“Everything depends upon a red wheel barrow.”
Thus begins a poem by William Carlos Williams. And that sort of sums it all up, don’t you think? We are modern folk who begin (and end) with the hard-core stuff of life, what can be seen, touched, tasted, tested. No metaphysical flights of fancy for us. Seeing is believing. Art, like that of Williams, takes a wheelbarrow or a Campbell’s Soup can and renders it noteworthy, forces us to face it for what is, since what is, is about all we can see, all we know. It all begins with a red wheelbarrow. And though we may pick apart that wheelbarrow into its various chemical components, may do tensive analysis of its metallic parts, can eventually tell you what microscopic beings are rotting its wood away, we end as we begin, with a red wheelbarrow. Although now, after the Chemistry Department and the School of Engineering have finished poking away with it, it’s a broken pile of junk. A red wheelbarrow in the hands of a physicist rather than a poet is a dead wheelbarrow.
Now for Peter, this was Easter. Running out to the cemetery, Mary Magdalene got there first. To her horror the tomb was empty. Peter arrived at the cemetery. It was still dark, he peered into the tomb. What did Peter see? A napkin, folded neatly by itself. The linen shroud, also folded. And that was it. Another disciple arrived. He looked. He saw. “He believed,” says John (20:8). Believed what? Not that Jesus was risen from the dead. Nobody thought that. The text goes on to explain that they did not as yet know anything about resurrection. So, having seen, having believed that Jesus was dead but that Jesus’ body had now been stolen from the tomb, these two men went home and had breakfast (20:12). And that, as they say, was that.
“It was a good campaign while it lasted, wasn’t it?” they talked on their way back.
“I’ll never forget that time with Jesus at the wedding, where was it? Oh yes, Cana, Cana of Galilee, and he turned that water into wine, so help me. You know something, we ought to write this stuff down so we don’t forget it.”
“John’s good with words, maybe he’ll do a gospel.”
They came. They saw. They went home.
In my experience, the most vivid and painful memory of grief is that day when you return home. Know what I’m talking about? The funeral is over. Friends and family depart, leaving casseroles. Then all is quiet. And you’re at home. It’s so quiet. You see that chair at the table where she sat. You’ll only need one chair now. Oh no, there’s her knitting bag. Put that away. The grocery list in her handwriting in the book. The list of telephone numbers of her friend. The folded linen. It’s painful.
Mary stood outside the tomb weeping. She had come with Peter and the other disciple. Curiously, she stayed, fixed in her grief, weeping at this final outrage. Where have they taken the body of Jesus? Where can she find the body of Jesus?
Because that’s a big part of our love. We don’t love some disembodied “humanity.” We love those eyes, that hand, that touch. Edgar Jackson, who studied grief and bereavement, says that one of the most important moments in the grief process is viewing the body, that moment when the bereaved look in the coffin and know—he is dead; I live.
Mary wanted that. The sight of the stone rolled away, the linen cloths folded, the absence of the corpse, did not move Mary to thoughts of resurrection. She, like Peter, knew of one conceptual possibility: they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him. Her logic is faultless. Dead bodies do not simply disappear. Someone has to move them. The world is a place of cause-effect rationality. We live by laws of motion and mechanics. Things happen as they have always happened. All science, human reasoning, perception are based upon the pervasiveness of the familiar: only that which has occurred before can occur now. Find the body Mary, wherever it may be, then get on with the grief. Only then will you be able to go home, to get back to business, business as usual. How is Mary going to find Jesus?
How are we going to find Jesus? We find Jesus the same way we find anything else—the way of the red wheelbarrow, through science, or history, or whatever manner of thought holds a privileged place in our economy. Something weird confronts us, our minds immediately attempt to make sense of it. The folded linen napkin, the world under a microscope, the GNP, the scholarly consensus. We have rules for what to think and how.
No body? Where’s the body? “They have taken away my Lord and I don’t know where to find him.” Peter, the other disciple, looks in the tomb, sees the evidence of a robbery, and believes. They go back home. Mary, slower on the uptake, sees the same evidence but stands there, befuddled about what to think. “I do not know where to find Jesus.”
Then she hears her name called, “Mary.” The illogical, unthinkable, impossible, unnatural, incredible breaks in. The one certified as dead—she saw the napkin, the linen cloth—now greets her, calling her by name.
Mary’s old plausibility structure struggles to make sense. She takes this one who speaks to be the gardener. Grasping him, she pleads, “Tell me, where have you laid him and I will take him away” (20:15). She wants Jesus’ body that she might do the proper, conventional, respectful thing for his corpse.
“Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (20:17) he says. Mary’s perfectly logical, understandably natural need to pursue the body of her beloved Jesus has not yet room for the miracle that has happened. The voice of Jesus has called to her, across an abyss of death, thrown a line to her across the cavernous expanse between her little logic of red wheelbarrows and all that and the power of God to work wonder. Like the voice that shatters glass, the voice of Jesus has shattered Mary’s world, called her forward to new possibility, new future.
Mary is now able to obey, to tell the others, “I have seen the Lord” (vs. 18). She has moved beyond her preoccupation with the corpse to an encounter with Christ. Her cause-effect logic is replaced by the larger logic called faith. She has been encountered, not by the dead corpse she thought she was seeing, but by a living Lord who is on the move and will not be held by us on our little logic.
Now there are at least two ways to think about things: cognition has two paths to the point of recognition. The first is, say, when you’re working on a tough math problem and after much effort you say, “I got it!”
The other way is, say, when you go to a great movie, and it changes you, lays hold of you to the very depths and you emerge changed. In that case, you don’t say, “I got it!” No. It gets you.
You and I, dying as we are, have various ways of looking for Jesus. Like Mary Magdalene we hope to find Jesus, to search for him using whatever cognitive means we have. But you don’t “find” Jesus, apprehend him like a red wheelbarrow. No. He calls your name, shatters the world, returns, intrudes. He finds you.
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