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Bishop Dietsche’s Sermon for Easter Day

The Right Reverend Andrew ML Dietsche
Bishop of New York

Easter Sunday • April 21, 2019

The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine
New York City 

John 20:1-18


Alleluia!  Christ is Risen!

Five years ago this cathedral inducted the writer Flannery O’Connor into the American Poets Corner over there in the lower left hand corner of this church.  She was a bracingly surprising writer and a lifelong devout Catholic who went to mass every day of her life, and one who sought to explore the sacramental life of the church through her sometimes strange but always engaging stories.  She had died fifty years earlier, but was still young when she passed, just in her thirties, so we were delighted that two of her cousins were still alive and able to make the trip to be with us for the induction.  

In 1946, when she was 21 years old, and a very new writer, and a young woman just beginning in life, and a strong Christian who was starting to think in grown up ways of what prayer meant and of how one might approach God, she started keeping a prayer journal.  It is quite wonderful, and the prayers she wrote to God reveal the yearning, longing heart of someone just beginning her adult life and anxious to come into her full self.  She prayed that God would give her stories to tell, and that by the telling of those stories she might give glory to God.  She prayed that she might be for God as her typewriter was for her:  the instrument through which God might speak.  But running throughout her prayers is the deep poignancy of discipleship and the struggle and the suffering of one longing to know God and to see God, who is too often absent and too much silent.  And the fear that her own desiring and her own passions and her own wanting to be the storyteller and writer might so obscure the vision of God trying to shine through her that there might be no point of her at all.  Early on she wrote:

“Dear God… You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon… what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blacks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.  I do not know you God because I am in the way.  Please help me to push myself aside.”

Running through her prayers is the deep longing to know and to see God, but also to be an instrument of God’s purposes, to live a life of meaning, and right with that is the hard experience that the nature of longing is always suffering.  And connected to her desire to know God is an intimation that without that knowledge she can never come into the fullness of her own life that she seeks.  Understanding of God and understanding of self are woven together, and it seems for her that only by teasing out those secrets will she ever discover the purpose of her life.  But it’s so hard.  

The scriptures are filled with the witness of people yearning to know God and of the fear, doubt and pain of facing God’s impassive silence.  We see the desperate woman reaching through the crowd, straining to touch just the hem of Jesus’ robe.  The needy but fearful father who stands at a distance apart and cries out, “Lord I believe;  only help my unbelief.”  The psalmist who wrote “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.  My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God:  when shall I come and appear before God?  My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say to me, Where is thy God?”

Teresa of Avila in the sixteenth century struggled for most of her life with the silent absence of God, and the pain that that silence imposed on her.  In her writings she gave the fullest expression of her ecstasy in God, and just as full expression of the pain of the decades-long dry spells during which God was a stranger.  “Woe is me, woe is me, Lord, how very long has been this exile!  And it passes with great sufferings of longing for my God!  Lord, what can a soul placed in this prison do?  O Jesus, how long is the life of humans!  …  It is very long for the soul that desires to come into the presence of its God.  What remedy do You provide for this suffering?  There isn’t any, except when one suffers for you.”  

And Finally, Vincent Van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother, “Our life, we might compare it to a journey, we go from the place where we were born to a far off haven.  Our earlier life might be compared to sailing on a river, but very soon the waves become higher, the wind more violent, we are at sea almost before we are aware of it – and the prayer from the heart ariseth to God:  Protect me o God, for my bark is so small and Thy sea is so great. The heart of man is very much like the sea, it has its storms, it has its tides and in its depths it has its pearls too.  The heart that seeks for God and for a Godly life has more storms than any other.”  I’m not sure if that was before or after he cut off his ear.  

Or, all of this said in other words:  “I really want to see you.  I really want to be with you.  I really want to see you Lord, but it takes so long, my Lord.  My sweet lord.  O my Lord.  My sweet Lord.”

The writer and the mystic and the painter and the rock star all give voice to what must be seen as a universal desire to know and to see God – even if people aren’t always aware that’s going on inside them – a fundamental human longing, and paradoxically of the suffering that that visits upon the seeker.  It is not unlike the unrequited longing for a beloved, and the painful, wrenching fear that one is not even noticed.  And in this regard I think that the experience of longing for God, known to every human heart, can help to inform the story of Mary coming to the garden on the first day of the week, on the Sunday after the Friday of Jesus’ passion and dying.  

Each of the gospels tells this story, and the elements are largely the same from one telling to another.  Mary Magdalene, alone or with other women, have come to the tomb to do the necessary work of mourning – to anoint Jesus with oil and perfume him with spices, and to wrap his body in the shroud for his burial.   But the stone which covers the entrance to the tomb is rolled away, and the body of Jesus is gone.  There are messengers of some sort, angels, at the tomb to tell them that Jesus is risen.  The women run to the disciples, who also then come to the tomb.  There is much running back and forth.  And at some point in the story Jesus appears to one or. more of them.  And the first part of this resurrection narrative from John is told in exactly that way.  But then John tells of Mary returning to the garden alone, of her weeping, of Jesus coming to her, of her inability to recognize him for grief or for some change in his countenance.  And then the most tender moment.  Jesus speaks her name, “Mary,” and she knows him, and she reaches for him.  It is that moment that I want to reflect on here this morning.

