Flight, terror, amazement and the silence of fear. Happy Easter, Mary, Mary and Salome! Hardly an Easter text, is it? Where is the joy and wonder? Where is the delighted astonishment and awe in the presence of resurrection?
Let’s remember that the earliest manuscripts of Mark end the gospel at this point! It’s as bad as Gone with the Wind. I say that because I saw that film when I was about 12. I remember sitting through four hours of film, and wondering how on earth the story could be resolved. And it wasn’t. I felt robbed. In fact, it still rankles, as you may well gather reading this. There was no resolution. All the hares that had been set running – compellingly and grippingly – just ran off the screen. They ran and ran into the cinematic fade-out. And here, at the end of Mark’s story of Jesus, we have another Gone with the Wind – or is it just Gone …?
Anticlimax and irony
The sense of anticlimax and frustration could not have been more cleverly done! We arrive with the women at the tomb. We see, through their eyes, that the stone has been moved – rolled away. We’re wondering what on earth we’re going to encounter when we step inside the tomb with them. And what do we see? Not Jesus, but a young man in white robe. Aha! So this is what happened to the young man who fled naked from Gethsemane. He’s here! And now he speaks (v6) and tells them, “Do not be alarmed!” Is that seriously meant to reassure? Try and imagine what a stand-up comic like Billy Connelly or Paul Meron would be able to do with this material. It’s a gift! The women have steeled themselves to confront the mangled, smelly corpse of Jesus, and he’s gone. Instead, a strange young man in martyr’s robes is there, and his first words are, “It’s okay!” Does he expect them to say, “Oh, thank goodness! I was really worried for a second, just there …” No it’s not okay! It’s terrifying and mysterious and distressing! Don’t try and tell us it’s okay when it manifestly isn’t!
Then he goes on, “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.” Well, yes! I mean, how many other corpses did they expect to find? And then a wonderful statement of the obvious: “He’s not here. Look, there is the place they laid him”. They know he’s not there! That’s the whole point, isn’t it? And they’re staring at the place where he ought to be, and probably looking around the tomb to see if they could have missed anything as obvious as a corpse wrapped in a sheet … And finally, the “explanation” – so unhelpful as to be positively crass: “He has been raised.” Raised? What does that mean? By what? By whom? Taken where? Are we seriously expected to think that this is helpful? Should the women say, “Oh! That explains it! Thanks. Well, we obviously don’t need all these spices, so we’ll be getting off back home. You have a nice day!”
It’s great theatre. This is an account that hovers on the edge of slapstick. Hovers, but doesn’t teeter over the brink, because we readers know what it means. We already live on the other side of resurrection. We thrill with the excitement of it: this is Easter. It’s resurrection time! So when the young man tells them to go and tell his disciples – especially Peter – that Jesus is not dead anymore and that they will see him, we’re already anticipating the next, wonderful scene when the women rush into the room, breathless with excitement, and blurt out their story. Go on – write the scene for yourself. And then read what happens. “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”. End of book! See what I mean about Gone with the Wind? Here is the greatest news ever in the history of humankind and the only people with the secret run off in abject terror and say … nothing!
“The Way of the Cross? Yes. The way of resurrection? No!”
We need to remember that these are the women who have walked the Way of the Cross with Jesus. Unlike the male disciples, they have not tried to dissuade Jesus from the path, nor have they abandoned him. They’ve “gone the distance” from Galilee to Jerusalem to Golgotha and to the tomb. They have not denied him, as Peter has. They have been prepared to “lose their lives for his sake”. And now they come to pay him their final honours: a proper burial, followed by mourning and regular vigil at the tomb.
I think Mark is trying to tell us something vital about the shock factor of resurrection. The women cannot cope with it. They can cope with suffering, death and despair. That is part of life, however difficult and tragic. It belongs within the imaginative framework of a pre-Easter universe. It does not shatter their devotion or their faith. But resurrection is something else. It is something so totally, shatteringly new and unexpected that it tears the fabric of their universe to shreds and reduces them to terrified silence. They can cope with the Way of the Cross. But the way of resurrection proves to be their own Gethsemane. Here, in the garden (if that is where the tomb is), they, like their male counterparts, flee in panic. The way of resurrection is a step too far.
