoulder the burden of his past and to carry it the rest of his life. We can only imagine his shock, his wonder, his joy to discover that his father has set aside that past in the sheer delight of having his son with him again. The father’s delight is mirrored in the face of his son.

Many prostitutes begin as prodigal daughters, who leave home in a huff. Once their money is gone, there is nothing to do but hustle their bodies. The final humiliation is to be led home to face the parents whose trust and values have been violated.

When .Jesus befriended Mary, it must have been like having her youth and purity restored. And the wonder with which she heard the angel’s announcement would have been that of the prodigal when he heard his father say, "This is my son who was dead and is alive again, who was lost and is found." No wonder Mary runs from the tomb with fear and joy struggling for mastery. Her past truly is dead and gone; the future truly is open. Jesus is waiting for her.

Jesus waits for us, up ahead - waits for us to get moving, to catch up to him. God waits for us, up ahead - waits for us to get moving, to catch up to what God is doing.

Once we have grasped that mystery, then life is forever changed. We cannot cling to the past; the best lies ahead, not behind. Let a poet have the final word:

Unspeakable unnatural goodness is
Risen and shines, and never will ignore us;
He glows forever in all consciousness
Forgiveness, love, and hope possess the pit,
And bring our endless guilt, like shadow’s bars:
No matter what we do, he stares at it!
What pity then deny? what debt defer?
We know he looks at us like all the stars,
And we shall never be as once we were,
This life will never be what once it was!
(Delmore Schwartz, "Starlight Like Intuition Pierced the Twelve")

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