In the reading from Mark we see a group of women, including Mary Magdala, near the cross, eyes fixed on their beloved friend, Jesus, as he dies an excruciating and humiliating death.
These women could have run, hidden, turned away, but they chose to linger, to witness, to look. This act of looking lies at the heart of radical discipleship and gospel truth telling.
When we allow ourselves to look deeply, carefully, at the crucified Christ in our brothers and sisters, we consent to having our hearts broken open. To become wounded ourselves.
This, I think, is what Simone Weil had in mind when she said that by looking we are saved. Saved from indifference. Saved from selfishness. Saved from violence. To look is to suffer, and to suffer is to know compassion.
If we look, really look, as the women in the Gospel did, we will die a thousand different deaths, but from each of these deaths springs resurrection.
And resurrection is the essence of resistance.
Those who dare to die by really looking at our broken, wounded world are empowered to say NO!!!
No to war, no to greed, no to injustice.
This no is not our own.
It is the no of the life-loving, death-defeating, resurrected Christ who shook off the dust of the tomb and said NO.
No more killing. No more violence. No more fear.
This Holy NO of Jesus has echoed through the centuries and continues to be spoken by his disciples in our world today.
When we say “No” to the death dealers and the principalities and the princes and power brokers of this world, it is not we who speak, but, rather, the spirit of Jesus who speaks through us.
It is no surprise that Jesus entrusted the task of discipleship to Mary Magdala before anyone else. After all, it was she and the other women who allowed their hearts to be torn open by the act of looking.
These were hearts prepared to receive the demanding – and, at times, dangerous – task of discipleship. These were hearts in which there was room enough to hold both crucifixion and resurrection simultaneously.
Hearts worthy of the empty tomb. These are the kinds of hearts Jesus was searching for then and continues to search for today.
As we look around our world, it seems that looking is the special province of women.
Women looking at war-injured children in hospital beds, women looking for a scrap of bread to feed their families, women looking at skies waiting for bombs to fall. Women looking at what appears to be a never-ending crucifixion of war and violence.
Today my next door neighbor, Jamila, who moved here from Lebanon, spends much of her day in front of the television set looking at the destruction of her home country. A few days ago, I was talking with Jamila and her children when her eight-year-old daughter, Miriam, blurted out, I can’t look anymore at the pictures! I just can’t look!
It’s precisely when we reach this point of screaming, I just can’t look anymore that grace steps in and takes us to another place. A deeper place. A place where death and life, cross and empty tomb intersect.
When we simply cannot look anymore, we often find ourselves, like Mary Magdala, sitting outside the tomb weeping.
Despite having looked upon a scene only days before that crushed her heart, Mary took the risk of looking even deeper.
This time she looked into the tomb . . . daring to gaze into the emptiness, the abyss, the place where death reigns. Imagine her surprise when at this, her lowest point, she hears her name spoken – Mary – and recognizes the One who instructs her not to hold onto him but, rather, to go out to his brothers and report what she has seen.
The story has not changed since.
When we feel we can no longer look, that our hearts can hold no more, we hear a voice calling us by name, summoning us to go out and tell our brothers and our sisters what we have seen.
Like Mary, we are instructed to tell others the radical news that we have seen the risen Christ and that this changes everything.
A few year ago I had the opportunity to take a week-long scripture class with the great peacemaker, Liz McAlister.
Throughout the week, Liz emphasized that it is the task of women – especially – to announce to our fear-filled and violent world that ours is the Time of the Spirit and that the second coming of Christ is a present reality.
Christ lives now, today, and we’ll discover our own version of the Good News in our own time and in the midst of one another, she said.
This is a call to a radically different life. A life of resistance and community and inner freedom.
Once we have really looked into the tomb where death holds no sway, we are free to say Disarm your hearts, disarm our world. There is nothing to fear! . . . a message that hardly resonates in our world today.
But this is the call . . . We are called to live in this world as witnesses to resurrection . . . or as Dorothy Day was fond of quoting, to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.
To go out. To speak. To act. To take on the hard work of resurrection in a crucified world.
The work of Mary Magdala – and ours – is far from a sweet and sentimental vocation. Rather, it is a vocation that asks us to beat swords into plowshares and sometimes turn over a few tables in the temple.
It means walking with a clean conscience and sometimes dirty feet to confront the powers of death in our world.
Fortunately, we have a great cloud of witnesses who, following in the footsteps of Mary Magdala, have walked this wild road of resurrection.
These are the women from whom we draw strength. Disciples who range from the dreamy to the defiant. From the tender to the tempestuous. These are our sisters who dared to look deeply and with the eyes of Jesus. Whose lives were a testament to the empty tomb. Today a couple of them in particular come to mind.
