It is at the level of imagination that the fateful issues of our new world-experience must first be mastered. It is here that culture and history are broken, and here that the church is polarized. Old words do not reach across the new gulfs, and it is only in vision and oracle that we can chart the unknown and new-name the creatures.
Before the message, there must be the vision, before the sermon the hymn, before the prose the poem.
(the Forward to Grace Confounding: Poems by Amos N. Wilder, taken from his work Theopoetic).
Have you ever snuck into a funeral home? I have. I did it when I was five or six years old, when my mother went to the visitation of a lady who died. My mother pulled into the parking lot in my hometown, and she told me to stay in the car. So, of course, I didn’t. I gave her a few minutes to get inside and be swallowed by the crowd, and then I went in. I was a little guy, so I squeezed around the legs of the grown ups until I made my way to the large box in the back of the room. When I reached it, I pulled myself up and peeped into the box…and I saw her.
I thought she was the oldest human being I had ever seen. I could have sworn that she must have been at least fifty! She was really old…and really dead.
I don’t know how long I hung there on the side of the long box, but I remember grownup arms suddenly coming around my chest, carrying me back away from the long box. I was lifted away (in trouble of course), but as I was carried through the room, I never took my eyes off the ancient lady.
This was my first experience with death…
Looking back on my experience, there was nothing unusual about it…about the lady who had died, about the visitation, even really about the precocious child. It was all quite typical.
Death was typical for Mary Magdalene and the others, too. It was a daily reality for them. People died all the time. People were crucified all the time. People were buried in tombs all the time. They knew the routine, to come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with oil and spices. There would be a stone to roll away, and there would be a body to anoint.
The only difference between me and Mary Magdalene (well, actually there are many differences between me and the Magdalene), but the important difference in this case was that while my ancient lady behaved the way she was supposed to, something extraordinary happened to Mary Magdalene and the other women that morning.
“As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.”
Don’t you love how politely the Bible puts things? “They were alarmed.” I can think of other ways to describe how they might have felt! Imagine if you went in a tomb and found….emptiness.
Something unexpected happened, to say the least. “He is not here,” the strange man in white says to them. “Go and tell the disciples that he has gone ahead of you to Galilee.”
“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
And that’s how the entire Gospel account according to St. Mark ends. “They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” Striking, isn’t it.
In later decades, other writers added on to the Gospel, realizing of course that folks had talked about what happened, because, of course, we’re sitting here today. The news wasn’t kept to themselves for long. Jesus himself even showed up in various places, appearing to people.
But, it’s intriguing that we know that the original account of St. Mark’s Gospel stops dramatically right there: “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about spiritual practice, risk, and creativity over the past several months. About those times and spaces where we have an experience of the holy, when something profound happens to us, that suddenly and dramatically opens our eyes to see the world in a different way.
And holy experiences have the uncanny habit of making us uncomfortable, to have our perspectives broadened…to see that something more is possible….
I invite you to wonder with me if that isn’t the deep meaning of Easter, of our participation in the Paschal Mystery: that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s ultimate act of creativity, and that we are called to participate in this creative, imaginative, life-giving reality in our own daily lives.
If this is so, what would a creative life, grounded in the resurrection, look like for you? For us as a community? It’s a challenging image to explore. Maybe when we think of creativity, we think of art.
And, when I think of art, I always think of children and their exciting adventures…maybe because of the damaged furniture and clothes I’ve experienced!
Don’t you think that every child is an artist? That every child is seems so innately creative, whether their media is sticks and mud, glitter and glue, or twirls and tutus? There is something within children, some resonance with this creative spirit, that cannot be contained. They can’t just tell a story; they have to act it out for you…all the parts…with all the movements. Give them some dry noodles and glue, and they will give you a masterpiece worthy for…..your refrigerator.
In watching my own daughter and so many other children, I wonder if this is what Jesus had in mind when he says “Let the children come unto me. For the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are like these children. (Matthew 19:14; Luke 18:16).
Let those come unto me who seek to embody this creative, resurrected spirit…
And, I think about these women at the tomb, when they encountered this unexpected thing…and how the text says they reacted. For years I have read this text in a slightly negative way—maybe just outright negative. They ran away and didn’t say anything? Why weren’t they excited? And, as we do so often, “well, if that had been me, I wouldn’t have acted like that. I would have been so excited that Jesus had been raised I would have told everyone I saw!” Would we have told everyone?
The text says “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Terror and amazement….
We learn a lot by peeling back the layers of the text itself. What it really says is not negative, that they were somehow stubborn, closed off, rigid… what it really says is that they were in a state of ecstasy. It uses the word ekstasis, that there is a casting down of a thing from its proper place, a throwing of a mind out of its normal state.
The unexpected….can lead to the ecstatic.
So, it’s not that they didn’t tell anyone what had happened to them, it’s that they couldn’t tell anyone…not in the moment where they had encountered this new thing, this resurrection, God’s most creative act in the world…the moment that death itself was shattered and thrown down from its proper place in things.
Easter is a season of ecstasy. It is a space in which we are invited to open ourselves to the effect of the unexpected on our lives, where we are invited to stretch out into the new way of being… As a colleague of mine described, we are invited to be generative rather than possessive. To take our place in the creative process of God and allow ourselves to be used, to be an embodiment of grace in the world around us.
Keep in mind that this new creative space of ecstasy took a while to sink in…indeed, it is still sinking in…that is why we are here. That is why we gather to reflect on our sacred texts, pray together, and share in Holy Communion, to keep practicing our “skills” of spiritual imagination. This takes time. Remember that Jesus kept appearing to people for forty days until his Ascension. He kept showing up to remind them…..that this new matrix of creative generation was the new norm. That a life of discipleship looks like this…leaning into these risky spaces of life.
We realize that creativity isn’t limited to noodle art—that there are NO limits—that we are called to fully embody this creative, resurrection-grounded practice in all aspects of our life.
But we have a choice, of course. We can indeed flee from the empty tomb out of fear, remaining possessive of our perspective, rigid in our embodiment. That’s one way to read “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” We can choose fear, as it were. But, if you’re the sort of person who is content to live a life grounded in fear, you’re going to have a real hard time with this God we worship….because God seems insistent that we step away from fear. “Be not afraid,” God’s messengers always tell us.
And……and……we can choose to live a life of creative embodiment, of generativity grounded in the resurrected life of Christ…we can, like Mary Magdalene and the others, step out from the empty tomb into a life they never imagined possible.
We can seek to live a life of Easter ecstasy.
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
The Great Vigil of Easter, Year B
St. Mark 16:1-8
April 5, 2015