Gestalt Jesus

An Easter Vigil message.

Have you ever seen Jesus? I realize that’s a rather esoteric, abstract question, but let’s just keep that question floating out there for a bit. Have you ever seen, really seen, Jesus? If so how would you describe the experience? Was it a person, place, or thing? A moment in time you aren’t soon to forget? A bit of nature that reminded you the divine was right there, in your presence, as real as anything else in our world? Hold on to those stories, your stories, we’ll come back to that question.

Scripture is *filled* with God spottings in ways that bring the abstract to the concrete.

The Backstory
God was there in the beginning, separating light from darkness, creating somethingness out of nothingness, giving order where none had been. And then there God was, walking alongside God’s new creation, kicking it with Adam and Eve for evening strolls in the Garden. Imagine what those walks, those conversations must have been like. Chatting with God on the regular, having the chance to talk about your day, asking all the questions you’ve always wanted answered, basking in the glow of a close relationship with the divine. Sign me up for that.

God was there as things went down. By that we’re talking about what went down with original sin and the corruption of our world, not heading down to a warmer locale like South Florida. Tho given the Iowan winter we had that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea 😊

God was there as the Israelites fled the oppressive slavery of Egypt, guiding Moses to lead them to the promised land. Oh God’s people complained, right in the middle of their escape, saying it’d be better if they’d just stayed enslaved and died. Ouch! But God had Moses’ ear, and helped calm an anxious people. Even more, God provided a very real here and now salvation for the Israelites, parting sea from sand, guiding God’s people right through the middle of a massive water body. It was a moment not even Charlton Heston could do justice, as great of a cinematic Moses as he was in The Ten Commandments. God was there, leading God’s children away from slavery, towards the hope of a promised land.

And God was there, in the form of God’s son, when Mary Magdalene went out, while it was still dark, to pay her respects to a dead friend. (John 20:1-18)

But Mary didn’t find what she had been expecting. Mary went to the tomb for the same reasons we visit graves – to cry, to pray, to remember, to find closure. Maybe she brought some flowers to place, just like we do, scripture doesn’t say. We do know that when she arrived something was off, the stone that should have been in front of the tomb wasn’t there. Assuming the body had been stolen she went for backup, bringing Peter and another disciple to investigate. Once there they found the linens Jesus had been wearing piled up in a corner, nobody in sight. After that the disciples, for some reason, called it a day and went back home.

But Mary? She stuck around. And it was then that she found what she had been looking for, albeit in an entirely different form. There, outside the tomb, crying over the loss of a very good friend, and now the loss of her very good friend’s body, she turned and saw someone nearby.

Assuming it was the gardener Mary asked the person if they’d taken away the body. Mary was determined to solve this missing body mystery; she was still searching for Jesus. The stranger then replied, “Mary!” and she knew, instantly, in that moment she was standing in front of the risen Christ. It had been a case of mistaken identity – this was no gardener she realized, it was her beloved Teacher.

With the epiphany now in hand Mary excitedly ran to tell the disciples. News of this electrifying reality quickly spread.

Those male disciples were nowhere to be seen when Jesus first appeared. Instead it was Mary out seeking, and then finding, the risen Christ. It’s a biblical example of girl power, and a good one.

So what changed? What caused Mary to suddenly realize she wasn’t speaking to a stranger? What new insight had clicked in her brain?

Gestalt Shifts
For one it was the voice, Jesus called her by name. Our names are our identity. Those that know us by name are in relationship with us. I’m reminded of the theme from the TV show Cheers, you wanna go where everybody knows your name.

But maybe there’s more to it than that. While Mary now had new information, she heard the man’s voice, a voice that knew her by name, the figure before her remained the same.
What changed in this moment is also Mary’s perception of what she saw.
Or what she thought she saw.

To borrow a phrase from the field of psychology, perhaps what Mary experienced, in that moment of revelation, was a Gestalt shift. Gestalt is a German word for form or shape. Gestalt psychologists posit that, when it comes to how we see the world, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words the big picture matters. And a gestalt shift occurs when your perception suddenly changes.

A picture really is worth a thousand words, so let’s take a look at a few examples.


This drawing is pretty famous, I’d guess you may have seen this.  Do you see a young woman?  Or an old woman?

If you see the young woman the curved shape in the very center of this image is an ear. That same curved shape for the old woman is her eye. A bit below and to the left, on the young woman, is her chin. That same area, in the image, for the old woman is her nose.
If you can see both you have experienced a Gestalt shift, first seeing one thing, and now another. The image itself, the entire time, has remained unchanged.

Here’s another one.


Do you see a duck or a rabbit? If you see a duck, those big long pointy things are a beak. If you see a rabbit, those same big long pointy things are ears. And for both rabbit and duck the same round form in the middle of the image is the eye. If you first saw one, and now see another, congratulations, you’ve experienced another Gestalt shift.

One more, and this is a photo.


Do you see a cow?  Do you see two human faces? It is a cow, and by our Creator’s design nestled in that cow face is something else. Look closely and you’ll see a black and white silhouette of two faces looking at each other. If you look close you can see the outline of their foreheads, their noses, lips, and chins, it’s really something. And when you can see both cow and two faces, once again, you have made another Gestalt shift.

Looking back
It’s easy to see our faith, our religious practices, even the identity of Jesus as a relic of the past. We can treat it like something from a bygone era; our fires, our candles, our songs, our liturgies, it all points us back. Stories of creation and gardens, parted seas and empty tombs can be just that, stories from the past. And there is a certain beauty in that. Yet if you head though life only looking back, expecting the dead, saddened by what was and is no longer, well that is exactly what you’ll find.

Mary started out her trip to the tomb with this same mindset.

But then something happened.

Call that moment for Mary whatever you like, a revelation, Holy Spirit inspired, maybe a Gestalt shift. I’d suggest it’s all of that and so much more. With our limited vantage we struggle to wrap our heads around what that moment for Mary must have been like.

She went to honor the dead, and instead found new life.
She spoke with who she thought was a stranger, and instead encountered Christ.
She journeyed to shed tears of sorrow, and instead those tears turned to pure joy.

While she looked at the same form, of a man standing there in front of her, her understanding of that form, in a new way, changed the world forever.

As we celebrate Easter Vigil, while the skies continue to darken, on the precipice of a monumental event in the dawn that follows, let us prepare to be like Mary. Let us prepare to see the world, and to see each other, in new ways.

When we look and see the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the immigrant, let us see more.

When we look and see the Democrat, the Republican, the Socialist, the Communist, let us see more.

When we look and see the old, the physically ill, the mentally ill, the castaways of our society, let us see more.

Let us see each as beloved children of God, part of creation, part of a grand design from the very beginning. And part of God’s plan of salvation for the world through the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

Dear Lord, give us new eyes to see you in unexpected places. Prepare us to make that shift; from darkness to light, from death to life, from them to us. Prepare us to see each other as you see your own.

For it is when that shift occurs that we can answer the question have you ever seen Jesus with new certainty, with new boldness. Why yes, I have seen the face of Christ. And it is in *you*.  Amen.

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