Friday, April 19, 2019
April 21, Easter: Quem Queritis?
Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, Luke 24:1-12
Look at the painting above me. We can enjoy it again after seven years of missing it. Other churches have their video screens, but this sanctuary has that wonder. It’s entitled The Empty Tomb, and it’s by Vergilio Tojetti, who was a not very famous salon painter. It’s dirty, I’m sorry—we will clean it in Phase 2 of our restoration. How really good it is I cannot tell, but it’s a wonder that it’s here at all—there’s nothing like it in any other church in our tradition. It is inexplicable to me that the sober Calvinistic businessmen who planned this building in 1889 should have envisioned such an extravagance.
We are told that the painter based his depiction on the results of a careful study of the gospel accounts by our pastor, Dr. Farrar. Careful study, maybe, with some juggling. The gospel accounts diverge in their details, though all of them report the empty tomb, and that it was women first, and always including Mary Magdalene or her alone, and one or two angels or mysterious shining men. Only St. Matthew has the angel seated outside on that stone that was rolled away, but with two women, like in that window over there. The three women are in St. Mark and St. Luke, but they have no angel outside the door. So the best we can say is that one side of the painting is from St. Matthew and the other side is from St. Luke!
Your eye goes first to the angel. Vivid, brilliant, generating light. Androgynous, neither male nor female, or both. Her hand is raised in power and command. Behind her is the slab of the door that had fallen when the stone that held it tight was rolled aside. It’s a nice touch—the slab that was a barrier is now a pavement and a threshold, making the space above it the center of the painting.
Across that space your eye moves from the angel to the women, their clothing colored but less bright. Their headscarves are aflutter, as if caught in turbulence. They are stopped in their turning toward the tomb, and held there, suspended, cyclonic, as if in an inadvertent dance. Their hands are up to their chests in their surprise and bewilderment, and the one in back has her hand up on her head in her distress. They are caught and turned and held and suspended.
St. Luke reports their names: Mary Magdalene and Joanna and another Mary. Mary Magdalene is the one behind, depicted, as always, with loose long hair, and holding her jar of ointment and spices. Those are to counter the stench of his dead body. The women knew that he would stink by now, from putrefaction. They had come expecting quiet, the silence of the dead. But they are met by a sudden voice they did know and they are held within its power.
That space between them: you sense it not as empty but as connective space—that the space is energized, and energized by the angel, and energized with tension and power to hold the women in suspension. That space connects the angel’s power to their uncertainty, the angel’s light to their confusion. The unknown embraces their intentions and the inexplicable turns the sad plans of their grieving. The connectivity in that space is the announcement by the angel, her announcement before the understanding, her greeting before the arrival, and her challenge before the comprehension. You can sense the power in her upraised hand and in her words.
What the angel said is varied in the gospels. More or less, “He is not here. He is risen. Why do you seek the living among the dead?” To which the answer is obvious, “Because he is dead! This is where his corpse is.” And if they had some cheek, “You wouldn’t be sitting here if you didn’t know why we came here!” But angels in the Bible are unsympathetic to human emotions, and the angel is impatient. “He is not here, he’s ahead of you, so go on, get moving to meet him.” She holds them in her message and she turns them. After this moment they race back with the message, but the men do not believe them, so Peter goes to check it out and come back and mansplain to them all.
That message and that suspended moment is now offered to you by this painting. And the space above that threshold reaches out into this great space of the sanctuary to hold you in its greeting. The message of the angel suspends you in your ordinary time, and the power of the resurrection offers to turn you in its great dance of repentance and reconciliation and renewal even where you are. Welcome to this space, this opening space, this widening space of welcome and offer and invitation. What else were you seeking when you came here today?
Let me ask you, “Whom do you seek?” In Latin, Quem queritis? That’s what the angel asks the women in the medieval mystery plays, though it’s not in the gospels. One of our members is an historian of theater, and he was part of the volunteer crew last month that raised the chandelier after having been down for a year. As it went up, he got a good look at the painting, and he spontaneously said, “Quem queritis.” Then he explained that in the medieval mystery plays the angel always opens with with “Quem queritis, whom do you seek?” I thanked him right there for giving me my sermon!
Whom did they seek? A dead man, a corpse, no one alive, not anymore, so for them it was more like “what did they seek,” an object, a stiff, unmoving, already decomposing back into the elements. As certain as death. To them familiar, predictable, and they had their means in hand to mitigate its worst unpleasantries. What we do.
What were you seeking when you came here today? Something more positive, because you know the story, some hope, some joy, some inspiration? You can find that here today, but I think the medieval mystery plays were right, that for us who by the centuries are separated from this moment, the angel’s question is rather “Whom do you seek, Quem queritis?”
But he isn’t there! He is risen from the dead, and he is not there. He may be somewhere else, on his way to Galilee in St. Matthew, or on the road to Emmaus in St. Luke, or off-stage in St. John, but he is not in the picture. Unless he’s in the space, and therefore within the angel’s words and within the suspending energy that connects the angel and the women. That is not empty space, it’s not a vacuum, that space is the medium of light, like the outer space that is the universe, in which the celestial bodies are lit and suspended in their turning, the galaxies and planets like the women. In this great space that embraces you, whom do you seek? Quem queritis?
We offer this space to you. In a city where space is at a premium, and guarded, and defensive, the volunteers of our congregation have worked very hard for the last four years to restore this space to you, free space, open space, beautiful space, transcendent space, space without judgment, a space of unconditional welcome, no matter who you are or what you believe or don’t believe, room for your practice of worship and service, and a vault for your vision of the kingdom of heaven.
But not impersonal space. Whom do you seek here? That same one whom the women sought, only now not dead but raised alive again, according to the witness of those women. He is risen from the dead to make his open space within the confinements of time and human history, he rises to extend the expanse of his resurrected life to all of you fast-bound in bondage or discouragement, he rises to open up the great room of his love to all of you who are burdened with your rejection or exclusion, he rises to spread the shelter of his peace to all of you sick of war and longing for relief.
Whom do you seek? Begging the pardon of my colleagues beside me—the one who claimed to be the Messiah and to embody the words of Psalm 118 and to keep alive the promise of Isaiah’s prophecy for all the world, and to be such kind of Messiah that my colleagues and I should share our space and pray as one to this One God, to whom he will hand back his kingdom in the end, according to St. Paul, when the One God will be all in all.
Whom do you seek? The one whose word comes out to embrace you and turn you and hold you in the intentions of your disappointment and the preparations of your grief. You do not turn alone, there are women in this dance, so follow their lead and listen to their witness and believe them.
Quem queritis? The Lord Jesus Christ, I finally pronounce his name, the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever, the firstborn from the dead, the embodiment of God’s eternal life, and the vital exhibition in human flesh of God’s self-sharing love. Whom you do seek? You seek God. And you seek your true self. I invite you to find both of them in the love of God that is revealed in Jesus Christ, that love that is stronger than death. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.