Sunday, April 08, 2007

God's Feet

Here's the homily I preached at the Great Vigil three years ago, which may be my favorite I've written (and to which the congregation responded with intense emotion). This isn't a piece I'd have delivered on Easter Sunday itself, when the people in the pews expect more conventional observances, but it was perfect for the small Saturday night service.

I've posted the Gospel passage, Matthew 28:1-10, in full below, because you can't make sense of the homily without knowing what it says. Keep in mind that the congregation always hears the homily immediately after the Gospel. Obviously, the line that snagged my attention in this passage was, "And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him." The homily, using the ancient Jewish technique of midrash, followed quite easily.

When I preached, I wore red -- Mary Magdalene's traditional color -- and ended the homily with a bit of performance theater by taking off the sandals I was wearing.

As for the picture with this post: yes, I know Jesus didn't wear Birkenstocks (although he probably would have if Birks had been available in the first century). But it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to find photographs of men's feet in sandals on the Internet -- at least, on sites that don't cater to extremely esoteric tastes.

Last night's homily went very well too; all of the comments I got were very positive, and my friend Katharine cried.


The Gospel

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he* lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead,* and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

The Homily

Dear Mary,

I’ve been thinking a lot about that morning. I don’t think either of us could think very well at the time; we were too scared, and so was everybody else. We probably weren’t as scared as the guards were, because we’d spent enough time around Jesus to see some pretty amazing things. But even we had never seen anything like that: the earthquakes, and the messenger who shone like the sun and crackled like lightning, the one who would have blinded us if we’d looked straight at him. When he told us in a voice like thunder that Jesus had risen from the dead, that the grave was empty now, I thought I must be crazy again, that the demons Jesus had cast out of me had come back. Even when that shining messenger showed us the empty tomb -- the inside of it all lit up, because the messenger was standing there, shedding light like a lantern -- I thought it was a trick. I thought someone had stolen the body. That’s why the guards were there in the first place, after all, so no one would steal it, his poor broken body. Maybe someone had bribed them? Peter, maybe. That seemed like something Peter would do.

But Peter had nothing to do with it, and I wasn’t crazy, was I? Because when the messenger told us to go tell the men, when we started running down the road to deliver that impossible, heart-wrenching message, there he was, standing in front of us: the person we loved the most in the world. We’d watched him die. We’d helped lay him in the tomb.

I don’t know. Maybe it was easier for you to understand than it was for me. You’d seen a shining messenger before, the one who came to tell you that you were going to bear a child, and that must have been as terrifying for you as the morning of the empty tomb was for me. It was joyful, too, but the joy was still mixed with terror: terror that it couldn’t be true, that nothing so impossible could really have happened. It was what I’d wanted more than anything, for him not really to be dead. And when something like that comes true, you have to be scared, because even though it’s wonderful, it breaks all the rules that kept you safe before. If whatever held Jesus in the tomb was broken, were other things broken, too? Would whatever held our feet on the earth suddenly let go, and send everyone flying into the sky? That’s the kind of thing I saw when I had demons. I didn’t want that back again.

And so what comforted me the most was his feet. You remember: we both fell on our faces in joy and terror and awe; we fell down to worship him, and you grabbed one foot and I grabbed the other. His feet were real: we could feel them. They were flesh and blood. The pulse in his ankle beat quietly under my fingers. In all that chaos of earthquakes and blazing messengers and fainting guards, his feet were the only thing I could understand. He was there; he was walking around in the world again, getting his feet dirty. He was alive again, impossibly, but he wasn’t flying off into the sky, and neither were we. Some rules still worked.

His feet were small enough for me to hold onto, small enough for me to believe. The rest of it was too much, Mary: too much for me to grasp.

And the feet were his. As much as I loved him, I’d barely been able to look at his face. Fear and shock sent me sprawling on the ground. But I knew those feet, that foot. I had the left foot. You had the right. His left foot had terrible holes in it from the nails, but it also had tan lines from his sandals. I knew the pattern of those straps. I knew the callus where one strap crossed between his big toe and the next one. I’d washed his feet, cleaned them after the dust and grime of his journeys, the same way he’d cleaned our feet the night before the soldiers came to arrest him. I knew his feet.

And then I thought, “No one will believe me. Why did the shining messenger send me to tell anyone? They won’t listen. They’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s Magdalene. She used to have demons. She’s crazy. You can’t believe anything she says.’” I prayed, as I lay there holding his left foot, my fingers curled around the ankle. “Lord God: please don’t let me be crazy. Lord God: please let it be true. Lord God: please open the ears of the others when I tell them.”

And then he spoke, and my fears and my prayers flew right out of my head, leaving only joy. I knew that voice. I knew his voice even better than I knew his feet.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said, and I shivered a little, because that was the first thing the shining messengers had said, too: the one you’d seen before he was born, and the one we’d both seen that morning. God’s messengers always say that, first thing. By that as much as anything, I knew that he really had come back from God to be with us. And then he said, “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” The messenger had said that, too, but now it made my heart clench. Now it meant that we were being sent away -- away from him.

I didn’t want to be sent away. I wanted to lie there in the dirt, with my fingers around his left ankle, for the rest of my life. But I couldn’t. I felt you moving next to me, felt you touch my shoulder and tug at my robe. And then he knelt down and kissed the top of my head and started gently prying my fingers loose.

“Mary,” you said, “we have to go. We have to tell the others. It’s all right. Come on.”

I don’t remember standing up, don’t remember turning away from him. But then you and I were walking down the road, and you had your arms around my shoulders, because I was shaking. “They’ll say we’re crazy,” I told you. “They’ll say it must have been someone else.”

“It can’t have been anyone else,” you said. “I recognized the scar on his foot, from when he was a baby. Some cooking grease spattered on his right foot, just a little bit, and burned him.” I could feel you trembling, but you smiled at me and said, “I’m his mother. Who else even knows about that? They’ll believe us.”

I’m not sure if they believed us or not, but once they’d seen him with their own eyes -- once he’d broken bread and cooked fish -- then they believed. And then he left again, and the Spirit came, and signs and wonders and dancing flames were everywhere.

So we all believe now, but I still don’t understand. It’s still too big for me, all these years later. Thinking about how much love and power it took to empty that tomb can still make my bones quake, as if the earth is still shaking and the shining messenger is still thundering at me.

So I think about his feet, which I could hold in my hands. I find myself looking and listening for his footsteps everywhere, even though he’s gone again. And I see them sometimes, Mary, I do. I swear I saw his footprints in the dust last week, when I took some food to Dorcas’ sick friend; she had that terrible fever, the one everyone’s afraid to get, and I was afraid too, but I looked down and saw his footprints and followed them right into her house, because I knew he’d gone ahead of me. And sometimes I hear his footsteps when I’m lost or lonely, and I know then that he’s with me, even if I can’t see him the way I did that morning. I still don’t understand what happened; I’ll never understand it. But I know to watch and to listen, and to follow where he leads.

And every year on this day, I take off my sandals. I take off my sandals and get my feet dirty, because this is the day he walked on the earth again: the day the whole world became holy ground.


  1. Susan, you have such a gift.

    (Were yer ears burning? I was just telling Caleb I was going to go find you. : ) )


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