Of course, we only know the absence of someone who was once present, once known and loved and now missed intensely. There is another experience of loss that is much more difficult to account for. There are certain places that evoke a sort of nostalgia for something we've never known. Holy places, for instance, can have this effect, even for unbelievers. They suggest a presence even though the place is empty. Mysteriously, many people sense the absence of God in this way. They have never known God, may not believe in God, yet they miss God's presence, sense the absence of something. But how can we feel bereft of something that never was? The very longing for God, the sense of being without God, is powerful testimony to the reality of God. How can we miss so piercingly, long for so passionately, someone who never existed?
Maybe human experience of loss can teach us something here. It is true that we lose our children as children but it is an even keener joy to get them back as adult friends. Even mourning for dead loved ones can be mysteriously transmuted into gratitude for the life they had. The yogis tell us that God can fill only the empty cup. If we wait patiently before the absences in our life new meaning will fill them, the way the Risen Jesus replaced the earthly Jesus for the disciples.
Recently, I've been meditating on how people change their minds about things, embrace new ideas, adopt new attitudes. Cardinal Newman used to say that 'Growth was the only evidence of life' and 'to be perfect will be to have changed often'. Strange, therefore, how some people pride themselves on the fixity of their beliefs. They are the kind of people who boast that they won't believe in such and such even though one were to rise from the dead in front of their very eyes. It's easy to overlook what you don't want to see. To see or hear a new thing we have to be open-minded, ready for
We find new ideas difficult or uncongenial because we have grown fond of the old ones; we cherish and cling to the things that have been important to us. Loyalty of this sort is an important element in human faithfulness but it can also be a trap. It can keep us from growing morally and spiritually by trapping us in the past. There would have been no development in human history if human beings in the past had refused absolutely to entertain a new idea. Human institutions are like cars, they need accelerators as well as brakes. An African priest living in Britain observed recently that the Church in Britain was a most peculiar machine, because it had the engine of a lawnmower and the brakes of a juggernaut.
When new ideas, new approaches to things, new discoveries about human nature come to us, they come to us from outside our experience and challenge us to change. They invite us to examine our attitudes, ask us why we cling to what we know and are never prepared to look afresh at something that has, perhaps, been confronting us for years. That is the way many people are in their attitude towards the ministry of women. They simply refuse to look at it as a challenge that might be coming from God. They do not believe God can come to us from the future. The God they worship is tethered firmly to the past.
But some things take a while to dawn on us. The hardest wood takes longest to grow. Sometimes the loves that endure best took longest to develop. And there is a strange mercy in the slow triumph over adversity. I'm always moved by the knowledge that two of the greatest orators in 20th-century Britain struggled against speech impediments - Winston Churchill and Aneurin Bevan. Because there were certain words he found hard to pronounce, the young Bevan learnt synonyms he could pronounce - and greatly expanded his vocabulary in the process. Slowly overcoming difficulties can create great strength of character. Wrestling honestly and long with a new idea before blessing it can produce passionate commitment. Katherine Charnley puts it well:
Strange how grit
should turn to gift,
and yet it is so.
not easily won
from difficult stone.
What matters is that we shall want to know the truth even if it upsets all our preconceptions. Christians have often been bad at this, slow to adjust to new knowledge in case it made them disloyal to Jesus. Simone Weil once said that if it ever comes to a choice between Jesus and Truth we must always choose truth, because disloyalty to truth will always prove, in the long run, to have been disloyalty to Jesus. This also is part of the surprise and newness of the Resurrection. It calls us to a life of joyful struggle.
Mary Magdalene had to learn not to cling to the Jesus she had known in the past. She had to surrender that loyalty in order to discover the new reality of the Risen Jesus. It is only when we cease to cling to experiences, realities, relationships that have had their day, that we can move into and live in the future. The Resurrection teaches us that God is God of the future as well as the past. This is why Christianity has been a revolutionary agent in human history. It has given people hope for their own lives: they have learnt that loss is often the prelude to new discovery, new deepening of trust. They have been taught by the Resurrection that the God of surprises is waiting for them beyond loss, beyond death and nothing can keep us from the shock of his love.