The process of “finding one’s life”
Moving from Good Friday (losing one’s life for the sake of the gospel) to Easter Sunday (finding/saving one’s life) is to move from one universe into another new, hitherto unimagined one. There are no compass bearings. There is nothing certain. Part of our Easter “task” as disciples is to confront again the extraordinary sense of crisis that resurrection occasions. This is not just a piece of biographical information about Jesus: it is about changing the rules of the universe. We cannot remain the same. We cannot live in the same way, or share the old priorities. The old norms no longer work. The hard truth is that it is easier to live among the tombs than to step into the new dawn of resurrection. Losing one’s life is easier than finding it again in the risen Christ.
If we read Mark’s gospel in its longer version (ie beyond 16:8), we note the emphasis on “telling”. There is the same dynamic in each incident: Jesus appears to someone, they tell the others, who do not initially believe, but by the end of the gospel (16:20) they are all out and about, spreading the Good News everywhere.
Whatever we want to make of the text at this juncture, we need to recognise that there is process involved of learning to live with resurrection – learning to live and find our bearings in a radically different universe. It is part of the difficulty is coming to terms with the end of everything (which Mark presents Jesus’ crucifixion as being). There is an element of radical decision-making involved – and then a process of growing into that decision! John speaks about in terms of moving from darkness into Light, and from death into Life. His Jesus calls it “being born again”. Paul speaks of it as “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Everything “old” has died and is buried; everything has become “new”.
There is nothing “obvious” or comfortable about resurrection or about Christian faith. To “understand” resurrection is to realise just how terrifying it is, because it is about leaving the old behind and stepping into a future where the only thing that is assured is that “Jesus has gone ahead, and we will see him” (Mark 16:7).
“If Christ has not been raised, then our faith is in vain”
This verse from 1 Corinthians 15 (v14) is not part of the Lectionary passage for today. Yet it is the climax of Paul’s preaching about what is most important (v3): Jesus was crucified and was raised on the third day (v4). A dead Jesus is a tragic hero and a martyr. All that we can do is to follow him, and at best “lose our lives for his sake”. We have not yet “found” our lives! Paul doesn’t mean, “At least, if you died for Jesus, you found something worth dying for!” Christian faith is also about what is worth living for! Resurrection is more than a promise that our living and dying like Christ will make a difference to the future of the world: it is the promise that we will share in that future! And it is a promise of life now, in this world.
Resurrection, he will go on to argue, transforms Jesus’ death from something that happened just to him into the gateway into life for the whole of created reality. It transforms Jesus from a martyred prophet (history is littered with them) into the Second Adam – the one who gives life to all of humanity. This is the promise of release and liberation from the endless cycle of death and despair. Resurrection is the announcement of the victory of Jesus over the Strong Man and all the powers that enslave, stifle, and kill.
Resurrection, he will go on to stress, is something that happens to bodies (vv 35ff). This is important. Paul picks up on the biblical link between sin and death. It is possible to read this in “purely” theological terms – as though Paul were operating in the realm of theory. He isn’t! “Sin” is what we do as embodied people. We use our bodies to live and act, to hurt, oppress, and injure others. “Sin” is concrete. Paul’s whole stress in this letter is on bodies – hence his concern with the “body life” of the Church and the way in which this is contradicted by people using their bodies inappropriately so as to make a mockery of new life. This is seen no more clearly than in the way in which the concrete “body life” of the Church profanes Communion – the meal in which Jesus says, “This is my body, broken for you” (11:24). We are not saved for some disembodied life in some heavenly universe, but for life here and now that is incarnated (takes bodily shape) in this world. Resurrection is not some “spiritual” truth. It is about the presence and activity of the Living Spirit in us – the transforming of reality. We are to be part of that transformation.
Not a “fact”, but the power of God (Acts 10: 34-43)
I get fed up with the annual Easter debates about whether we ought to believe that Jesus was raised bodily, or whether it is something about the enduring presence of Christ beyond his death. Both protagonists in this debate are arguing about the wrong thing. Resurrection is not about “biographical facts about Jesus”. Believing that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead is not what makes Christian faith either Christian or faith. Nor are notions of the enduring presence of Jesus beyond death remotely satisfactory for life in a world where “sin” is to be counted in starving, tortured, addicted and diseased bodies.
