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The church year is pretty much built around three major events: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Today, for example, is the 8th Sunday after Pentecost. But the church year is also peppered with a number of minor festivals. These always occur on a fixed date—like April 25 or December 26. July 22 is the Feast of St. Mary of Magdalene—and that is how it happened that we are reading about the resurrection today.
The reading for the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene goes like this. Mary Magdalene is standing outside of Jesus’ tomb. She is sobbing—inconsolably—because the tomb is empty. (Of course, you and I would have good reason to cry if a body was found in Jesus’ tomb; but Mary is crying because his body is not there.) She has not yet recognized the signs. A few days ago, Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up.” But Mary hasn’t caught on to his meaning yet.
She looks into the tomb. Two angels are inside—clothed in gleaming white robes. Mary obviously sees them; but St John the Evangelist records no reaction. As far as we can tell, she may not have realized they were angels! “Woman, why are you weeping?” one asks. “They have taken his body.”
Mary turns to leave the tomb and runs smack into a man. It’s Jesus; but she does not yet recognize him. It hasn’t occurred to her to expect a living Lord. Her thoughts are only of what she has lost: his corpse. Mary thinks the man before her is a gardener.
But Jesus says to her, “Mary”. And finally the moment comes. The eclipse passes. The sun bursts across her memory, and the old familiar face of her Lord is paired with the man that just spoke her name. Recognition. It happened just as Jesus had said 10 chapters before: “the shepherd calls his sheep by name…and they know his voice.”
Recognition is something we find essential. The ability to recognize faces allows us to make friends, to recognize patterns, allows us to learn, to recognize danger, allows us to survive.
It took Mary a couple of tries to recognize Jesus. But some people never did. In the book of Acts—in today’s Epistle—Paul said that the people of Jerusalem never recognized Jesus; and because they did not recognize him, they fulfilled the Scriptures by condemning him. What an awful mistake…
Every human being has had Mary Magdalene moments: when you hear a familiar voice on the phone but don’t make the connection or when you’re staring at some batch of information and can’t see the pattern. Many of our Mary moments are pretty benign—they just make us feel silly—but what a tragedy: to be unable to recognize something so eternally important: to be unable to recognize Jesus. Today’s readings about recognition and unrecognition have made me wonder: would I have recognized Jesus? Would you?
The Jews in Jerusalem did not recognize Jesus because they expected him to be a king! They did not recognize the Son of God whom Isaiah said “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him.” I’ve been raised on pictures of a Jesus 6 feet tall and trim, a Caucasian who wore clean clothes and had a neatly trimmed beard. Would I have recognized the Son of God who “had no beauty or majesty?” Would you? For that matter, how can anyone be sure of recognizing Jesus?
Paul says in Romans 1 that God’s invisible qualities can be deduced from creation—that men ought to know that there’s a God, and that they are therefore without excuse for their sinfulness. If you can make a case for God from the evidence for intelligent design or from the existence of conscience, you may prove that there is a god—a fact that even the demons must admit—but you have not yet recognized Him.
Luke says in Acts 13 that many witnesses saw Jesus after Easter. And we know that some of these men and women died insisting on their testimony. It’s obvious that the chief priests had only to produce the body of Jesus to destroy Christianity. But they could not. You may prove the empty tomb—a fact even the Jews were forced to admit—but you have not yet recognized the Son of God.
David says in Psalm 3, “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Once a week, an elder hands you a piece of bread: a small disc that has little flavor, just a slight saltiness. And then you are given a sip of port: a strong, sweet wine. Once a week, you taste God…but even an unbeliever can eat this meal (though—as Paul says—not to his benefit). You may taste the body and blood of Jesus and still not yet recognize the Son of God.
Jesus says repeatedly, “he who has ears, let him hear!” God indeed revealed himself in his Word—he has privileged our ears above every other organ. As Paul says, “faith comes from hearing.” Nevertheless, Luke points out in today’s Epistle that the very rulers who rejected Jesus read the Scriptures every week! They knew the Scriptures; but they did not understand them; and they failed to recognize Jesus.
It is critical then, that we understand the Scriptures—that we read them, learn them, mull over them, memorize them, study them, and wrestle with them. But it would take more than a hundred lifetimes to exhaust our study of the Scriptures. How then, can we be certain of recognizing God?
It’s simple actually. He has given us a sign by which we may know him. He has chosen to reveal himself in a certain way. He is always The-God-Who-Saves. He made himself known to the Israelites by bringing them out of Egypt—and even that was just a foreshadowing of Good Friday and Easter. God ordained only one name under heaven by which we may recognize him: Jesus—which quite fittingly means “Yahweh Saves”. And you will always find Jesus on the cross: giving his life for you, giving his righteousness to you, giving you the peace that passes understanding. In fact, that is how you can recognize God. He is always the one giving himself for you.
And that brings us—finally—back to Mary. Because, in the end, we know God only when he calls us by name. And he does that in the Word and Sacraments. When you hear the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” or the words, “Your sins are forgiven” or the words, “This is my body, given for you”—you are being addressed personally—and you can be sure that you are hearing the voice of Jesus. …And then the moment comes…Recognition. The eclipse passes. The sun bursts across your memory, and the old familiar words are paired with the living God whom you already know…very well.