I signed up to write this Easter reflection almost two months ago in late February, back when the season of Lent was only just beginning. It was a different time. I had no idea how much both my world and the world-at-large would change by the time the Feast of the Resurrection finally arrived. The prevailing pandemic has transformed our existence. It has (as of the time I write this) infected at least 1.7 million people and killed well over 100,000. It has separated us from one another. It has cancelled (or at least, utterly transformed) most of our plans for the coming months (and possibly for longer than that). It has challenged us to redefine the ways we work, learn, worship, and socialize. It has brought out the very best and the very worst of humanity, enabling displays both of deep compassion and of wicked cruelty; of moving bravery and of wanton bigotry; of calm sagacity and of total inanity.
Of course, Easter still came, and I am still responsible for this blog post… but I must confess that, in light of this momentous shift in global circumstances, I am not exactly sure what to write. I think it would be both boring and pastorally useless for me simply to spout a series of Easter platitudes. Yes, Christ is Risen! Yes, we have every reason to cry out, Alleluia! Yes, as the great mystic Julian of Norwich wrote and as Christian eschatology proclaims, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well!
I am (or at least, I try to be) a “devout” Christian, and so I affirm the importance and capital-T Truth of the preceding statements. But I am not sure how best to invoke these important and true statements in the present moment. While the Christian conviction is that all shall be well, all is certainly not well right now. And while the Christian conviction is that on the Cross Christ defeated death, in the present moment, people are still dying. Thousands upon thousands of people are dying, in fact. I do not want to write a blasé Easter proclamation that trivializes or erases the suffering which now enfolds our world. Christ is risen, indeed. But what does that even mean? And more importantly, how can Christ’s Resurrection actually illuminate the present moment, the time of the pandemic?
Of course, the problems I enumerated in the above paragraph existed long before this pandemic took hold of the Earth. Across the span of human history thousands have died daily for all sorts of tragic or depraved reasons. And while a particular form of suffering is at the forefront of our minds right now, suffering in general has always characterized human existence. We (and especially the most vulnerable among us) have always been forced to reckon with it. And so, I suppose that the question about Christ’s Resurrection that I posed above is simply the newest manifestation of a perennial inquiry: that is, how can we hope to speak of Resurrection to a world that is still rife with profound pain?
I cannot hope to offer a comprehensive answer to the questions I have posed, for I cannot hope to understand the full meaning and import of the Resurrection—not, at least, until the Last Day. But I can, for the moment, offer a partial reflection on what I believe the Resurrection signifies, and why I believe we should be pondering the Resurrection, even now.
My Easter feels deeply melancholy this year, which is a shame because normally Easter is the most joyful time of the year for me. I am trying to clothe myself with the jubilant spirit of the season, but to be honest, I am still stuck in the emotional rut that has dominated my life since the quarantine began. I wish I could say that I am rejoicing, but in truth I am mostly undulating between acute personal loneliness, anxiety about the wellbeing of my loved-ones, a certain listlessness that I might call acedia or ennui, and just-plain-depression. I find myself thinking, I wish everything could just go back to the way things were before all this, back to normal. For what is normal to me is familiar to me. And what is familiar to me is comfortable for me. And what is comfortable for me must be good for me. Perhaps you have experienced a similar pattern of thought.
But of course, what is normal is not necessarily good. In addition to merely disrupting our quotidian way of life, the Coronavirus pandemic has also highlighted the ways in which many of the things we think of as “normal” are in fact quite depraved. American hospitals which before the pandemic were running “at efficiency” are now struggling to keep up with and treat the growing influx of infected people. American communities of color are disproportionately vulnerable to the negative effects of the virus due to longstanding systemic injustices in the healthcare system and in the general American milieu, injustices which many Americans simply ignore—or worse, rationalize. And on top of everything else, in response to the incipient crisis, numerous American leaders and pundits have demonstrated sick priorities: namely, that the wellbeing of the American economy should be privileged over the wellbeing of the elderly, the impoverished, the immunocompromised, and the otherwise vulnerable.
