What if this story is all about Mary’s brain?
The beats of today’s Gospel reading are familiar to most of us. Here at the Monastery, we recount them in the Angelus, which we pray before Morning and Evening Prayer. “The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary . . .” pause, “and she conceived by the Holy Spirit.”
So much happens in that pause. And what if it’s all about Mary’s brain?
Of all the young women God could have chosen, God chose Mary. And what is the first thing we find out about her? That she hears the angel’s news, is perplexed, ponders over his words, and questions him. The first thing we find out about Mary is that she responds to God by using her own God-given faculties of reason and intelligence.
Byzantine writer Nicholas Mesarites provides a cognitive description of this episode: “The word comes to the hearing of the Virgin, and enters through it to the brain; the intelligence which is seated in the brain at once lays hold upon what comes to it, recognizes it by its perception, and then communicates to the heart itself what it had understood.” This then leads Mary to question the angel to determine the truth of the angel’s words. Only after she verifies the truth does Mary gives her yes to the angel, and to God.
Thomas Traherne (1637-1674)
Thomas Traherne, whom we commemorate today, was a mystic, a childlike mystic. If his own lifetime had overlapped with J. R. R. Tolkien, or C. S. Lewis, or George MacDonald, I think they would have been very good friends. However Traherne lived more than two centuries earlier than these other three, Traherne born in 1637. He was the son of a shoemaker, and he went on to earn three degrees at Oxford. His university days during the 1650s were the best of times and the worst of times. Best was the intellectual stimulation. However this was a time of civil war and of religious conflict, actually less religious conflict and more agnosticism, which was certainly true for Traherne. For him, life was without meaning; he was listless, full of dread, deeply lonely. In his journal, we read about one sad evening, his being alone in a field, when all things were dead quiet. He writes, “a certain want and horror fell upon me, beyond imagination.”
St. Mary Magdalene
“I have seen the Lord.” Today we celebrate Mary Magdalene. After his resurrection, Jesus first appeared to Mary. Jesus first sent Mary to share the good news.
We know little of her story, but Jesus chose Mary. Jesus cast out from her seven demons. She experienced release and freedom, love and compassion. Mary traveled with and followed Jesus, witnessing his ministry. Receiving much, she kept coming, as she did even to the tomb.
Weeping, Mary did not recognize nor fear angels as most do. She did not recognize Jesus when he appeared. When Jesus called Mary by name, she turned and recognized him. It’s a brief and beautiful portrait. Hearing, turning, she was found again, seeing her Savior and friend. Jesus sent Mary to tell others the good news of what she saw and heard from Jesus.
Mary Magdalene is, especially for John, the prime example for us of being a Christian. First, Jesus chose Mary and healed her. She followed along and witnessed his teaching. Jesus continued to come, surprise, and reveal including amid deep grief. Jesus sent Mary to share what she knew, first to a small group of men huddled in fear. Mary was apostle to the apostles.
How did you come to know Jesus chose you? How have you experienced healing, divine compassion, and love? How is Jesus further being revealed now, showing up including in your need? Keep sharing the good news of how you see Jesus as did Blessed Mary Magdalene, whom we remember today.
After years fishing with our father Zebedee, I was shocked and amazed to be following a rabbi. My brother and I know how to be on boats, to weave nets, and listen to the sea. Instead, we went from village to village witnessing Jesus teach and heal, living in community, and helping with crowd control. We were up close traveling, eating, and talking with Jesus. We witnessed miracles. Scripture came alive. We changed by being with Jesus, and we saw each other change in our group. We received the good news and lived it. What a joy to see Jesus spread it.
Then Jesus sent us out to do the same. Like many invitations, I didn’t understand and pushed back first. Who was I to preach, heal, and cast out demons? Who were we as fishermen and ordinary folk to do the same stuff as Jesus?
But we did. We went out speaking in households and in the markets, to individuals and crowds. We found we indeed were given a voice and authority. We prayed for the sick, and they were healed. We prayed for the possessed, and demons left.
Jesus invites beyond our expectations, and Jesus enables. Jesus both gives power and teaches humility. We were sent out with little, indeed less than our usual. We found receptive people who hosted us in their homes and provided for us. We couldn’t serve on our own terms, in control with our own provisions. We had to rely on others. As Jesus had said, some places rejected us, and so we left.
Being chosen to follow Jesus is a shocking and amazing journey. What’s your experience? How has following Jesus surprised and changed you?
What is Jesus inviting? It’s ok if you don’t understand it now. Jesus will enable and reveal.
Jesus sent and empowered me to fish for people. [i]
[i] Matthew 4:19
Philip and James, Apostles
At one time in my life, I had a rector who referred to this feast as that of Pip and Jim. At first, I was a little confused. I thought I had misheard him. It took a few moments to sink in. At last, it clicked. Right. Philip and James, Pip and Jim. Got it. Since then, this day has always been Pip and Jim to me.
As much as I would like to spend the next several minutes waxing eloquently about St. James the Apostle, who is the Jim half of our apostolic duo, there is actually not much to say about him. One source sums up James in these words: The son of Alpheus is often but not certainly identified with the James whose mother stood by Christ on the Cross, and also with James ‘the brother of the Lord’ who saw the risen Christ and is often called the first bishop of Jerusalem. He is also sometimes identified with the author of the Epistle of James. If none of these identifications are correct, we know practically nothing about James the Less.
If what we can say about James, is cloaked in uncertainty, then there’s not a whole heck of a lot to go on. We are not even sure why he is called the Less. Was it to distinguish him from James the Great, the son of Zebedee, or from James the Brother of the Lord? Was it because he was young, or short? Again, there is not much we can say with any certainty about this James the Less.
“Jesus himself came near and went with [the disciples], but their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Lk 24:15-16).
