Mary Magdalene

By Frederick Buechner

It’s at the end that she comes into focus most clearly. She was one of the women who was there in the background when he was being crucified—she had more guts than most of them had—and she was also one of the ones who was there when they put what was left of him in the tomb. But the time that you see her best is on that first Sunday morning after his death.

John is the one who gives the greatest detail, and according to him it was still dark when she went to the tomb to discover that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance and that, inside, it was empty. She ran back to wherever the disciples were hiding out to tell them, and Peter and one of the others returned with her to check out her story. They found out that it was true and that there was nothing there except some pieces of cloth the body had been wrapped in. They left then, but Mary stayed on outside the tomb someplace and started to cry. Two angels came and asked her what she was crying about, and she said, “Because they have taken away my lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:13). She wasn’t thinking in terms of anything miraculous, in other words; she was thinking simply that even in death they wouldn’t let him be and somebody had stolen his body.

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Then another person came up to her and asked the same questions. Why was she crying? What was she doing there? She decided it must be somebody in charge, like the gardener maybe, and she said if he was the one who had moved the body somewhere else, would he please tell her where it was so she could go there.

Instead of answering her, he spoke her name—Mary—and then she recognized who he was, and though from that instant forward the whole course of human history was changed in so many profound and complex ways that it’s impossible to imagine how it would have been different otherwise, for Mary Magdalene the only thing that had changed was that, for reasons she was in no state to consider, her old friend and teacher and strong right arm was alive again. “Rabboni!” she shouted and was about to throw her arms around him for sheer joy and astonishment when he stopped her.

Noli me tangere,” he said. “Touch me not. Don’t hold on to me” (John 20:17),thus making her not only the first person in the world to have her heart stop beating for a second to find him alive again when she’d thought he was dead as a doornail, but the first person also to have her heart break a little to realize that he couldn’t be touched anymore, wasn’t there anymore as a hand to hold on to when the going got tough, a shoulder to weep on, because the life in him was no longer a life she could know by touching it, with her here and him there, but a life she could know only by living it: with her here—old tart and retread, old broken-heart and last, best friend—and with him here too, alive inside her life, to raise her up also out of the wreckage of all that was wrecked in her and dead.

In the meanwhile, he had much to do and far to go, he said, and so did she, and the first thing she did was go back to the disciples to report. “I have seen the Lord,” she said, and whatever dark doubts they might have had on the subject earlier, one look at her face was enough to melt them all away like morning mist.

*Originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words.

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The Cross is Still There

By Scott Armstrong

Along with the rest of the world I watched yesterday as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France went up in flames.  The unspeakable tragedy became clear as its famous spire tumbled to the ground below. Millions of people correctly lamented such a horrendous loss and attempts to raise funds in order to refurbish the cathedral are thankfully bearing fruit, although the overall cost of renovation will be astronomical.

Amidst the wreckage, photos began to show the impact of the fire.  One in particular, by Reuters’ Philippe Wojazer, hit home with many of us.  It shows the altar inside Notre Dame, with smoke still rising from its ruins.  But, as many pointed out on Twitter and elsewhere, the viewer’s eyes are not drawn at first to the orange-red embers of the ashes. The preeminent symbol rising from the wreckage is a golden cross.  After all the devastation and loss, the cross is still there.

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I am not the first one to write about this symbolism and I will assuredly not be the last. But the fact that this occurs during Holy Week is not lost on many of us.  In a world that proclaims in Europe and elsewhere that Christianity is outdated and nothing more than a fond relic, followers of Christ proclaim this week and always that Jesus’ death on the cross is still effective to change lives. In fact, we proclaim that God is still at work in a burning world.

Or do we?

Every year I call our people to reflect on our Lord’s journey to the cross during Lent. And every year I receive criticism from different leaders and church members.  “Lent is Catholic, not Evangelical!” “We celebrate a risen Lord; stop promoting empty traditions!” I know some of this is cultural according to the countries where I minister, and I don’t want to diminish that.  But I refuse to allow myself or my family to gloss over Good Friday in order to get to Easter.

Thus, especially during Lent, I have preached many times on the subject of the cross and Christ’s sacrifice.  On some occasions, I have had Christians come up to me afterwards and say, “Why do you preach on the cross? The cross is no more; what matters is the empty tomb.” Now I am clearly a proponent of preaching and living the reality of the Resurrection! However, there is no empty tomb without the cross.  There is no crown of glory without first a crown of thorns.

Although focusing on a symbol of ancient capital punishment makes us uncomfortable, the truth remains.  The cross is still there, whether we like it or not.

Perhaps this is why the apostle Paul said that Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).  In the midst of rubble, this representation of death declares life to us.  In the midst of destruction, this symbol of scorn and ridicule brings hope.

This week, as we join Jesus in his journey through Gethsemane and Golgotha and then, yes, the Easter garden, perhaps an image from a smoldering Notre Dame could assist us.

Though some say it’s obsolete,

Though others feel awkward talking about it,

The cross is still there.

