Tuesday, April 18, 2017

TO BE KNOWN BY NAME... An Easter Meditation

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene stood weeping outside the tomb... She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!”   ~from the Easter gospel of John 20:1-18

My favorite professor at the seminary – and the favorite of many – was Gerhard Frost, of blessed memory. He was a man of inner strength and outward gentleness. One day early in that school year we met each other out walking in the seminary neighborhood. I was one of dozens, if not hundreds, of new students he had that semester alone – not to mention all the semesters stretching back through the years – and we had not had much conversation beyond the teacher-student exchange in the classroom.

What I remember about that casual meeting on the sidewalk almost fifty years ago is how badly he wanted to call me by my name. I could see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice, until, with a sort of defeated sigh, he apologized as he asked for my name. Later, we became neighbors, colleagues, and friends, and I am proud to say that, to his dying day, Gerhard knew my name!

It’s an odd recollection, I know, remembering--all these years later--how someone wanted to say my name. But Gerhard Frost knew that one of the most deeply meaningful gifts we can give one another is to be called by name. It is, in fact, a godly gift. “I have called you by name,” says God in Isaiah, “you are mine.”

Baptism is sometimes called Christening – “a naming.” In infant baptism, the parents give their child her god-name, and they say, “God has called you by name, you belong to God. We have called you by name, you are ours.” In the Bible, to name is to know deeply.  “I know my sheep, and my sheep know me,” says Jesus.

I sometimes tell my confirmation kids that one way to understand why we don’t want to “take God’s name in vain” is to reflect on how none of likes to have our own name made fun of, or used to hurt or ridicule. And that silly old line, “Your mama wears combat boots,” whatever it means, means very little about combat boots, but it’s my mother’s name you’re deriding! (There is nothing so common, that is at the same time so uniquely treasured, as the name “Mom.”)

When I was five years old, my dad was taken away by ambulance in the middle of the night, with what turned out to be a burst brain aneurism. I don’t know if the doctors there in the Huron, South Dakota hospital stemmed the flow, or if it ceased on its own, but he was stabilized in preparation to be taken to St. Mary's in Rochester. Just before that departure, the doctors told our mom that Barby and Betty and little Bobby and I could come in briefly and say hi to Dad. But Mom had to tell us what the doctors told her: “He may not know you.”  

Perhaps it’s my earliest memory—the door opens into the darkened room, my dad, his head swathed in bandages, opens his eyes and says, “Hi, Dicky.”

I wonder if to be known is what it means to be fully alive. It is certainly at the heart of what it means to be loved.

Has a name ever been said with more gentle preciousness than there in the tomb garden? Mary is beside herself with grief and loss. Blinded by her sorrow at the unspeakable events she has witnessed, she doesn’t know Jesus. But he knows her. And he calls her by name. “Mary.”

We may not know, but God knows. And God knows us. This deep knowing allows us to be fully who we are. Like the toddler who—becoming himself—says, “I do it… I do it.” And of course he must do it – with Mommy and Daddy standing by. The ones who named him. Who will let him wander but never let him go. “I have called you by name, you are mine.”
A servant-girl, seeing Peter in the firelight, stared at him and said,
“This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I
do not know the man!"  ~Luke 22
The most profound thing about the story of Peter’s sad denial of his friend Jesus is not the part where Jesus tells Peter, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times,” or even Peter’s bitter tears when he hears that cock-crow in the lonesome distance. It is what Jesus said to Peter in the same breath with which he had predicted his denial: “...But, Peter, when you have come to yourself, you must turn and strengthen the others.” And he did! And he did. Jesus knew who Peter was. He knew him. Did this knowing help to make Peter who he was?

The tragic undercutting of the Gospel’s message—from the very beginning—has been the small-minded pronouncement that the Christian life is a matter of fearfully keeping a set of rules—even commandments—rather than what it is: A declaration of identity; belonging. The great guide for living will never be rules. (How good would we have to be?....) Or what is sometimes called “religion.” Or fear. (“Do not be afraid” is one of the most frequent assurances given to us in the scriptures.) It is identity: “Remember who you are.” “I know my sheep, and my sheep know me.” “I have called you by name, you are mine.” “Mary.” “Dicky.”

And if we turn our eyes to the cosmos—if we feel, in the words of the song, that “we’re lost out here in the stars”—our faith is in a God who is big enough—and small enough – to know us each by name.

Terry Waite was held hostage in Lebanon for nearly five years—one of the longest of that 1980s hostage crisis period. He was in solitary confinement for the whole five years, blindfolded, and alone. After he was released, he said, “For most of that time I didn’t even know where I was, but I knew that God knew where I was, and that was enough.”

The empty tomb of Easter means nothing without the cross. The cross means that God knows – God knows – your loss, your tears, your highest hopes, your deepest fears. And who you are.



Thanks to son-in-law Joel for telling me about the marvelous painting, "The Denial of Peter" (above), c. 1623, by Gerrit van Honthorst, which is in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

I tried to find an equally compelling painting of Mary and Jesus in the tomb garden. This anonymous early twentieth century illustration (top) doesn't quite do it. Mary Magdalene, although something of a woman of mystery, is very much her own person in the gospels. In John's account, just before Jesus says her name, she has given him a piece of her mind when she thinks he's "the gardener" who has taken Jesus' body away! You can get a sense of this by reading the whole account in John 20:1-18.

My dad was in St. Mary's (Mayo) for nine weeks. After the doctors had suggested to my uncle that he should prepare my mom for the end of Dad's life--they saved him! They gave us forty more years of Dad! I breathe a prayer of thanks for this every time I climb the stairs at St. Mary's entrance to make a pastoral visit.