(Stained glass window of Dorcas, St. John's Church, Healy, UK, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
This was the reading in the Daily Office a few days back, and what always strikes me in this story from Acts is something we think more about in Russian novels--keeping all the names straight. The woman's given name is Tabitha, but in the Greek speaking world of the day, she is known as Dorcas. We are in the city of Joppa, which we now know as the Israeli city of Jaffa, or Yafo.
We know very little of Tabitha/Dorcas other than she was an early disciple, she did good works, and there is an assumption that she is a widow--the business of her making clothing was considered "widow's work" in those days. Well, and we know in this story, she's quite dead.
But the thing that always piques my interest is that we are talking about the same person here, yet Dorcas made the robes, and Tabitha is raised from the dead. It sort of seems that everyone in the room is talking about Dorcas--Dorcas sewed this, Dorcas embroidered that. Yet Peter does not say "Dorcas, get up;" he says "Tabitha, get up."
Now, one could make the argument that Peter simply used the name to which she'd most likely to respond, and that makes perfectly good sense, but we also know there are backstories all over the Bible, depending on the writer, and we also know Luke (the author of the Book of Acts) loves a good backstory.
So, my hunch is that Luke does this on purpose, and what calls to me in this name interplay is the possibility that we are seeing the dynamic of our false selves vs. our true selves.
Really, even people close to us never really know us--that inner core of ourselves, anyway. They know a persona. The persona certainly is part of us--the part we dare show the world--but it is also mixed with what other people project upon us. But depending on the situation, and depending on the roles of the other players in our life situations, we have multiple personas. I do want to make that clear it's not exactly "acting"--that persona has a reality all her/his own--but it's an incomplete self, and it's a self partly defined by others, so ultimately it is a false self. Yet this false self is not necessarily a "bad" self. I sort of hedge at using the word "false" because it implies a negative connotation. These false selves are very useful for getting along in the world, simply because except for a very tiny fraction of people in our lives, well, everyone doesn't need to know everything about us. They need to know enough to get the job done, complete the transaction, or succeed at a particular task.
So what we see in this story is not just a "Look! Peter raised this woman from the dead through the power of Christ!" story, but in this interplay of names we are invited to entertain the possibility that this woman was resurrected into her truest self--the self signified by her most longstanding and intimate name.
It begs a question--how many of us wander around through life so much as Dorcas, we basically become Dorcas? Have we lived our lives in a pattern that we now cater to our most dominant persona rather than us? We dress, walk, talk like how we think people expect Dorcas to act, and somewhere, we left Tabitha by the roadside for dead. We gave up on Tabitha because she was not the person who would get us where we needed to go--Tabitha wouldn't help us get the promotion at work, or that new client, or that next special relationship. Tabitha was too flawed, too raw, too blunt, too shy, or too insecure...but now Dorcas, that's another matter. Dorcas, the talented one, the charming one, the shrewd one would help us go far in life.
What would it be like to resurrect the Tabitha inside of us? What would change?
The other thing we need to consider in this story is that Dorcas/Tabitha is not a young woman. This is a resurrection in the second half of life. When we think back to the Gospel stories of people raised from the dead, many of them (although not all) involve younger people where their loss greatly affects the family dynamics or the status of the survivors--such as the widow of Nain. The death of her son puts her into the realm of outcasts and undesirables--regaining her son gives it back. But in the case of Dorcas/Tabitha, the implication in the story is the room is not full of relatives, but friends and clientele. Her return from the dead really doesn't change anyone's status.
It's not unusual at all for many of us to find our true selves in the second half of our lives. Now, I'm not talking about the dude who leaves the wife and five kids at 50something or 60something to run off with the bimbo, claiming he had to "find himself." I'm talking about something much deeper than that. I have known many people over the years who, once the last kid left the house, discovered their true passion in life once the financial burden of raising children was lifted. I have known several people who seemed firmly entrenched in their careers suddenly do a 180 and spend the next 15-20 years of their life doing something entirely different. I have known people pack up and move to totally unfamiliar surroundings. They have that one "big thing" they need to discover, somehow. In fact, I think I may end up being one of these people.
The possibility of being resurrected into a truer form of ourselves can be both exciting and daunting. But one thing is clear. When we hear God calling us to do it, we will be called out of our death to false self by our most familiar, most intimate name.