Many of the Gospel resurrection accounts include a failure of recognition. Even some of Jesus’ closest friends do not recognize the Risen Christ at first. Mary mistook him for the gardener, according to John, until he spoke her name. In Luke, we have a rather strange story of two friends walking seven miles on the Sunday after the crucifixion, from Jerusalem to Emmaus, when Christ himself joins them along the way. The two friends failed to recognize him until they sat down for a meal.
I’ve discovered over the years, that these stories are more than disconcerting for the more or less doubting Christian. Those who already have a hard time with resurrection are yet more unsettled by these stories. How is it even remotely possible that those very close friends could not recognize him?
The Christian writer Frederick Buechner suggests that this lack of recognition may stem from difficulties in actually recognizing Jesus pre-crucifixion. Though the friends spent time with Jesus, learning from him, talking to him and helping him, they somehow never truly allowed his presence to sink fully into their consciousness. After the resurrection, no wonder they had difficulty in recognizing him.
I’ve always thought Buechner was on to something. And I still do. But, now I have another perspective.
Here’s a little background: I’m in my mid-50s. And like many women my age, I dye my hair to hide the steely grays that now grow out of my head. I didn’t exactly set out to be a woman who dyed her hair, but I’ve had a long relationship with a great hairdresser. Years ago, before the grays appeared, I started occasionally getting my hair highlighted. These appointments were long ones and they became a sort of therapy session. Highlighting then morphed into hair color and the more grays that appeared, the more often I had to go. The coloring seemed a simple pathway to a more routine therapeutic relationship.
Originally, my hair was brown, so I stuck with brown, sort of, when it came to those first years of full coloring—but a darker brown, with reddish highlights.
Last spring, I decided it was time for a change—lighter. Much more blonde. More fun, right?
What’s been fascinating since I changed my hair color is that lots of people don’t recognize me. It’s been quite an eye-opening experience. I ran into one young woman from church (who had not attended worship since before the hair color change) in the grocery store. I said hello, she said hello back to me. But, then when I ran into her a few aisles later, she said, “Oh, hi! I just realized who you are. I really didn’t when I saw you a few minutes ago. You look different.”
Another time I was in a line at a shop and realized that the woman in front of me was someone I used to chat with at the gym all the time (I stopped going to that gym about a year ago). When she turned around partway, I offered a cheery hello. She looked at me, said an awkward hello back, scowled, and then turned around. She clearly had no idea who I was.
These sorts of situations have been happening on a regular basis for the past several months. And, this has given me a whole new appreciation for those first Easter stories where even those closest friends had a hard recognizing Jesus. Well, of course they had a hard time. Resurrection surely altered Jesus’ appearance, don’t you think? And, it turns out that it doesn’t take much alteration before even close friends have a hard time in the recognition department.
This has led to a whole new set of wonderings around our ability to recognize the Divine presence in our lives and in our church. Do we have the capacity, in our lives of faith, to be open to the surprising ways through which God joins us on the journey? Are we able to allow ourselves to push aside our preconceived notions, and our stubborn desire to cling to what we know, to open our eyes afresh to the presence of Christ?
I now hold serious doubts. My own experience suggests that recognition is a tricky, challenging business. As we cling to what is comfortable and routine, we have little to no appreciation for how deep-seated those notions sit in our consciousness.
Familiarity has its place and it is no doubt significant in our lives of faith. But, Jesus so often sought to upend familiarity, to show us that to be connected to God is to live in the midst of both familiarity and surprise. If our lives of faith stay solidly in the realm of the familiar, then our lives of faith are seriously wanting. We are called to open ourselves to recognition, and the first step is to recognize that we often have a very hard time in the recognition business. Who knows who might be walking beside us or coming near enough to speak our name?