(Genesis 2:7-9)+Psalm 104:1-4,10-15, 27-30+Colossians 3:1-11+Mark 16:9-15
Mary Magdalene tried to tell them, but they did not believe.
Two other disciples told them, and they did not believe.
Finally, Jesus appeared, and they believed.
Seeing, as they say, is believing.
It is, I think, the challenge of our times to lead people to belief when they cannot see. We walk by faith and not by sight according to the Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 5:7), but at least he had a transcendent experience of Christ’s presence on the road to Damascus. Who among us has been blinded by a bolt of light and heard the voice of Jesus? Not me.
We all know of the handwringing going on about the decline of the Western Church, churches closing, dwindling numbers and all of that, and I can’t help wondering if the God on offer to the world is not a God who can give us that sense of the numinous, the transcendent. Maybe the God people think they know about is not God at all but just a God that we can explain and put in a little box that miraculously mirrors exactly how we think God ought to be. Maybe our God is too small, as J.B. Phillips wrote.
So what are we to do as 21st century Christians? Where do we experience God? How do we know our story to be true? How do they – all of those we meet in our life who don’t come here each week – how do they know that it is true?
On Ash Wednesday, we mark our foreheads with a cross of ash and are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. It is a reminder of our mortality in these fragile mortal bodies and of our immortality as beloved of God.
We are also marked with the sign of the cross in our baptism, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. And every time we gather at this table and receive that broken body of Christ, we become that body. St. Augustine said that when the people come to receive communion, they should be greeted with the words “behold who you are, become what you receive.” If we really grasped that we bear not only God’s image but that we are the body of Christ, what kind of transformation might be unleashed in us and in our world?
Behold who you are. You are the image of Christ. How will people know Jesus if they cannot see Jesus? They see you. You are Christ’s body in the world.
Become what you receive. Become bread for a hungry world. Be broken so that you can be nourishment for those you meet, bearing the light of Christ into this struggling world.
Usually on this first Sunday in Lent, we hear the story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness, resisting Satan whose sole purpose is to draw Jesus from God, to tempt Jesus into being who he is not. But Jesus knew who he was. He knew whose he was. And here we are reading about the time after the crucifixion when Jesus fulfilled his purpose for our salvation.
We are not likely to encounter the devil in the wilderness, but don’t doubt that evil exists and can draw us away from our purpose as God’s beloved. This is one reason we begin our journey through the Lenten fast with the Great Litany, repelling the forces of evil, confessing that we fail to honor God in our lives, and praying for strength and mercy to start again.
Where else do we get to do this? To know that there is no end to the number of chances we get to do better? And even if we don’t do one single thing differently week after week, we can still come back here, confess that, and hear the absolution of the Church.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says that “The survival of Christian faith does not depend on our resources or ingenuity…” and suggests the more modest aim ought to be to “live in such a way that it makes sense to say God lived in these times.” It isn’t really a very high bar given how God is represented – or misrepresented – by so many who claim to follow Jesus.
Maybe we can’t see Jesus the way the Mary did or the way the disciples did. But we can have a transcendent encounter right here, beholding who we are, becoming what we receive. And then we carry that into the world so that they can know and see who they are. If you do nothing else with these next forty days, think of that as you go about your week. We might just find resurrection at the other end.