March 31, 2024

When I was in high school one of my favorite subjects was math.  I enjoyed doing math, and learning math, so I did fairly well in my mathematics courses.  I’ll never forget the surprise I had one day to come home and discover that my parents had received a note from the principal’s office warning them that I was about to flunk my algebra course, in part because I hadn’t been in class at least half the time.


I remember stammering a little, and going through incredible contortions to convince my parents that this couldn’t possibly be me they were talking about.  “It has to be a case of mistaken identity!” I said, “I was framed!”


Much to my relief, it turned out to be just that.  There was, coincidentally enough, another Mike Scott in that school – one who was indeed flunking algebra.  Boy, were my parents surprised.


We may be just about as surprised to discover that in one of Christianity’s most treasured stories, the story of the resurrection, there lies a baffling case of mistaken identity.  There are, in fact, a couple of problems with identity in this story.


The first one is something that has intrigued me since the first time I ever read the gospels.  It’s John’s repeated reference to this “disciple whom Jesus loved.”  He’s mentioned four times in the gospel of John, and nowhere is his name given.  John, for some reason only refers to him as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”  That’s a fascinating identification.  Does it imply that Jesus did not love the other disciples, only this one?  Does it suggest that Jesus loved this one disciple in a different way, or more profoundly than he did the others?  And why is his name not given?  Whoever he was, he was obviously very close to Jesus, and very dear to him.  John says that at the last supper, “he was reclined [lying down] in the bosom of Jesus.”  It’s a very tender and loving image.


Maybe he doesn’t have a name because he represents the place in the picture of Jesus’ ministry and passion where we are to see ourselves.  If I’m wrong about that, well, that’s a case of mistaken identity I’d be happy to live with.  Who among us would not like to be mistaken for “the disciple whom Jesus loved?”


But all of this is dwarfed by what is perhaps the most glaring case of mistaken identity.  Mary, caught in her grief at the empty tomb, turns and sees Jesus standing before her, and she mistakes him for the gardener!  Mary, who was brought by Jesus to overcome multiple inner demons – Mary, who had traveled with him, and been one of his closest followers – Mary, who had stood by him to the very end, keeping vigil at the cross – Mary mistook him for the gardener.  And, apparently, she did not have a very high opinion of gardeners.  The gospel account says, “Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’” In other words, supposing him to be the gardener, she naturally assumed that he was a grave-robber.  She didn’t know who she was talking to.

We make mistakes like that all the time.  We look at people with fleeting, superficial glances, and size them up in an instant.  We determine much about their character, their trustworthiness, their relative importance or insignificance in the virtual blinking of an eye.

“Supposing him to be the gardener, she said ‘Where have you taken the body?’”


“Supposing him to be from the other side of the tracks, she said, ‘How nice to meet you; excuse me, I have to go now.’”


“Supposing her to be a Christian fundamentalist, he said, ‘I don’t think we have anything to talk about.’”


“Supposing him to be mentally retarded, he said, ‘O boy, that’s a really nice wheelchair!’”

We can hardly blame Mary for mistaking the identity of Jesus at such a crucial moment.  Half the time, we don’t know who we’re talking to either.


He gave us very clear instructions for recognizing him when we see him.  He said, “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” and “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.”


But we still don’t recognize him when we see him in a face that’s a different color, or a different gender, or from another part of town.  Like Mary, we are often too consumed by our own hurts, or hopes, or agendas to look very deeply into the face of another.  Or maybe it’s simply that we really don’t want to know – don’t want to know that something holy and sacred might reside in an experience we have not had, a life we have not understood.


For all these reasons, and surely many others, we are entirely with Mary in that garden.  Her experience is ours.  Her tears are ours.  And her mistake is ours.


But Jesus doesn’t leave her there.  He doesn’t leave us there either.  A second chance and reborn hope rise up from that one precious instant – a moment of identity – a solid point of contact – a clarifying word – a word that puts the world, and self, and the Power of Divinity all into clear focus: “Mary.”


He spoke her name.  It was then that she remembered who she was, and realized who he was.


She answered in awe:

“Rhabbouni!” [my teacher].


Jesus changed the ground rules of that encounter in a split second.  He didn’t bother to challenge her preconceptions, counter her charges, or justify his presence.  He broke through it all, and simply called her by name.  He engaged her at a deep level and shattered the superficiality of her assumptions and agendas.  “Mary,” was all he needed to say.


The message of Easter is the story of a man who broke through everyone’s assumptions about reality, and life and death, and appeared face to face with a woman in a garden, and called her by name.  Our laboriously crafted structures of defense and carefully guarded prejudices crumble to dust in the face of a genuine personal encounter with the Divine.  It is an encounter that both transcends and pierces the depths of our superficial relationships and perfunctory exchanges.


If by some divine miracle we find ourselves able to recognize Jesus in the person of our neighbor, then our reality can be changed.  To be truly known by another, and intimately engaged, is to see the face of Christ.  To leave behind our generalizations and theories about each other, and instead meet another profoundly and deeply, eye to eye, soul to soul is a sacrament.  It is like hearing the voice of Jesus calling our own name, calling us back to ourselves.


If each of us is “the disciple whom Jesus loves,” and if he is present with us when we come together in his name, even when we meet up with “the least of these,” then the implications are clear: every encounter has the potential to shake us, to capture us, to transform us.


Christ is risen.  Christ is risen, indeed.  And he is among us, amidst the two or three, in the least of these, seeking you out, ready to call you by name.  When you hear it, in a garden or a crowded room, don’t be mistaken about whose voice it is.

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