At Arm’s Length: A Lenten Reflection

In this season of Lent, I have been reflecting on a haunting phrase: “at a distance.” Doesn’t seem too scary or even noteworthy, right? Why would I say it is haunting?

It was the night of Jesus’ betrayal, the night before he would be crucified. Feet have been washed, Passover has been served, and the soldiers have taken Jesus away from the garden. The disciples have fled – well, sort of. All three writers of the synoptic gospels make it a point to tell us that one of Jesus’ chosen three, the man whose preaching would convert 3,000 in a day and who would become the pillar of the early church, followed Jesus “at a distance” (Mt. 26:58; Mk. 14:54; Lk. 22:54).

We often lambaste Peter, especially when he denies his Lord and calls down curses on himself.  Thank goodness we are not like him, right?

On closer examination, during this season of Lent, we realize that our discipleship looks a lot like Maundy Thursday Peter.  Joan Chittister says, “We believe, yes, but often only remotely, only intellectually.  We follow Jesus, of course, but, if truth were known, more likely at arm’s length, at a nice, antiseptic distance.  Imperturbably.  Our commitment is not the kind of commitment that jeopardizes our jobs or our relationships or our social standings.”

Ouch.

If we are honest with ourselves, we love the part of following Jesus that deals with multitudes being fed and blind men receiving sight.  Even the creative sermons and lessons Jesus teaches inspire and challenge us.  But that self-denial part? Not as popular nowadays.

Could it be that we are profoundly terrified of suffering? Chittister maintains that “when we refuse to suffer, we refuse to grow…Suffering is a stepping-stone to maturity. It moves us beyond fantasy to facts.”

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I don’t know about you, but I would many times rather take the shortcut to spiritual maturity instead of slogging painfully through trials and hurts. But that shortcut does not exist. And Lent reminds us of that. In this season we realize, along with Chittister, that we are ascetics. Thus, “we must be prepared to give up some things if we intend to get things that are even more important.”

With Jesus being interrogated, whipped, and nailed to a cross, Peter was still not ready to follow him there. The sacrifice was too great. The suffering too heinous.  It was better to follow Jesus at a distance.

Perhaps in these days being haunted by that phrase is not a bad thing. Perhaps we, too, will examine ourselves and choose growth instead of ease, intimacy instead of distance.

Lent: Getting Back in Touch with our Souls

“Lent is our salvation from the depths of nothingness.  It is our guide to the more of life.” –Joan Chittister

Lent is nearly upon us.  Every year when I write about Lent, especially in Spanish, it seems to provoke controversy. Why would Evangelical churches celebrate something that is Catholic?

Well, the quick answer is that it is not just Catholic, although many of our countries in Latin America have thought of it as such.  Lent is a season in the Christian calendar, and the Christian calendar is just that: an annual rhythm offered to every Christians o that we may more meaningfully journey with Christ. I have written previously about the Christian calendar as a whole, but for the purposes of the next two blogs, we will reflect on Lent specifically.

It is important to note that by the year 330, a Lenten season of forty days was commonly practiced in the early church.  Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter, or to properly clarify, it could be said that Holy Saturday is the final day of Lent because it is the final day of fasting and denial before the most important of celebrations.  Easter Sunday comes with a burst of joy and celebration, a stark contrast with the themes of Lent.  Jesus is risen!  He has triumphed over the grave!

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For many Evangelicals, Lent (and Ash Wednesday particularly) has proven all too confusing.  Joan Chittister’s explanation in her wonderful book, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life, can help us:

“Ash Wednesday, an echo of the Hebrew Testament’s ancient call to sackcloth and ashes, is a continuing cry across the centuries that life is transient, that change is urgent.  We don’t have enough time to waste time on nothingness.  We need to repent our dillydallying on the road to God.  We need to regret the time we’ve spent playing with dangerous distractions and empty diversions along the way.  We need to repent of our senseless excesses and our excursions into sin, our breaches of justice, our failures of honesty, our estrangement from God, our savorings of excess, our absorbing self-gratifications, one infantile addiction, one creature craving another.  We need to get back in touch with our souls.”

This is the essence of Lent.  In a world that revolves around consumption and pleasure, we abstain and refrain.  We deny ourselves and take up our cross daily as we follow Christ to Golgotha.  If we do not engage in this act or in this season, we run the risk of forgetting his sacrifice completely.

Are you ready for Lent? Would you pray that God would disciple you in this season of denial and discipline? It may make a world of difference for your soul.

Returning to Calvary

By Raphael Rosado

I really admire people who have a true vocation for what they do! As the saying goes: “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” However, it’s important to understand that passion is not an accident, neither is it innate or the result of success.

For example, Picasso wasn’t born as a great painter. On the contrary, his genius was the product of several elements: his environment, the time that he was living in, and his will. The masterpieces he painted are much more than the result of the artist’s talent. Put Picasso in another time and Guernica would have never been painted. Even more, Picasso could only paint Guernica once and, no matter how much he tried, he could never perfectly duplicate such a painting again. The passion that was required to paint such a modern art masterpiece is the daughter of a moment and a story. It is hard to understand the passion which a picture is painted with if you don’t understand its underlying historic meaning.

