But Luke and John also go to great lengths to emphasize that there is something significantly different about the appearance of the resurrected Christ. Something has changed so much that nobody recognizes him: Mary Magdalene thinks he’s the gardener; the two disciples on the Emmaus Road talk with him all afternoon and mistake him for a stranger; the disciples fishing in a boat and can’t catch anything until a man on the shore tells them to cast their net on the other side. In every case, the risen Christ is unrecognizable.
The Gospel authors are not specific about what has changed about Jesus – just that something dramatic has changed to the point where his closest friends can’t tell who he is. But, the writers are also clear that at some point, Jesus reveals himself: in calling Mary by name, in the breaking of the bread, in the invitation to touch and see his hands and feet. What this tells us is that Jesus has been made anew in a bodily resurrection.
And a bodily resurrection is important. Jesus is not a ghost, a spirit or a hallucination. The claim of a bodily resurrection stood in contrast to the heresy of Gnosticism which claimed the resurrection of Jesus was a spiritual one. Gnostics rejected the material world as evil while elevating the spiritual as superior. Gnostic writings spiritualize Jesus to the point of rejecting the goodness of the incarnation. In fact, much of Western Christianity has fallen into the Gnostic trap of dualism which separates matter from spirit which leads us to elevate things “spiritual” and reject and denigrate those things deemed “of the flesh.” This leads us down an idolatrous path of rejecting that which God created and called “very good.” (Genesis 1:31) The bodily resurrection is a sign of the redemption of our own bodies and by extension that which God has created. On this Earth Day, we would do well to consider the dangers of the Gnostic heresy of dualism which has rendered creation something “second class.” The incarnation of Christ in the person of Jesus is central to our faith and Christ’s bodily resurrection reminds us that he shares in our humanity and in the substance which makes us what we are and makes us anew. But if Jesus’ resurrected body has changed so much as to be unrecognizable, it gives me pause to wonder about when and where Christ shows up in bodily form right now and how we might react – especially when he shows up in a person we don’t expect, one easily overlooked or on the margins.
This happened to me one Sunday morning in the summer of 2008. I had just finished the process of closing the congregation I was first called to out of seminary and was spending the summer filling in for priests while they were on vacation. I had been called to fill in one Sunday for Taylor Smith, rector of Grace Church, Elkridge (yes, another Grace Church right next to the railroad tracks). They have three services each Sunday and their 9:00AM contemporary service worships in their Parish Hall which is 2 miles away from the historic church. So after conducting the 7:30AM service, I had to race over to the Parish House for the contemporary service and then back to the historic church for the 11AM worship. Taylor had called me on the phone prior to my arrival and had prepared me for what to expect. He told me about the more relaxed liturgy of the contemporary service, including their tradition that all the children come up during the Offertory and gather around the altar for the Eucharistic prayer. “Now I’ll warn you,” Taylor said, “These kids will do everything to distract you when you’re trying to consecrate the elements. I hope that won’t scare you off.” I told him that as a mother there’s very little that can knock the cheese off my cracker. Little did I know what Christ had in store for me.
As we began the 9:00AM contemporary service, I noticed a mother sitting in the back row near the door with her daughter who was about 7 years old. I could tell just by looking at her daughter that something was different about her. She stared into space as she rocked to the music, her eyes would dart around the room during the spoken word and her hands would flail. It turned out this little girl was severely autistic and could not speak. She could answer yes/no questions with a nod or the shake of her head. Watching her and how her mother interacted with her made me think about how rarely we see special needs children, youth or adults in our churches on Sunday mornings – and I was thankful she was there.
When it came time for the Offertory, just as Taylor had warned me, all the kids came forward and gathered around the altar – leaning on it, looking over the chalice, fiddling with the missal book (I had memorized Eucharistic Prayer A just in case they tried something). And then I looked down to my right, and there she was … the girl with autism. She was joined to my right hip and wasn’t going to let anybody get between me and her. I leaned over and asked her if she wanted to help me. She nodded. I gave her the job of taking the stoppers out of the wine cruet for the prayer – she did so and smiled at me.
I made it through the Eucharistic prayer with all these fidgety kids around me and when it was time to recite the words of invitation to Communion, I glanced down to my right, took the basket of bread and handed it to my newest Eucharistic minister: “Would you hold this up for me?” She took the basket and nodded. I raised the chalice, she raised the bread: “The Gifts of God for the People of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.” We lowered the elements together – it was amazing how she had such a feel for the liturgical movements.
I communed everyone around the altar and the kids all returned to their seats … except for my new friend. She wasn’t going anywhere! I asked her if she wanted to help. She nodded. I gave her the basket of bread and asked her to hold it for me. She followed me around to the front of the altar and held the Body of Christ for me as I gave everyone Communion. We finished by taking Communion back to the folks who because of their disabilities could not come forward to receive the sacrament. She led me to each person who had not come forward - she was going to make sure everybody received Christ that day!
We returned to the altar and put the basket of bread and the chalice down. I knelt down and said, “Thank you for all your help.” She threw her arms around my neck and hugged me … and then returned to her seat. I was in tears by then and I confess I don’t remember how I got through the closing of the service. But I do know this: the risen Christ was there – embodied in a little girl whose disability caused her to be overlooked in so many places: a little girl who could not speak but who knew Christ’s love in the breaking of the bread and wanted nothing more than to share his Body with all of us.