We don’t know a whole lot about Mary Magdalene. In fact, before we get to the last chapter of Jesus’ story, there is only one clear reference to Mary Magdalene in the gospels. Almost in passing, Luke tells us that once when Jesus was travelling around preaching with his disciples, there was a group of women travelling with him. And among these women was Mary Magdalene, says the text, from whom seven demons had gone out.
We don’t know much about Mary Magdalene. At the same time it’s interesting that when we get to the last chapter of Jesus’ life, Mary Magdalene is suddenly everywhere.
Three of the gospels indicate that Mary was present at Jesus’ crucifixion.
Two of the gospels point out that Mary Magdalene was present when Joseph of Aramathea placed Jesus’ body in the tomb.
All four of the gospels have her among those who discovered the empty tomb.
Three of them have Mary Magdalene as the first witness of the resurrection.
So we don’t know who exactly Mary Magdalene was. But we know that she was among those women who sometimes travelled with Jesus. Perhaps Jesus even sent evil spirits from her. We know that Jesus was important enough to her that she stayed near him up to the moment of his crucifixion, and was at his burial. From the narratives, we know that Jesus mattered enough to her that she was among those who first went to visit his tomb.
Now all of this raises a question as we come to our narrative for today. The question is this: How is it that Mary Magdalene didn’t recognize Jesus when she saw him in the Garden? How is it that this woman who travelled with Jesus, who saw him in various situations, who might have been healed by him. How is it that this woman who there at his death – how is it that she didn’t recognize Jesus when she encountered him in the garden? The risen Jesus stands there in her presence, and she doesn’t recognize him.
A couple of simple answers might come to mind right off the bat. Perhaps Mary is so tired and her eyes so full of tears that she isn’t seeing clearly. She hasn’t slept well. She’s weeping that Jesus’ body can’t b found. Perhaps her eyesight is just blurry enough that she can’t make out that this is Jesus speaking to her.
Related to this: maybe Jesus doesn’t look exactly the same as he did during his earthly life and ministry. Maybe in his resurrection life he is different enough that it isn’t immediately obvious this is the same person. The combination of Mary’s tears and Jesus’ altered appearance is perhaps enough to prevent her from recognizing him.
Or perhaps there is quite a different possibility. Perhaps the story of Mary Magdalene provides the earliest example of what is known today as prosopagnosia. Have you heard that word before: Prosopagnosia. Oliver Sacks is a British neurologist and psychologist, known for his popular writings about peculiar human experiences and conditions. He is known for such books as The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, and Awakenings (which was made into a film with the same title). In the past couple of years, Sacks had written about, and brought to light, this condition called prosopagnosia – which is otherwise known as face blindness.
Those with face blindness are unable to recognize the faces of people they know.
A person with face blindness won’t recognize her own face in the mirror.
A person with prospagnosia won’t recognize a friend in a photograph.
A person with face blindness won’t be able to tell the faces of his children apart.
A few weeks ago 60 Minutes had a segment on prosopagnosia in which they interviewed a number of people who have this condition. As you can imagine, it creates a great deal of stress and a great number of complications in social situations. Some degree of uncertainty underlies every interaction, which can be very painful. But one of the things that is interesting about those with this condition is that they learn to rely on other cues to identify people – things like a person’s hair, their gait, their clothing and their voice. They are constantly sleuthing to try and recognize others.
It’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that Mary Magdalene is an early example of prosopagnosia. But the truth is that she doesn’t recognize Jesus – somehow she doesn’t register his face. It is only when she hears his voice, or sees his gait, or focuses on his clothing that it suddenly dawns on her. “Rabboni.” “Teacher.” This is Jesus. She recognizes him.
Now it’s highly unlikely that Mary Magdalene suffered from face blindness. But the existence of this condition gets us thinking about the very complicated neurological and psychological aspects of vision and recognition.
Neuroscientists and psychologists are only at the early stages of understanding how perception works. But they can give us a much simpler explanation of what was happening with Mary Magdalene in the garden two thousand years ago. Quite simply, with Mary it’s a case of someone being unable to see something, simply because she’s not looking for it.
Something researchers have found is that when we are looking for a specific object, the different parts of our brain talk to each other in such a way that we can ignore all the clutter, and just focus on the specific thing we are looking for. So if you are looking for a yellow pencil on a cluttered desk, your mind knows how to block out the clutter and focus only things that look like a pencil. Our minds have an ability to filter out stuff that’s irrelevant. When you’re looking for a pencil, your brain will help you filter out the stapler, the paper, the books, the calculator – you’ll only ‘see’ the pencil.
In a general kind of way, then, we tend to see the things we are looking for. If we are looking for a yellow pencil, then that’s what we’ll see.
Mary Magdalene stands in the garden weeping. She has come to the tomb and found it empty. And when Jesus appears there with her in the garden, she doesn’t see him – she doesn’t recognize him. She mistakes him for the gardener. It’s probably not her tears and her blurry vision that prevent her from recognizing Jesus. And she’s probably not suffering from prosopagnosia – from face blindness.
