Witnessing as Easter Practice
In her 2003 book, “Witnessing and Testifying: Black Women, Religion, and Civil Rights,” Rosetta Ross explains the relationship between these two concepts in Black religion.
“Testifying,” she writes, “is telling stories of divine intervention through speech, while witnessing is attesting to faith in the divine by living in expectation of divine intervention and experiencing God in everyday life.” (Rosetta E. Ross, Witnessing and Testifying, 15)
The practices of witnessing and testifying are woven into the fabric of Christian life—in what theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz identified as lo cotidiano. Through our everyday lives, we search for signs of God’s divine presence, for God’s revelation in all things. We search the ordinary with the perpetual and joyful hope of encountering the extraordinary.
Ross’s discussion of the relationship between witnessing and testifying offers a helpful lens for viewing the Gospel message in John chapter 20 on this Resurrection Sunday.
While it is still dark, Mary Magdalene arrives at Jesus’s tombonly to find that the stone has been removed.
The Lord’s grave is empty.
Having just witnessed the drama of Jesus’s passion on Friday, Mary arrives at the tomb, presumably to tend to it and to mourn, only to find yet another drama unfolding. This is a devastating discovery for Mary, who utters one of the saddest sentences in scripture: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” (Jn 20:2)
According to scripture scholar Gail O’Day, “Mary’s confusion reflects the world-shattering dimension of the empty tomb. Until the community encounters the risen Jesus, there are no categories through which to understand the empty tomb.” (Gail R. O’Day, “John” in Women’s Bible Commentary, 389)
This confusion is also reflected in the responses of Peter and the beloved disciple to Mary’s testimony: After a week of trial and failure, persecution and injustice, violence, and death, Jesus’s empty tomb is yet another loss, yet another trauma, yet more suffering to endure.
But neither Mary nor the others are prepared for all that they are about to witness, that which is making all things new.
As she stands devastated in front of the tomb, Jesus asks Mary: “Woman, why are you weeping?”
She shares her confusion and devastation with her Lord without yet recognizing what she is witnessing in that very moment: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” (Jn 20:13)
This iteration of her refrain is somehow even sadder, even lonelier, than her first utterance.
But then Jesus shouts: “Mary!” It is only then that she recognizes who he is and what has happened. There before her stands the risen Lord, the teacher whom she loves, the savior who has redeemed us all. And in an instant, she becomes the first witness to something she didn’t have the categories to explain even moments before.
But as the first witness, she eventually finds the words for her testimony: “I have seen the Lord!”
How can Mary’s experience of witness and testimony at the tomb guide us during this season of celebration of our risen Lord? It reminds us that witnessing and testifying are Easter practices.
As we gather and celebrate this Easter, we do so as a community of witnesses. We have encountered Jesus not only in the bright light of midday, but in the confusion before dawn. We have encountered him in the context of our daily lives, in moments of sorrow and in moments of joy.
We also gather as a community of testimony, as those witnesses who now proclaim the Good News.
As we enter into this season of rejoicing, how can we create space for the practices of witnessing and testifying in our daily lives? How might these practices help us to attend to our confusion, our suffering, and our wounds in the context of our daily lives, in lo cotidiano? And how might these practices help us to hear Jesus’s joyful call, beckoning us to see the face of the Lord crucified and risen who has been with us all along?
Dr. Nichole M. Flores is associate professor of religious studies and director of the health, ethics, and society minor at the University of Virginia. She speaks, writes and teaches about the significance of Catholic ethics in plural social, political, and ecclesial contexts. Her first book, The Aesthetics of Solidarity: Our Lady of Guadalupe and American Democracy is available from Georgetown University Press. In 2015, Dr. Flores was honored with the Catherine Mowry LaCugna Award for best academic essay in Catholic theology from the Catholic Theological Society of America.
Dr. Flores earned an A.B. in government from Smith College, an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School, and a Ph.D. in theological ethics from Boston College.
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