Stop and think about that. “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” This was the man whom these two disciples had chosen to follow, the man for whom these disciples had given up their jobs and left their families. His good news defined their reality. And suddenly he was gone, brutally executed, his body now missing from his tomb. Imagine how they must have felt.
I can imagine these two disciples, shocked and confused by the recent events, walking down the road. I can imagine them praying the words of our psalm this morning: “The cords of death entangled me; . . . I came to grief and sorrow” (Ps 116:2). I can imagine their eyes, taking in their surroundings but not really seeing them. Is it surprising, really, that they perhaps failed to see what was right in front of them?
But is there something more going on? After all, their eyes were kept from recognizing Jesus. The word translated as “kept” can also mean to hold, to seize, to restrain, to arrest. It’s a forceful word. The disciples don’t just fail to recognize Jesus; they are actively hindered from knowing that this man walking and talking with them is their Lord and teacher, risen from the dead. Disciples in other accounts may not recognize Jesus immediately, but only here are they kept from recognizing him. Only here are the disciples’ eyes made to be closed, to be unable to perceive the reality in front of them.
So what’s happening here? In the way the evangelist distinguishes seeing from perceiving, I am reminded of how Jesus, quoting Isaiah, explains the purpose of parables: “to you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand’” (Lk 8:10, quoting Is 6:9-10). This seems to be what is happening here. These disciples look at the man accompanying them, but they do not perceive him.
The apostle Thomas is often branded as the stooge of the apostles – “Doubting Thomas” – but that is both unfair and inaccurate. In actuality, the opposite is true. There are two encounters in the Gospel, prior to what we’ve just heard, that shed light on the apostle Thomas. One scene was in Galilee, when Jesus first said to the disciples that he would return to Judea because his friend Lazarus had died. Very risky for Jesus. The disciples knew full well about the death threats against Jesus (and probably against them, too). Many of the disciples protested Jesus’ plan to return to Judea. But it was Thomas who really understood Jesus. Thomas pleaded with his fellow disciples not to desert Jesus but to stay with him. Thomas said, “Let us go that we may die with Him!”[i] Perhaps more than any other disciple, Thomas was prepared to abide with Jesus to the end. Thomas had been following a Messiah whom Thomas knew would suffer and die. Not true, it seems, for the other disciples.
The other scene was in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before Jesus was seized. Jesus said, “Let not your hearts be troubled…. I go to prepare a place for you… and you know where I am going….” No. No idea. It seems only Thomas had the courage to admit that the disciples were clueless. “My Lord,” Thomas says, “We do not have the slightest idea where you are going! How can we know the way?”[ii]
The Transfiguration closes the season after the Epiphany, and bookends, in language and details, Jesus’s baptism, which opened it. Jesus ascends—from the water at his baptism, and up a mountain now. A voice recognizes him as “my Son, the Beloved.” But between the two events, Jesus has invited people to follow him; he has called his disciples to be with him and to share in his ministry.
These disciples have had glimpses that Jesus is more than just a man. But here, glimpses give way to full vision. The three disciples see Jesus transfigured, his clothes becoming “dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” They are terrified. Peter doesn’t really seem to know what’s going on. They see Jesus, their teacher, their friend, their Messiah—and they see him changed.
But we might ask, “who was changed? Who was transfigured?” Was Jesus changed—or were the disciples? Was it, perhaps, that the eyes of the disciples were opened so that they could see the reality behind the reality?
How does Jesus show us the nature of God? One resounding answer is: as Light. Reflected light, shimmering into the world we see and know, igniting into conscious awareness. The primordial light shining in the darkness of John’s Prologue; the light that replaces that of sun and moon in the eternal city of the Revelation to John; the light of Christ we kindle at Easter; the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.”
Philip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Philip is done with all the poetry; all the elusive and allusive imagery John’s Jesus has woven to evoke, to awaken, to captivate, to bestow the relational knowing of God found in and through himself. Philip wants a clear shaft of light outlining a straightforward vision. Before Jesus leaves them, Philipp wants just a single flash of definitive truth.
But this is not the way John’s Jesus reveals God. Instead, the words and the works of this Jesus are like the sides and angles of a prism. The clarity of a prism enables a beam of invisible, light to pass through. But it also refracts that light into something new: the visible color spectrum. “No one has ever seen God,” we read again in John’s Prologue. “It is God the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, who has made God known.” Jesus refracts the Father’s invisible light, scattering constellated colors that draw our eyes toward their source. It is the interplay of the pattern that beckons us – through dots we can connect, the words and works of Jesus that reveal the truth in the measure we can receive it. Receiving the light is the long slow work of conversion, not epiphany.
Today’s Gospel is in many ways Matthew’s ‘annunciation.’ When we speak of the annunciation we think of course of the Gospel of Luke and his account of the angel appearing to Mary. But for Matthew the angel appears to Joseph – in a dream. “Joseph, take Mary as your wife. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus. And he did as the angel commanded him.” But he did a lot more than this. This remarkable man became a true father to Jesus.
And this is enormously important because as Jesus ‘grew in wisdom and in years’ he slowly came to understand God as Father. In the Old Covenant God was ‘Lord’, ‘Creator’, ‘Governor’. But for Jesus God was above all ‘Father’. And he came to understand his mission as opening the way for us to have the sort of relationship with God which is nearest to that of a father and a son. But for Jesus to have come to understand and use this analogy he must have had a wonderfully good and close relationship with Joseph.
I think though that pastorally, this poses a problem. The word ‘father’ arouses feelings which in everyone’s life are necessarily colored by personal experience. Martin Luther for example had a father who would beat him for the smallest offence. He once told a friend that whenever he said the Lord’s Prayer he would think of his own father, who was hard, unyielding and relentless. ‘I cannot help but think of God that way.’