The first is Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann whose discipleship continues even after her death this past December.
Many of you knew Jeanie. Bold, soulful, brilliant Jeanie who never let doing laundry get in the way of doing jail time for her resistance to nuclear weapons.
Jeanie whose long struggle with brain cancer taught us what it means to let go with grace. The fiery Jeanie who joined strikes and picket lines and could write circles around anyone lost much of her ability to communicate as her cancer progressed, but she emanated peace and grace and compassion that suggested a language beyond words.
I will always remember Jeanie in the later stages of her illness sitting serenely at mass, clutching a fistful of wild flowers plucked from outside the Catholic Worker house.
How strange and how beautiful that the Episcopalian peace and justice journal that Jeanie edited before her illness was called The Witness. How appropriate that she passed into new life on Watch Night, December 31.
As a writer, a rabble-rouser, and a woman of deep, deep faith, Jeanie’s life was one of seeing deeply, of watching, of bearing witness.
The second woman who comes to mind for me tonight is a young woman who literally walked the same roads as Mary Magdala – Rachel Corrie.
Rachel was an articulate and passionate 23-year-old American who was killed on March 16, 2003 when an Israeli bulldozer ran over her in the Gaza Strip as she tried to halt the demolition of a home owned by a Palestinian pharmacist and his family.
Dressed in an orange vest, bullhorn in hand, this courageous nonviolent activist stood before the fully-weaponized, Caterpillar bulldozer as a way of saying No! No to collective punishment and no to human rights abuses.
Well-educated and middle-class, Rachel Corrie chose to leave the comforts of her home in Olympia, Washington in order to give witness to the suffering going on in Gaza.
In a letter to her parents she wrote, I think about the fact that no amount of reading, attendance at conferences, documentary viewing and word of mouth could have prepared me for the reality of the situation here. You just can’t imagine it unless you see it.
Rachel’s writings reveal a young woman whose heart was utterly broken by what she witnessed while at the same time on fire for the kind of justice that is necessary to bring peace to that part of the world.
Sounding like a biblical prophet she wrote in another letter: I really can’t believe that something like this can happen in the world without a bigger outcry about it. It really hurts me, again, like it has hurt me in the past, to witness how awful we can allow the world to be. This has to stop. I think it is a good idea for all of us to drop everything and devote our lives to making this stop. I don’t think it’s an extremist thing to do anymore.
Rachel’s “Holy No” to the injustices she witnessed came at a price as do most acts of discipleship.
Her memory has been reviled by some who do not really want to see for themselves the suffering of those living under occupation. But hers was not a one-way gaze. Like most witnesses who speak the truth that comes from looking closely, her heart was big enough to also hold the pain of Israeli soldiers in Gaza whom she described as Israeli kids, many forced to be here.
For looking deeply, this young woman of peace suffered persecution and death, but her life has been a sign of hope for the people of Gaza. Today the Rachel Corrie School in the town of Rafah stands as a sign of resurrection, and her spirit lives on in “Rachel’s Way,” a program that teaches children how to resist oppression through nonviolent means.
As we sit in our homes watching the horrors of our day unfold, perhaps we need – like Mary Magdala and Jeanie and Rachel – to look a little more deeply.
I think we live at a time when our most important prayer should be:
Jesus, help us to see as you see. Help us to look beyond and beneath the exteriors of things. Help us to see the injustices, the hurt, the desperation, the fear that is fueling so much of the violence that has our world in its grip and to respond boldly by working for justice with compassion. Give us the courage to open our hearts to the suffering that surrounds us and the audacity to go forth – like Mary Magdala and so many others – to report to our sisters and brothers what we have seen when we looked into the tomb.
Christ is risen and with us in our struggle for peace and justice and freedom and reconciliation!
War, violence, death do not have the final word.
I would like to close with the words of another woman who not so long ago witnessed and resisted the unspeakable violence of torture, death squads, and assassinations in Latin America.
May the words of Guatemalan poet Julia Esquivel encourage us to become committed and courageous and risk-taking disciples willing to follow Jesus with open eyes and broken hearts.
What keeps us from sleeping
is that they have threatened us with resurrection!
Because at each nightfall
though exhausted from the endless inventory
of killings for years,
we continue to live life,
and do not accept their death!
In this marathon of hope
there are always others to relieve us
in bearing the courage necessary . . .
Accompany us then on this vigil
and you will know what it is to dream!
You will then know how marvelous it is
to live threatened with resurrection!
To live while dying
and to already know oneself resurrected.
Reflection given at Saints Simon and Jude Church, Westland, MI, on the Feast of Mary of Magdala, July 22 2006