What we know and don’t know about Mary Magdalene is complicated.  We know that she was among the women who traveled with Jesus and the disciples and apparently paid their bills, which has led to some supposition that she may have been wealthy.  Luke and Mark both record that Jesus cast seven demons out of her.  That’s significant.  There is a very old tradition which associated Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, whose brother Lazarus was raised by Jesus, and who knelt before Jesus and anointed his feet with oil and wiped them with her hair, though that proposition has been fiercely disputed.  There is a very old tradition which associated Mary with the unnamed prostitute who sneaked into the home of Simon the Pharisee and washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair, very reminiscent of Mary of Bethany, though that proposition has been even more fiercely disputed.  Recently there has been a renewed interest in Mary Magdalene, and she has become somewhat politicized in the church, reflecting I think the importance and mystery surrounding this one called “the first of the apostles.”  

But whoever Mary was or however we are to understand her, what glimpses we get into her life from these few biblical accounts and the later speculations and the storytelling and the wondering about her, there is within all this the picture of a person to whom Jesus extended himself when she was in trouble, and perhaps a person who was lost along the way and who found in Jesus the one in whom she might find the map into her fullest life.  Not unlike the prayers of Flannery O’Connor.  Give me stories.  Let me speak for you.

And if there is anything that we can grasp or understand about Mary who was possessed by seven demons, or Mary who was also mournful Mary of Bethany, or Mary who was also the prostitute who wept over Jesus’ feet;  if within this network of remembrances and storytelling that can let us see even a little bit into this complicated, essential person, then at least we may assert that she stands before Jesus, when she does, as a representative of all those people in the world for whom the world has little to give.  All those people of whom Mary the mother of Christ sang in her Magnificat:  The poor and the hungry whom God will feed, the little ones whom God will raise, the outcast whom God will embrace.  Or at least Mary may stand as a representative of all of those tax collectors and prostitutes and lepers and brigands and criminals and mercenaries and slaves and the very desperately poor and the very desperately sick that the Bible tells us followed Jesus and believed in him when no one in the world would believe in them, and trusted Jesus because he alone of all the world trusted them, and loved Jesus because he loved everyone.  My sweet Lord.  The heart of a person is very much like the sea, it has its storms, it has its tides and in its depths it has its pearls too.  So perhaps we might see Mary for the disciple she was: longing and yearning, seeking and desiring, passionate and needful, burning with desire like Teresa of Avila, needing to see and needing to know like George Harrison, a soft bright pearl in the shadowy depths.  

And if Mary was one whom Jesus lifted up from a low place, then let us at least get this:  that when she came to Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning it was not only because she was bereaved over the violent too-soon death of a good friend, though it was that but that wasn’t the point, and not only to do the necessary ritual acts that custom required for the burial of the dead, though she was responsible and trustworthy and would of course do those things, but that wasn’t the point either, and not only because the death of Jesus was the end of a relationship she cared about, but most of all, and critically, because the death of Jesus was the end of the Hope of all the world.  What now for the tax collector and the leper and the criminal?  What now for the unloved and unlovable prostitute fallen to her knees, hair unbound, weeping over Jesus’ feet?  It is for these, and for herself too, that Mary’s heart was broken on Easter.  And the medicine for all that broken world was just her name.  “Mary.”  And it was enough.  

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not a conventional happy ending.  Jesus’ rising remains covered all over in mystery.  Hard to understand, hard to believe.  To the unbelieving eye it made no difference to the world at all.  Even for the faithful the long and winding road is still marked as ever by the absence of Jesus and the silence of God and that unquiet place of needfulness within us.  We still yearn and long to see.  We still seek and desire to know.  Van Gogh said that the heart that seeks for God and for a Godly life has more storms than any other, and he was a baptized child of the resurrection, a sometimes preacher in church when he wasn’t painting.  Flannery O’Conner went to mass every day of her life and still prayed, “Oh God please make my mind clear.  Please make it clean…  Please help me to get down under things and find where You are.”  That is, strange to say, the voice of one whoh already believes that Christ is risen.  

But Jesus came to Mary Magdalene in the Garden on Easter morning like the Good Shepherd who calls his sheep each by name, and he called her by name.  And she reached for him.  And in that tender exchange lies what may be the deepest resurrection hope for the yearning seeker and for the world:  the possibility, or maybe it is a promise, that we may finally know and be known.  Each, all of us, in our fullest personhood.  Known by Jesus all the way through – with our every joy and sorrow, and every desire and need, and all of our secrets and all of our desires – and raised with him and by him into the very heart of God.  And in the face of everything else in the world that has to be good enough.  No, actually it is the best thing.  To keep on loving the seeking, and even to love the suffering, and to see the Risen Lord Jesus of Easter, when we can, only in glimpses.  That actually turns out to be the finest joy.  And that is all the consolation the Christian gets in this life.  But it is so rich that one may still, through all our questions and all our desiring, even so make the proclamation:  “Alleluia!  Christ is Risen!”  Amen