“Seeing is believing.”
It is a phrase by which we express credulity:
“I didn’t think that Tide could get out stubborn stains,
but I saw an advertisement on TV that convinced me.”
It is also a phrase by which we express incredulity:
“Well, Congress may have passed healthcare reform,
but I’ll believe that it works when my insurance premiums go down.”
“Aunt Martha claims that UFOs land in Druid Hill Park every July 4th,
but I’ve never see it for myself.”
“You say that you are going to change,
but talk to me when you’ve been six-months sober.”
“Seeing is believing.”
We also sometimes apply this principle
when it comes to religious faith.
Students in my classes at Loyola
will often venture the opinion
that faith was easier for people in the time of Jesus
because God worked a lot more miracles back then,
and that if they could have seen a miracle –
Jesus healing someone
or walking on the water
or feeding the multitude –
then they could believe because, after all,
seeing is believing.
But the Gospels repeatedly make the point that,
at least when it comes to Jesus,
seeing is not believing,
at least not necessarily.
Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus will work a miracle –
sometimes a quite spectacular miracle –
and some of those who see it believe,
but many of those who see it do not.
Indeed, in our journey through Holy Week
we have heard how the disciples,
those who had been with Jesus since Galilee
and who had seen his mighty works,
all abandon him in the end,
because though they had seen,
they had not believed.
Even in the face of the mightiest work of all,
seeing is not always believing.
John’s account of the resurrection tells us
that at the empty tomb
the beloved disciple “saw and believed,”
but this was not the case for everyone there in that garden.
Mary Magdalen, who finds the stone rolled away from the tomb
and who summons Peter and the beloved disciple,
tells them “They have taken the Lord from the tomb
and we don’t know where they put him.”
She doesn’t specify who “they” are,
but presumably she thinks that someone has stolen Jesus’ body.
For Mary Magdalene, seeing the empty tomb is not believing.
Once the disciples return home, Mary stays at the tomb, weeping.
She peers into the tomb and sees two angels in white
who ask her why she weeps,
and the responds again that “they” have taken her Lord away.
For Mary Magdalene, seeing the angels is not believing.
Then she turns and sees Jesus,
but she thinks that he must be the gardener
and she asks him if perhaps he is the one
who has taken away Jesus’ body.
For Mary Magdalene, seeing the risen Jesus himself is not believing.
She must have turned away from him in disappointment,
because John tells us that when he speaks her name
she turns back to him.
She turns back because now, suddenly, she recognizes him,
and she says to him “rabbouni” – “my teacher.”
There is nothing there to see that was not there before,
but now Mary believes.
She believes because the risen Jesus calls her by name.
Gregory the Great wrote that it is as if Jesus were saying to her,
“Recognize him who recognizes you” (Homily 25).
Mary believes not because of what she sees
but because she stands before the one
who knows her to the very depths of her heart
and who reveals himself to her there.
The resurrection is surely something that happens to Jesus:
the one who was killed on Good Friday
is the one who lives on Easter morning;
his tomb is empty and his body is raised.
But it is also something that happens to his followers.
The resurrection involves not simply a change in Jesus,
but a change in those who, like Mary Magdalene,
will become witnesses to his resurrection.
Paul tells us in the letter to the Colossians
that we have died with Christ,
so that our life is hidden with Christ in God,
and that we have been raised with Christ,
so that we ought to seek that which is above.
Seeing is only believing if the one who sees is transformed.
Were we to stand at the empty tomb,
were we to see angels
and the risen Christ himself,
we would not, could not, believe
until the risen one calls us by our name,
summoning our belief
in the good news of the resurrection.
Jesus is truly risen,
but to know this we must be risen with him;
along with him we too must rise from death:
the death of sin and sorrow,
the death of doubt and disappointment.
To truly recognize the resurrected Lord
we must experience
not simply his rising from death,
but also our own.
Otherwise, the story of the resurrection
is just another tale
about something that supposedly happened
a long time ago
in a land far, far away.
During Lent we have focused on a phrase
from the letter to the Ephesians:
“Let the eyes of your heart be enlightened.”
We have prayed in this season of Lent
that God would help us to see
with the eyes of the heart,
that our vision might be transformed.
And now as Lent blossoms forth into Easter
we continue that prayer.
We don’t simply want to see,
but we want to see with the eyes of faith,
the eyes with which Mary Magdalene
was able to see the risen Jesus.
We want the faith that will allow us
to recognize him who recognizes us,
to know him as a living presence
in this community of faith:
in the words of scripture,
in the sacraments,
and in one another.
We want the faith that enlightens the eyes of our hearts.
Because seeing is not believing;
rather, it is believing that allows us to see.