‘He is not here.’ Mark 16.2‑7
The first experience of resurrection was of absence not presence. Jesus was gone and they didn’t know where.
We have records of up to eight resurrection appearances, though it is impossible to be precise. Many of the encounters described are very brief. Let me be very practical here. This means that the disciples had a great deal of time between meetings with Jesus. Over those forty days after Easter Jesus gives his disciples a lot of space. Quite how they spent that time we are not told.
Given that these weeks lead up to Ascension and Pentecost and the launching of the of the church on earth we might suppose that Jesus would pack every risen day with an intense program of theological teaching, evangelism courses, retreats, leadership seminars, guitar lessons, workshops on healing and counselling, and tips on live-streaming worship services. Goodness knows they needed it. Instead all we have is a handful of unpredictable and enigmatic encounters with individuals or groups of disciples. The only extended teaching by Jesus is on the Emmaus Road but not a single word is recorded!
The risen Jesus is not always the present Jesus – at least in ways we might hope for or expect.
Christian believing needs a positive understanding of God’s absence. I don’t mean that God is ever truly absent. I am thinking of those bewildering times when he seems to withdraw his presence, is not where we expect him to be, doesn’t appear when he is most needed, or we simply cannot find him. At such times we will tend to believe it is our fault. After all, hasn’t he promised never to leave us? I am not praying enough. I must have sinned. God doesn’t love me anymore. He is teaching me a lesson.
How interesting that a classic book on prayer from the Russian Orthodox tradition begins with a whole chapter on the absence of God. It affirms there are times when God withdraws his presence out of love and a desire to protect us. This is necessary because every meeting with God is a moment of judgment for us. God is truth, holiness, power. We cannot seek his presence lightly. His love is like a consuming fire for us. The author’s advice is to be thankful to God ‘that he does not always present himself to us when we wish to meet him, because we might not be able to endure such a meeting’. (1)
There is grace in those times of God’s absence. Faith that is only measured by the constant presence of Christ becomes exhausting and competitive, for ourselves and others. There are lessons of faith we only learn alone. The journey into trusting faith and belonging needs a great deal of time and space. Even God must (apparently) withdraw from us.
In the enforced separation of the present time it may be that some of us are on a similar journey. Some of the prolonged and angry debates about closing church buildings during this time may in part be the struggle to living with the absences of the familiar, the distressing losses of familiar roles, identity and life routines – the ones that make it all this feel ‘present’ to us, and, therefore, secure when little else is.
Anyone who has spent time in silent retreat will know something of this struggle. Coming from very busy lives we need time to stop and unwind and become still. We are longing for space, but as the silence takes hold and stillness grows, the absence of people or things can become deeply unsettling. The temptation is to fill up the space. Anything will do. The need to make coffee every half hour can have an almost demonic intensity.
In the space that is God’s absence, our emptiness is exposed. Our false pictures of God and ourselves are exposed for what they are. Our ploys for trying to control God are uncovered. In the Bible the wilderness is a metaphor for such spaces. They are the tough places where faith is purified and where the power of false gods is broken. Writing of the importance of desert and solitude, Thomas Merton described Christian prayer as ‘the unmasking of illusion’.
Perhaps the simplest and most obvious thing that Jesus was teaching the disciples after the resurrection was how to have a living relationship with him. After all, the freedom to be absent or present with someone is what makes real friendship possible. The truth is that any relationship that is based only on presence quickly becomes suffocating and oppressive. This is a true of our relating to God as to each other.
Love is not measured by how close we can get to each other. It is actually about the freedom to give the right space. Too close and our possessive clinging will choke all life out of our relationship. Too distant and we will simply drift apart. ‘Let there be spaces in your togetherness,’ says The Prophet, ‘and let the winds of heaven dance between you …. but let each of you be alone.’ (The Prophet)
The poet Rainer Rilke takes this further. ‘I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other .… loving the distance between’ and in so doing ‘to see each other in their wholeness and against the background of the vastness of heaven’. (2)
‘He is not here’. Risen life means learning to live between the absence and presence of Christ ‑ and to love the space between. The risen Jesus is an absence that is never abandonment and a presence that is not possession. He gives to all his disciples the space that makes real loving possible. And in that space we may freely learn to love him in a relationship that is as terrifying as it is glorious.
I have come to picture the absent Jesus, just out of sight of the disciples, present to all their fearful watching and waiting, quietly standing guard over their solitude.
1 Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. Prayer. DLT, 1989. Chapter 1.
2 Rainer Rilke. Letters to a young poet. Penguin, 2012.
The painting in the title slide is by Sophie Hacker – Walking with Angels. Used with permission.