Writings & Thoughts

On Eggs, Tombs & Confession:
Coming out of our Shells
A Reconciliation Meditation Centered on Mary Magdalene by Richard Stodart
Image courtesy of Richard Stodart.com

“Confession??? We’re not going to have to do that here, are we? That kind of stuff is why I left the Catholic Church!” This comment greeted me after I preached a sermon on the importance of reconciliation and confession. Although it was not the kind of remark I hoped to hear, it was not wholly unexpected. After all, I have never heard anyone say that private confession was their favorite thing about church! Confession—a spiritual practice that we often spend time considering in Lent—gets a bad rap. It sounds like it’s full of judgment, a calculated litany of our own shortcomings. But, in this icon of her, Mary Magdalene, with her white egg, kind eyes, and unwavering faith, invites us to reconsider that position. Her gaze is a look of non-judgmental invitation. Her object—a simple egg—is an instrument of mystery. And her Lord and ours—Jesus—beckons us to break free from our shells and tombs of sin and live as a resurrected people. It’s a gift that stands right before us, though we don’t often chose to receive it. I have personally experienced both the new life possibilities within the Rite of Reconciliation as well as what can happen when the reconciliation rite is not an option.

When I was young, I felt drawn to the idea of confession but I had to be freed from a tomb before I could experience its grace. My Episcopal church didn’t expressly offer the rite so one year on Ash Wednesday I tried a Roman Catholic Church. (I actually skipped school to do so, which I had to add to the list of sins I was preparing to confess!) Unfortunately the Roman Catholic priest, upon hearing that I was an Episcopalian, ordered me to leave. This refusal was a crushing blow: I felt that I was not even worth listening to, let alone worthy to be forgiven. It was as if God was telling me that I was so immoral that nothing I had to say mattered, even if it was, “I am sorry.” I left the church in tears and took a seat on a nearby park bench. After sobbing for a long time, I suddenly remembered all the times that I had in fact heard of God’s forgiveness and care for us in my Episcopal church and decided that perhaps the priest’s reaction was more about his unwillingness to see me as a child of God than God’s own willingness. So, resolved, I made my confession to an Episcopal priest (after he told me that it was an option in our tradition). And I experienced tremendous joy. I was heard, my story was treated as sacred, and I listened in turn to the story of God’s foreignness and love as pardon was given. It was as though I had been called out from a dark and terrifying tomb and told I could live again. As a young woman, that experience let me come out of my shell and claim the call to ordained life that I had been hiding. It helped me to live the truth God was calling me to.

Mary Magdalene also knew a lot about shells and tombs in her life. When we first meet her in Luke, we hear that she had been freed from seven demons and that she and several other women “provided for them out of their resources.” (Lk 8:2-3) She was a woman of means, yet a woman in pain. We don’t get to her hear account of that story, but I imagine that before she was forgiven and healed by Jesus, she felt like she was in a tomb. Possessed by spirits that were masking her own, not feeling worthy of love, and probably living a shell of an existence. And then Jesus heals her; forgives her; reconciles her. And she is changed. She leaves the tomb of her sin behind her and follows Jesus.

She follows him all the way to another tomb—this time his own. We learn in Matt 27:55-61 that she is one of the few of Jesus followers who stayed at the foot of the cross through his whole crucifixion and helped to lay his body in that new tomb that had been hewn out of rock. A cold and lonely place. Yet Mary, and a few other women, returned to that place to give him a proper burial as soon as the Sabbath was over. They returned to show love to the man who had freed them from their tomb—only to find his empty. She is the first one to see Jesus resurrected as he calls her by name and tells her to tell the others that he is risen and that we have been reconciled to God.

And tell them she does. Indeed, she tells many others including Emperor Tiberius, or so the legend goes. Now, you might expect that explaining something as miraculous and theologically loaded as the resurrection might be a little daunting and require all your best visual aids like charts, or graphs, or ancient scrolls of prophecy. Especially when you are confronting an Emperor. But Mary brought with her nothing more than a simple white egg. Strange as that might seem, eggs were always seen as a symbol of Christian hope built on Jesus. “After the resurrection of Christ, the egg took on a new meaning for Christians and became a symbol of new life breaking forth while leaving the empty tomb behind. Eggs were what helped people to understand a new theological truth—the resurrection of the dead, and a new religion—Christianity—built around the first Resurrection.”[1]

Thus, holding this egg in her hand, Mary Magdalene boldly confessed, “Christ is risen!” And just as I was meant with rebuke when I tied to confess, she too was meant with denial and scorn. Tiberius laughed at her, and said that Christ rising from the dead was as likely as the egg in her hand turning red while she held it—which is exactly what happened. Her confession spoke of the reconciling reality that she knew to be true in her own life—that Christ died to set us free from all tombs. That is why Christians dye Easter eggs to this day- to proclaim their belief that through Christ, God has reconciled us back to him and freed us from our sins so that we might life as a resurrected people.

Yet, in reality, we tend to be more like Tiberius then Mary—assuming that our sins are too big to be forgiven. We feel that the shells of our existence are too shattered to be restored and that things that are put in tombs will never be restored to new life. I have researched why people do not often avail themselves of confession—that liturgical action that confesses that God has forgiven us— for a book I have written on the subject[2] and almost without exception, every person I spoke with discussed feelings of unworthiness as a reason they did not seek reconciliation. Many of us have a hard time believing that God will forgive our sins—even after hearing over and over again that God will and does. One woman summed this sentiment up: “I know that God will forgive my sins, but I don’t think he should because they are just too terrible. And even if he does, I’ll probably just end up doing it again.”

These feelings were so prevalent, in fact, I began to wonder if we are more Lenten people than Easter people. By that I mean, do we find it easier to believe that we are cursed sinners and fundamentally bad people (a sentiment that seem more appropriate for the penitential season of Lent) than beloved children of God who have already been forgiven through the reconciling actions of Jesus death and resurrection (the very thing we celebrate in Eastertide)? Do we think we need to hide in tombs rather then come out of our shells?

Yes, sin causes us to lose our true north in Jesus, but there is nothing that can separate Christians from the forgiving love of God—least of all our actions as finite beings. As Paul tells us in Romans 8:38-39, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” What Paul is saying is that the grace God offers humanity in reconciliation breaks the cycle of our sin. We can actually be done with the sin—truly done with it—with the help of Jesus. God doesn’t love and forgive us because of how good we are. God loves and forgives us because of how good God is. Reconciliation invites us to embrace that reality and never look back. Mary Magdalene knew that when she proudly held up that egg and confessed the truth about the reconciling love of Jesus. And Mary invites us to be reconciled now, almost handing us from this icon a white egg of our own to let God turn red through our confession. So leave your tomb, break out of your shell, and confess to the world you’ve been reconciled.

The Rev. Dr. Hillary D. Raining, Rector

 

This meditation is part of the Finding Peace issue of Dialog, the magazine of the Diocese of Texas. You can find the whole issue here.

[1] Gretchen Filz, “The Story of May Magdalene and the First Easter Egg,” https://www.catholiccompany.com/getfed/mary-magdalene-first-easter-egg/ (Accessed 2/16/17).

[2] Available from Forward Movement in the fall of 2017. Please contact the author for details.