None of these things are new. They are only newly illumined. The limits of the American healthcare system were already operative before the pandemic struck; Coronavirus simply highlighted those limitations. Systemic racial injustice is as old as America itself, and is part of our national DNA; Coronavirus simply provided a new context for novel manifestations of racial injustice. And finally, the pundits and leaders to whom I referred already ignored the plight of the most vulnerable among us long before the Coronavirus threatened humanity—the prevailing pandemic has simply clarified the priorities that were already operative in their hearts and minds. I say again, none of these things are new. In fact, they are normal—and my point is that the current circumstances have shown (perhaps more deeply than ever before) that normalcy, even if comfortable for some of us, is in fact deeply flawed, and full of sin.
In that light, I suppose that I do not desire a return to normalcy after all. If normalcy is nothing less than a system proved inadequate by the prevailing circumstances, I should hope that when this is all over, we do not return to normalcy. I should hope that when this is all over, we enter into something new: probably not perfect yet, but at least better. I should hope that we learn from our mistakes and from our acts of injustice—from our sins!—in order to make the world a better place, a place increasingly more like that Kingdom of God which is latent among us and growing like a humble mustard sprout.
What does any of this have to do with the Festival of Resurrection which we observe today? Actually, a great deal, I think.
Often, when we speak of Resurrection, we speak of “coming back to life,” as if Resurrection is a continuation of or return to an existence which, on some level, we already know and understand. But I think this language is a bit deceptive, or at least, incomplete. Resurrection is not primarily about return. Resurrection is about revolution. It is primarily defined not by continuity but by change. And therefore, the relationship of Resurrection with normalcy is subversive.
I believe we see this displayed in the first Resurrection appearance of Jesus recounted in the Gospel of John, in which St. Mary Magdalene encounters her Lord outside his tomb:
And Mary stood near the tomb, weeping outside. And as she wept, she stooped to look into the tomb, and she beheld two angels in white sitting right where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They took away my Lord, and I know not where they put him!”
Saying these things, she turned around and beheld Jesus standing there. And she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing that he was the keeper of the garden, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you put him, and I will take him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.” Turning, she said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means, “teacher”). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Now go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God.”
Mary Magdalene went, proclaiming to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!”; and she announced to them that he said these things to her.
I have always found this story to be arresting and beautiful, but it is particularly resonant with me right now. Above I wrote how my emotional life has lately been characterized by depression, anxiety, loneliness, and listlessness. Surely all of these emotions were also familiar to Mary Magdalene, as she wept on that first Easter morning all those years ago. Surely, she was bereaved and despairing; anxious about her future; worried for her fellow disciples and for the wellbeing of the incipient Christ-following community, which was traumatized by the brutal execution of its leader.
But then, Mary experienced an earth-shattering and revelatory encounter. She met the Risen Christ, and as we know, everything changed. But before we get to the happy part—the Easter proclamation shared with the disciples and then with the world, the reinvigoration of the Christ-following community, and the instatement of its evangelistic mission—I want to dwell in the first moments of Mary’s Resurrection encounter. It is of course a jubilant moment, but it is also awkward, and maybe even a bit jarring. Those two latter dimensions of the encounter intrigue me.
For one thing, as often happens when the Resurrected Christ appears to people in the New Testament, Mary does not recognize Jesus at first. Comically, she mistakes him for the local gardener. But then, Jesus simply speaks her name. And in being known and recognized, Mary is able to know and to recognize her beloved Savior. Narratively, this is both gorgeous and emotionally powerful. But what immediately follows is, at least to me, perplexing.
