Saturday 6 April 2024

Recognizing the Appearance

They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus.

—John 20:13-14

Things are not as they appear. Or so we are told. Appearances can be deceiving. Appearances are fleeting and transitory, while reality is permanent and unchanging. Ask Plato.

I can only imagine what it was like when our risen Messiah, after his crucifixion and burial, appeared to disciples like Mary Magdalene. As John tells the story, Mary sees Jesus standing before her, but she does not recognize him. Why not, I wonder? Is it because she cannot credit precisely this possibility: that the beloved teacher she saw crucified and entombed could be standing before her, very much alive?

Even when Jesus asks Mary why she is weeping, she still fails to recognize him, mistaking him for the gardener. It is not until Jesus utters her name, “Mary,” that she recognizes the cherished pathbreaker whose untimely death she had been mourning. I wonder what it was like for Mary in that moment. Was it like viewing those ambiguous drawings that can be seen now one way, then another, but never both simultaneously? Did her moment of recognition snap into place immediately, suddenly, dramatically, like when one finally sees the duck instead of the rabbit?

“Rabbouni!” she exclaims. Teacher. The moment she recognizes Jesus, that is the appellation she uses. How fascinating, as though Jesus had chosen to make his first resurrected appearance to his favourite student, Mary called Magdalene, the one he then trusts with the task of sharing this good news with the rest of his followers.

This pattern of appearance without immediate recognition will repeat itself many times as the resurrected Jesus approaches his other followers. In John 21, the disciples do not recognize Jesus until, after the miraculous haul of fish that follows his instruction to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, the “disciple whom Jesus loved” exclaims to Peter, “It is the Lord!” Indeed, the disciples on the road to Emmaus recognize Jesus only after he is gone.

Is there a common denominator to these instances of sudden recognition? Mary hears Jesus say her name, the disciples catch a miraculous haul of fish, the travellers to Emmaus have burning hearts as Jesus opens the scriptures to them. Perhaps these very different moments of recognition occur because these disparate followers suddenly recognize and understand the possibility the resurrected Jesus reveals and had been teaching them to recognize all along: the transformative possibility of redemption, where nothing is fatalistically condemned to be what it merely is, but can become more than that: restored, bounteous, glorious, and full.

Things are not as they appear. They are more than they appear. Thank God for that.

May we all come to recognize and embody the possibility our living Messiah reveals. Shalom!

Ron Kuipers