Mary_Magdalen resurrection

Mary Magdalen Announcing the Resurrection to the Apostles.
St. Alban’s Psalter, St. Godehard’s Church, Hildesheim (1120s)

The kindling of the fire. The scent of lavender. The light dancing off the walls of the ancient cloister. The unexpected joy. Once again: the surprise of the resurrection.

I recall a particular moment a few years ago: I had risen in the middle of the night, together with a few other brave souls, for la veillée pascale, the Easter vigil, at the Abbey of Senanque in the south of France. It was a miserably cold and wet spring night. We were all shaking in the chill and darkness of the cloister. I wondered how long we would be standing there, why I had decided to do this in the first place. Then, suddenly there was fire. I heard the snapping and hissing of the dry branches before I saw the flames. But then I glimpsed the mound of dried lavender being engulfed in a torrent of fire. And that scent. The whole cloister became enveloped in a sweet fragrance. I stood there breathing it in, feeling the warmth of the fire, watching the light illuminate the stones, our faces. And once again I found myself utterly surprised and carried away by the force and newness of the paschal moment.

Here in this little valley in the south of France, Easter begins, as it has done for Christians since ancient times, with fire. The Easter fire, arising from the depths of the night, promises the hope not only that the harshness of winter will be banished and gentler days will follow, but that death itself will be overcome. Here, manifested in the violent snapping of the dry branches, in the sudden appearance of fire, in the cloud of lavender, hope is reborn. To be drawn inside of this great mystery, to be invited to live into it again is a great wonder to me.

Still, I am abashed by my own amazement, by my inability to behold this mystery continuously. I already know this story. I have already opened myself to it, more than a few times. So why am I still so surprised by it? Why does it again seem so strange and wondrous to me, so remote from my understanding? Well, that too is part of the story, part of what it means to face my own doubt and uncertainty about the possibility of such hope being real. Suffering and death stalk our lives continuously, in the most intimate and personal terms and in forms and expressions whose extent and immensity often leave us gasping. None of this is ever far from us, not even here in this solitary monastic place. All that we carry, all that we cannot resolve, all the things that we fear most, we bring with us into this night.

So perhaps it is inevitable that I am so often in need of a renewal of hope, that I need to be brought again and again to the threshold of belief and wonder and joy.

One of my favorite stories from this season is the resurrection narrative of John’s Gospel, concerning Mary Magdalen’s experience near the tomb of Jesus (Jn. 20). I think it is in part because of the clear sense of loss and disorientation in the story. And the sudden, unexpected turning, the upwelling of joy. Mary had gone to the tomb early that morning while it was still dark. It is she who discovered that the stone had been moved and the tomb was empty and she who reported this to Simon Peter and “the disciple Jesus loved.” Later, after they had come to see for themselves and departed, she remained at the tomb alone, weeping. The gospel makes no attempt to hide her dismay. She is utterly disconsolate. She has no idea what has become of Jesus. Turning away from the empty tomb she sees a man standing there. It is Jesus, but “she did not recognize him. . . supposing him to be the gardener.” The gardener. She cannot or will not see him. Then, he speaks her name: “Mary!” The tenderness and force of that address. In a moment, everything changes: “She knew him then.”

And she went and told the others all that she had seen and heard.

Everything changes in a moment. I think it is this that moves me most about this story. In that moment, in the simple tenderness of that encounter, the flint is struck, the fire is kindled again. All from hearing her name spoken by her beloved.

We do feel sometimes that change is no longer possible, that the fire has gone out. That we are alone and bereft of hope. And so it is. Still, sometimes there is a sudden, unexpected change. The fire is rekindled. Beyond all expectation, life itself is renewed.

“Through fire everything changes,” says Gaston Bachelard. “When we want everything to be changed we call on fire.”