The simple fact is that she has come looking for a body – she is looking for a dead man. And because that’s what she’s looking for, she is filtering everything else out. She is so focused on finding the dead Jesus that she filters out the living Jesus – the living Jesus has become so much clutter in her field of vision. And it is only when Jesus breaks the spell, if you will – only when his voices breaks through into her ears and into her mind and into her heart – it is only then that she can see what she wasn’t looking for. Jesus voice brings her back to herself, back to him. “Rabounni. Teacher.” She recognizes him.
This narrative of the resurrection comes to us from the earliest Christians as a description of an impossible possibility. That Jesus rose from the dead. No one expected it. No one was looking for it. Mary Magdalene was looking for a dead Jesus. The disciples on the road to Emmaus could only imagine a dead Jesus. But in both cases, Jesus pushed himself into their field of vision – he showed his face – and suddenly these disciples could see what they weren’t looking for. The risen Jesus.
This narrative of the resurrection comes to us as an invitation – to keep our eyes peeled for the risen Jesus. The risen Jesus may not be present to us in the way he was present to Mary Magdalene. The risen Jesus may not present to us as he was to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. But the risen and ascended Jesus remains alive and at work in our world. But if we are not looking for him – if we don’t believe he’s there in our everyday – then we will miss him. We will filter him out.
If all we’re looking for is wisdom from a teacher who lived 2000 years ago – if all we’re looking for is insight from a man who died 2000 years ago – then the risen Jesus who stands right beside us in the everyday will become nothing more than so much visual clutter – he will become something to be ignored or overlooked or filtered out.
We could say so much more if we remained with this specific subject, but I’d like to zero in on the words that Jesus speaks to Mary Magdalene and then come back to this idea of what we perceive.
Among other things, Jesus says to her. “Go and tell my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” It’s interesting that Mary Magdalene here becomes an apostle to the apostles. She is the one who brings the message of hope and joy and resurrection to the disciples. Her bringing of the message allows them to become bearers of the message. Because Mary Magdalene is an apostle, they can become apostles.
But the explicit content of the message Mary Magdalene brings is also vitally important. The gospel of John, in which this story is found, pushes us toward a deeply personal encounter with God – this gospel, particularly, drives toward intimacy and fellowship and love between humans and God. And that is evident here.
Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus will refer to ‘the father’ or ‘the father who sent me’ – sometimes to ‘my father’. Throughout John’s gospel Jesus calls his followers ‘disciples’ and ‘servants’ and friends’. But here in the resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene, all of that language is pushed one step further. Here the possibility of a relationship of intimacy and friendship between the disciples and God is established. As the New Testament scholar and Anglican Bishop Tom Wright puts it: “A new relationship has sprung to life like a sudden spring flower. The disciples are welcomed into a new world: a world where they can know God the way Jesus knew God, where they can be intimate children with their father.” The God that Jesus reveals is a God of intimate friendship. The disciples are invited to seek this God, and seek a relationship with this God.
Her we can draw our reflections on perception back into the discussion.
You see, if we think that God is simply a vague force in the universe – if that’s all we’re looking for, then that’s all we’ll see. We will filter out the personal, loving God who wants a conversation with us.
Or if we think God is stern and distant grandfather figure, not much interested in our lives – if that’s all we’re looking for, then that’s all we’ll see. We will filter out the personal, loving God who enters into relationship with his people.
Jesus wants his disciples to discover and to see and to know God. God who is not just some force in the universe; God who is not just some powerful, distant, disinterested being.
This morning the risen Jesus calls out to us, reminding us that he is alive among us – alive in the world around us – bringing his resurrection life to our world. And as Jesus calls out to us – as he presses into our field of vision, refusing to be filtered out – he also invites us into a relationship of intimacy and friendship with the one he calls Father. The God who created our world and who gives the gift of new life wants to walk and converse with us in a deeply personal way.
But if we are not looking for this God of intimacy and friendship, then how will we ever recognize his loving presence?
If we are not listening for the voice of this God, then how will we ever hear his voice?
If we are not speaking with this God in moments of prayerful meditation and conversation, then how will he ever answer us?
Let me conclude this morning by reminding you of a verse the congregation has reflected on a number of times over the past 6 or 7 years. Over those years, when the Sustainability Task Force has made a presentation, we were often invited to reflect on God’s words in Jeremiah 29:11. There God says: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Beautiful words. But if we continue reading in verse 12 and 13, this is what we hear God saying: “When you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me…”
The risen Jesus stands alongside us. But if we aren’t looking for him in our world and in our church and in our lives, then we will simply filter him out as so much clutter to be ignored. If we are not looking for him we will not see him; we will not find him.
The God of love and intimacy who created us Christ Jesus is ready to speak with us. But if we aren’t looking for God in our world and in our church and in our lives, then we will simply filter him out as so much clutter to be ignored. If we are not looking for him we will not see him; will not find him.
God says through the prophet Jeremiah: “When you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.