If another artist were given the task of painting Guernica again, even with the same talent and tools that Picasso had, it would be impossible. Without the passion that emanates from a personal connection with the context and situation he lived in, no one would ever be able to produce the exact same result.

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Something similar happens in our Christian life. God has given us tools to paint the picture of our relationship with him: prayer, reading of the Bible, fasting and the other spiritual disciplines. However, the routine uses of these tools in themselves cannot produce a masterpiece.

In order for our practice of spiritual disciplines to produce a painting worthy of a museum, we must start to grasp that our relationship with God is the product of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Only when we allow the story of Calvary to affect our actions, will we begin to see passion born in us.  Then, God will take that passionate obedience and create a beautiful masterpiece from our life.

It saddens my heart to see us as children of God struggling every day to fulfill “obligations” of praying, reading the Bible, or going to church services.  When we see these as obligations, we become weary and discouraged. How different our relationship with God would be if our service to Him came from passion for Him and his call instead of a mere sense of obligation!

I invite you during Holy Week to return to Calvary.  Let the story of the cross fill you with passion and awe so that God can paint a masterpiece in you.

Looking to the Cross

By Raphael Rosado

As human beings we spend most of our lives preparing ourselves for the future. For example, something as simple as traveling from one place to another requires us to plan certain things beforehand.  We need to give maintenance to the vehicle, fill it with gas, program the GPS, pack suitcases and make reservations in a hotel.

Planning is important, and the end result is what gives value and meaning to our achievements. A person that wins the lottery may be lucky, but he doesn’t exactly deserve what he won. He can’t say that his prize is a result of planning or effort. Luck and merit are incompatible concepts.

What’s more, preparation is evidence that we care about something, or even that we really love it. It’s a cultural cliché that in relationships women complain that men do not remember key dates of anniversaries or special occasions. More than once, I’ve heard heroines of famous TV programs say, “It’s not the gift that makes me happy, but the thought and planning that it signifies.” The joy that the gift produces comes from the preparation and the effort invested.

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God is a planner par excellence and He is always ready. God doesn’t leave anything to chance. Everything that He does is the result of His eternal purpose. To illustrate this, we need to look no further than the cross.

God started preparing the ultimate solution for sin on the same day that man sinned. When God called Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, He was looking to the cross. When He gave the law to the people of Israel, He was thinking of the cross. When He showed His glory to Isaiah, God already had in mind the suffering servant. Each detail of the Old Testament looks towards Jesus and the cross. Every temptation, every question, every problem that Jesus had to face during His life on earth prepared Him for the cross. Calvary was not an accident. The merit of Jesus’ sacrifice demonstrates God’s meticulous planning to save us and show us His love.

That’s what Lent is all about: preparing ourselves to remember what Jesus did for us. Everything we give up and every fast that we undergo in this season should be part of a greater plan: preparing ourselves to meet Jesus at the cross. Without this purpose, no matter how good our works are, they are meaningless.

I invite you to use these last few days of Lent as a preparation to meet Jesus at Calvary.

All for Joy

By Ken Childress

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with endurance the race set out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” Hebrews 12:1-2 (BSB).

Many Christians have the perception that God’s rescue mission for the human race was a reluctant venture. We blew it, so He resorted to plan B, at enormous expense, and did what He had to do to save us. His Son suffered excruciating agony to bring us into His Kingdom. He died for lowly, undeserving sinners like us because He had to.

But He didn’t have to, and it wasn’t a chore. It was a sacrifice, to be sure, but it wasn’t a reluctant one. Though the night in Gethsemane was tearful and painful – no one wants to suffer unspeakable pain, after all – the Cross was a willing choice. Jesus didn’t save unworthy sinners because He was obligated to do so. He did it for the joy set before Him.

Think of the great lengths a man deeply in love would go in order to win his beloved’s heart. Whatever price he had to pay, however long he had to wait, whatever obstacles he had to overcome would not seem like a sacrifice. Why? Because of the inestimable worth of the prize. Love goes to any length to be fulfilled. The cost is irrelevant. Only the fulfillment matters.

That’s how Scripture describes the rescue mission Jesus went on to redeem humanity. It was and still is like a bridegroom seeking a bride. No cost is too high, no sacrifice too great, no wait too long. The joy in the end will be worth it.

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This is the role model we are told to fix our eyes on. Because of His great love, Jesus became the author and perfecter of our faith. Just as He endured every obstacle and hindrance because of the joy set before Him, so can we. When we realize our ultimate destination, no cost seems too great. Whatever we face in life today, we can keep going because the goal is worth more than anything we will ever have to endure.

Hebrews 12:2, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the JOY set before Him endured the cross.”

God called us to run a race, to soar like eagles on the wind of His Spirit, to overcome the entanglements and weights that would conspire to hold us back. Our burdens are no match for our God my friends. Faith sees the reality of that truth and allows us to keep running our race to the end.