Witnessing Easter

Another personal and biblical reflection on Easter on the Saturday in Easter Week, April 27, 2019

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When all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all (Jesus’) acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things (Luke 23.48-49)

The crowd, with curious, voyeuristic eyes, watched a man dying a gruesome death.

His friends, especially the women, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them,(1) with anxious, anguished eyes, witnessed their dying friend.(2)
The Holy Women Witness from Afar, James Tissot (1836-1902)

There is a difference between watching and witnessing, which makes a difference in what Easter means.

These women continued their witness, coming to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, hastily taken from the cross two days before, for burial. They found not Jesus’ body, but two angels who declared, “He is not here! He is risen!” The women told the disciples, who did not believe. Peter did go to the tomb, looked in, and walked away “amazed,” but only that Jesus’ body was missing.

Again, the women witnessed.

At the crucifixion, the crowd saw only a man dying. The women witnessed their friend taking his last breath.

On the first day of the week, the disciples did not believe and Peter saw only an empty tomb. The women witnessed that Jesus was alive not because they had seen him, but because “they remembered his words,” meaning that his spirit, his life had come alive in them.

After years of Easters, this I have learned…

If I only watch Easter, even if that means I, like Peter, see the empty tomb, there is no guarantee I will believe. If I only watch Easter, even if that means I see Jesus rise from the dead, that (as is the case with many observable phenomena) would elicit my momentary, breathless, “Wow!” then I, soon after, doubtlessly (as has been the case with phenomena I have observed), would return to life as I know it. After all, I am human. As human, my capacity for enduring amazement, indeed, lasting transformation through what I merely watch is negligible to nonexistent.

However, when I witness Easter, when Jesus, his word, his spirit, his life come alive in me, I find myself in a different place, for I become a different person.

After years of Easters, I’m still not sure how it happens that Jesus comes alive in me. The precise elements and operation of “the mystical mechanics” of God in Christ working through the Holy Spirit elude me. Nevertheless, I know that it happens. For whenever I see another person, whether known or unknown, whether similar or different, and my conscious thought is “What is my unconditionally benevolent behavior toward this person?” then I witness Easter in me. And, when I choose to act in love, then I bear witness to Easter with that person.

I recall another Jewish story about a rabbi who tells me something, everything about how to witness Easter.
ancient rabbi teaching

One day, a rabbi turned to his disciples and asked: “How do you know when night has become day?”

One disciple answered: “You know that night has become day when you look in the distance and see a tree and know whether it bears figs or olives.”

The rabbi replied, “No.”

Another disciple answered: “You know that night has become day when you look in the distance and can tell the difference between a sheep and a goat.”

The rabbi replied, “No.”

None of the remaining disciples dared speak. After a moment’s silence, the rabbi said: “You know that night has become day when you can look in the distance and see in the face of any man, woman, or child your brother or sister whom you are called to love. Until you can do that, even at high noon, you remain in darkness.”

 

Footnotes:
(1) As identified in Luke 24.10
(2) The distinction between seeing (or watching) and witnessing can be detected not in English translations of the biblical text, which, variously, may use these and other words interchangeably, but rather only in the Koine Greek. There, in the original text, the crowds were theōrēsantes, literally, “gazing at” or “staring at” (as in watching) a spectacle. Jesus’ friends were horōsai, literally, “seeing” (or witnessing) his dying.

Illustration: The Holy Women Witness from Afar, James Tissot (1836-1902)

4 thoughts on “Witnessing Easter

  1. Paul,

    Thank you for this!!!! I truly have witnessed Easter in you because of your spirit AND because of how you treated me in the moment (in a benevolent way that I really needed)…. I’m starting to FEEL Easter too and I love it!! The rabbi story you shared is absolutely perfect!! I’ll remember it and treasure it!!!!

    Much love!

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  2. Dear Paul,

    What an intriguing exercise – to think about the difference between “watching” and “witnessing.” Thank you for setting those verbs side-by-side for comparison. I think we immediately sense that they DO suggest different approaches to a human process that may on its surface appear the same no matter which verb describes it. And yet, as I think of it, watching may be attentive, but that word suggests a level of disinterest by the watcher – a passivity, a casualness that puts the observer at a remove from what is being watched and its outcome.

    Witnessing, on the other hand, suggests to me that a switch has been flipped in the observer to add to the attention paid the status of investing in the activity observed and its outcome. If I’m going to witness the signing of someone’s will, I feel I have an obligation to pay particular attention to the signing, rather than simply casually turning my eyes in the direction of the one holding the pen. I might watch a parade or a sporting event, but unless I have either a vested interest in or have committed myself to some action based on the watching, I am probably not witnessing the parade or sporting event. Witnessing brings me into the scene being watched in a way that watching does not; it gives me a certain responsibility vis a vis the activity I have watched.

    With regard to the stories of Good Friday and Easter morning, it seems to me that those who only watch are occupied by (perhaps also horrified or frightened by) the events; those who witness are changed/transformed by the events. Perhaps those who truly witness Easter then forever after become witnesses to the power of Love/Transformation in the world, including the power that they themselves possess to change the world via the Love that has transformed their own seeing.

    I will try to be more conscious now of the difference between watching people and events and witnessing them. Witnessing raises the stakes, doesn’t it? Witnessing means we are no longer uninvolved, no longer neutral, no longer can simply go home and forget what we saw. Witnessing brings us into the scene as recorder and carer, gives us a role in the outcome. It makes us responsible; it claims us for some future task, perhaps gives a different tenor to all our future tasks. Once we’ve witnessed death and resurrection, it’s whole different life, isn’t it?

    Thank you, Paul, for all your sharing around Holy Week and Easter this year. But thank you especially for these thoughts that have been so rich and provocative for me.

    Much love,

    Karen

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  3. Always, my beloved sisters, I thank you for reading and commenting on my writing.

    Loretta, that story of the rabbi and his disciples (and, for the life of me, I cannot recall when I first heard it) is a favorite of mine, largely for its simplicity and directness, both pointing to the heart of the (all!) matter: Love.

    Karen, that distinction between watching and witnessing, which you deeply explore and characterize (indeed, what you have written will preach!) throws me back on the biblical text. And I see something new or, perhaps, I see something more clearly. Those who watched the spectacle of the crucifixion went home “beating their breasts;” an act of sorrowful response to the horror. Jesus’ friends, especially the women who continued their devotion two days later in going to the tomb, truly, witnessed; that is, they were changed. Thank you for that elemental insight.

    Love y’all (it’s the Southern influence!)!
    Paul

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    1. Thank you, Paul. I’m always happy to be part of “y’all!”

      Like

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