When Words Fall Short
READ JOHN 20:1-18
Together as a Christian community, we have come to the end of our solemn preparations for Easter, much like Mary’s sorrow ended when she saw Jesus by the empty tomb. Perhaps one thing we’ve noticed this season, especially if we’ve been reading these Words Matter reflections, is how our choice of language affects both those with whom we converse and our own understandings of the world. As we choose our words judiciously within a community of Faith in the Risen Lord, this passage draws our attention past words toward a rich palette of images and actions.
The images of the empty tomb, the grave clothes, the angels, and Jesus’ appearance, are paired with Mary’s responses. She runs to find her friends, weeps, speaks with the angels, questions Christ, and then once again runs off and exclaims her experience to the disciples. Having grown up in the Orthodox Church and noticing that the movement in John 20 is initiated through a series of striking images, I am reminded of the Orthodox Easter Liturgy in which images and actions are certainly brought to the fore of worship. Even as the Johannine literature is replete with early Christian theological language, both this passage and our Christian worship remind us that words alone fall short. All Jesus’ teachings did not make Mary or the disciples understand that he would rise from the dead (John 20:9). Not even the empty tomb, grave clothes, or angels seemed to have suggested to Mary or the disciples that Jesus was not dead anymore. Only at Jesus’ own appearance did Mary realize that Jesus had risen from the dead! She had to see him to understand—and she is not rebuked in the least for this.
At the Orthodox Easter Liturgy, the people gather knowing why we are coming to church. We know already that “Christ is Risen,” but the movement and images of the service ingrain an “understanding” (John 20:9) into our bodies. We have to experience to understand. The church is lowly lit and the priests and tables are covered in dark clothes. A tomb-like structure is in the center of the church; the choir sings hymns of anticipation and soon all the lights are turned off. Suddenly out of the darkness a single candle is lit, and the priest holds the candle and proclaims “Take ye the Light that is never overtaken by night.” A procession around the church with singing, ringing bells, and lit candles ensues. The climax is certainly when the Gospel is read outside and the choir begins singing “Christ is Risen from the dead trampling down death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” However, I do not fully experience Christ as Risen, until I enter the church again, and see that it is indeed no longer dark. The lights are nearly blinding and the priests and tables are dressed in dazzling white. I have to see, and I have to be there.
Words alone fall short. After all, God is “…ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible…,” (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom). As we continue our endeavors to consider our language, we go into the Easter Joy of these next forty day, understanding that God’s grace is conveyed through words, even as much as through actions, experiences, and through each of us as we move and breathe and work in the world.
FOR REFLECTION AND ACTION
As Lent draws to a close, reflect on what you learned while observing a spiritual discipline of paying close attention to words? What will you or your community do to continue this spiritual discipline now that lent is over?
By Juliana M. Mecera
Juliana M. Mecera attained a M.A. from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in 2009 and a Master of Sacred Theology from Union Theological Seminary in 2010. Her professional interests include ecumenism and women’s ordination in the Orthodox Church. Mecera is currently Program Associate for The United Methodist Special Program on Substance Abuse and Related Violence at the General Board of Global Ministries in New York, NY.