Jesus tells Mary not to cling to him. One can imagine what is implied by this statement: recognizing Jesus, Mary is overcome with emotion and attempts to embrace him. But Jesus stops her. Why? Surely this must have been an uncomfortable moment. Mary Magdalene has, in the span of three days, experienced both the tragic loss of her beloved teacher and the astonishing reversal of that loss. Her implied reaction—seeking to touch and to embrace the lost beloved with whom she has been reunited—is, I think, totally understandable. And yet the Resurrected Jesus says, in effect, “Don’t hug me.” And one can imagine that the cryptic reason Jesus gives for this command (“for I have not yet ascended to the Father”) does not elucidate much for Mary.
What are we to make of this awkward moment? In order to reckon with Jesus’ bizarre imperative in this passage, I would like to call upon the witness of the Early Church Fathers and share with you a quote from a sermon by St. John Chrysostom. His reading of this beautiful and complicated and earth-shattering and awkward moment between Jesus and Mary is, I think, particularly helpful, both for developing an understanding of this passage and for reflecting on the import of Resurrection-as-Change. Chrysostom writes:
“Touch me not”? Some assert that she asked for spiritual grace, because she had heard Him with the disciples say, “If I go to the Father, I will ask Him, and He shall give you another Comforter” [see John 14:16]. But how could she who was not present with the disciples have heard this? Besides, such an imagination is far from the meaning here. And how should she ask, when He had not yet gone to the Father? What then is the sense [of Jesus’ command]? Methinks that she wished still to converse with Him as before, and that in her joy she perceived nothing great in Him, although he had become far more excellent in the Flesh. To lead her therefore from this idea, and that she might speak to Him with much awe, (for neither with the disciples does He henceforth appear so familiar as before), He raises her thoughts, that she should give more reverent heed to Him. To have said, “Approach Me not as you did before, for matters are not in the same state, nor shall I henceforth be with you in the same way,” would have been harsh and high-sounding; but the saying, “I am not yet ascended to the Father,” though not painful to hear, was the saying of One declaring the same thing. For by saying, “I am not yet ascended,” He shows that He hastes and presses there; and that it was not meet that One about to depart there, and no longer to converse with men, should be looked on with the same feelings as before.
As St. John Chrysostom sees it, when Mary Magdalene first encounters and recognizes Christ in the garden outside the tomb, she is jubilant, and excited to interact with Jesus in the same way that she did before Jesus died. But, in the wake of the Resurrection, it is not altogether the same Jesus as before. Something has changed. Matters, to quote John, are not in the same state as they were before. The Resurrection has the outward appearance of continuity with the past—and indeed, it is still Jesus! —but at its heart, Resurrection signals momentous change. It is not only life but Transformed Life. Life that is bigger. Life that is more expansive. Life that cannot be grasped in precisely the same way that we grasp our own loved ones in embrace. Life worthy of deeper reverence and awe. And therefore, Life that cannot be looked upon in the same way that we look upon life as we know it. Resurrection is not a return to normalcy. It does not offer a reset, or a reinstatement of “the way things were.” No. Resurrection is the inbreaking of something new, and we cannot treat it in altogether the same way that we treat the life which died in order to Resurrect.
One can imagine that this was a challenging realization for Mary Magdalene, at least at first. She could no longer interact with Jesus in the way to which she was accustomed, and this would have required an adjustment that may have felt fairly uncomfortable because it entailed sailing into uncharted waters of interaction. It was not, as of yet, normal. But—and I think Mary must have come to realize this as she went out and proclaimed the Risen Christ—even if it wasn’t normal, it was better, and better in ways that she could not have foreseen while the stone still covered the mouth of the tomb.
For while the Resurrected Christ cannot be embraced in the way that we embrace a friend or lover or family-member, he can be embraced on a much deeper level. For the Christ, the Eternal and Living Word of God, who defeated Death and Ascended to the Father, is a far greater Reality and a far deeper Mystery than the discrete historical individual, Jesus of Nazareth (though, as Christians, we proclaim with wonder and thanksgiving how Jesus was himself the full enfleshment of that transcendent Mystery). As the first chapter of the Letter to the Colossians proclaims, the Risen Christ is the Image of the Invisible God, in whom all things are held together and through whose blood all things have been reconciled to their Creator. The Christ Life has affected an atonement (literally, “at-one-ment”) in which the very universe is grafted into the Divine Life and, therefore, redeemed. This is the fullness of Resurrection, the New and Abundant Life for which Creation currently groans as in the pains of childbirth. This Life is too expansive to embraced in the way that we embrace someone we love—and yet, it can and must be embraced in every atom and particle of the cosmos, as the Christ who is all and in all.
My point in writing all of this is simply to contend that the inbreaking of Resurrection requires change that subverts, transcends, and abandons that which we think of as normal and comfortable, but only so that we can enter into New Life which is fuller, all-enfolding, redemptive, and unifying.
The consummation of that Resurrected Life has not yet come to pass, and I do not know when it will—that is in God’s hands. Yet the longstanding conviction both of Christian tradition and of scriptural witness is that Resurrection has import not only for the future and for the eschaton, but also for the present moment, even if in the present moment the work of Resurrection is far from complete. And so, having hymned the expansive New Life which I believe is signified by Christ’s Resurrection, (and particularly signified by the interaction between Christ and Mary Magdalene which I explored above), I will now return to the quandary which began this essay: the question of how we are to think about and to welcome Resurrection in a challenging time such as this.
Right now, we are all navigating uncharted waters, as the global community struggles to contend with and contain the prevailing pandemic. As I pointed out above, many of us long to return to normalcy, to the way things were. And yet, the circumstances have also forced us to recognize the ways in which our very normalcy is in fact exploitative and inadequate, and therefore sinful. Consequently, we have realized that whatever awaits us on the other side of the crisis should not be a mere return to the normal. It should be something new, something better, something more expansive: a shared life related to but not altogether continuous with the life we were already living before this happened.
I imagine that the parallel I am drawing is fairly straightforward: my point is that in reconstructing and reevaluating our existence in light of this pandemic, we have a chance—both as communities and as individuals—to participate (in some way, however small) in the latent Resurrected Life of Christ, into which we are grafted as members of Christ’s Body. How? By letting our own transformed lives be icons and fruits of that Transformed Life which Jesus shared with Mary Magdalene on that first Easter morning, long ago. Transformation is, as I have already affirmed, often uncomfortable and awkward. So also was Mary’s first interaction with her Risen Savior. And yet, transformation, even if awkward, is good. And as we all know, discomfort is often a sign of profound and deeply needed growth. We do not have to remain as we are—and God be praised for that, for we should not remain as we are!—but the path of Christian growth is paved with suffering and uncertainty, and so our transition to New Life will be continually characterized by encounter with the as yet unfamiliar and un-normal, but nonetheless better, truer, deeper, and more alive.
So, in the spirit of the momentous transformation which Resurrection signifies, I invite us all this Easter season to consider the ways in which our own normalcy should be transcended. I invite us all to consider the ways in which we might be called to newer and deeper and truer and better life. I invite us all to consider the ways in which we cling to the life we already know, just as Mary tried to cling to the Jesus whom she thought she knew. I invite us all to consider the ways in which fears of discomfort and of unfamiliarity paralyze us from embracing a Transformed Life. And I invite us all to transcend those fears, with God’s help, and to strike out courageously into that country of Resurrection which we have not yet mapped, but which beckons us nonetheless into its vibrant meadows and woods. May we stand as St. Mary Magdalene stood in the garden beside Christ’s tomb, in awkward but beautiful encounter with that New Life which enfolds us and loves us and heals us, even if we cannot yet fully understand it. And may Mary Magdalene and all the Blessed Ones pray for us all as we continue on our pilgrimages of Resurrection and change.
Aidan Luke Stoddart ’21 is a junior in Eliot House studying Comparative Religion.