The question that human experience faces us with is, “Is there any power strong enough to break the cycles that trap us in cruelty, illness, poverty, oppression, despair and death? Is it only possible to live a happy life by creating a living hell for most of the planet’s inhabitants, or is there another answer?” And the Christian answer is “Yes!” It is God’s power – the power of the Holy Spirit. Look at Peter’s sermon in Acts 10:37ff. “God anointed Jesus with the Holy Sprit and with power”. The story of Jesus is the story of the power of Life abroad in the world. It is a power that cannot be thwarted by crucifixion (v39). When death has done its damndest and proclaimed itself the Ultimate Reality, God has a word of power to speak: “Resurrection!” Resurrection is as real – as concrete and bodily – as both life and death. We have “seen” it made visible in Jesus, who was crucified, laid in a tomb and then raised by God. Its power and reality is not something to be “believed” as though it were something like gravity or relativity: it is to be experienced as transforming, and made visible as we seek to transform the world in the name of Jesus.
The power of grace (Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24/Isaiah 25: 6-9)
Resurrection is the ultimate word of God’s grace. It is God’s Last Word that refuses to let our own last word (“crucify him!”) stand. Resurrection opens us to the depth of God’s passionate, self-giving love for the world. This is God’s power and God’s victory. It is seen, not in annihilative power, but in the risen Christ. God does not judge us for our sin; instead, God robs sin of its destructive power, freeing us for new Life where the very possibilities of life had been finally extinguished.
Our two Old Testament passages are celebrations of thanksgiving for unexpected deliverance. “This mountain” in Isaiah 25 refers to Zion, the place that was associated in postexilic Judaism with Torah. Zion becomes, in postexilic Judaism, what Sinaii is to pre-exilic Judaism: the place of Yahweh; of refuge; of grace. In Isaiah, Jerusalem is threatened. Yet this threat is more than just one historical event in the light of a particular group of people: it is the “shroud that is cast over all peoples” (v7) – a symptom of all that is ranged against Yahweh’s rule over creation and will for Life.
The point made in the oracle is that very site of the “shroud” will become the place of feasting and a sign of Yahweh’s victory and life-giving (v6). It is the place where Yahweh will “swallow up death forever” (v8) and “wipe away the tears from all faces”.
Fast-forward to another mountain: Golgotha. The crucifixion mountain is literally shrouded in darkness in the gospel narratives. It is a place of torment and tears. Here the engines of death – the crosses – stand as eloquent testimony to all that is ranged against God. Here is humanity’s final verdict on God’s presence in and purposes for the world: “No thanks – we’re not having any!” Mark’s gospel tells us that no one waited “hopefully” on that mountain (cf v9). It was the nadir of all hope. God was being crucified.
But because of Easter – because of resurrection – Golgotha is celebrated as the place of God’s salvation. The engine of death (the cross) is transformed into a sign of the love of God that will not be cut off or extinguished. It is a feasting place – as the Christian Church proclaims every time it celebrates the Eucharist.
Psalm 118 is a psalm of victory in the face of (apparent) certain annihilation – and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat is due to Yahweh and Yahweh’s “steadfast love that endures forever” (cf vv 1-4). Look at the dire situation in vv 10-12: Israel, a relatively weak and tiny kingdom, is surrounded by an alliance of enemies. The surrounding armies appear like a swarm of bees or a blazing brush fire (v12). You can hear, in the image, the angry, purposeful hum and the destructive crackling, can’t you? And yet Israel prevails, against all the odds – because of Yahweh.
And so the psalm becomes a celebration of victory and the proclamation of the powerful faithfulness of Yahweh’s enduring love. The point about Yahweh’s love is that it is a given – freely offered as a gift of grace. Israel is not loved because they are deserving of that love, but because Yahweh is gracious.
It is easy to see why this psalm became associated with Jesus and part of Christian liturgy. It is Paul who draws the parallel between Jesus and the “rejected stone that has become the chief cornerstone” (v22). Easter Day – resurrection day – is indeed “the day that the Lord has made”. This isn’t simply a way of saying that “days” – “time” – is the creation of God; it is that God has made a day that started out as a day of disaster into a day of salvation. It is a day to rejoice and be glad!
Back to the beginning …
What if Mark’s gospel ends, like the film, at 16:8? What are we to make of such an anticlimax to an otherwise thrilling story? The clue lies in the opening verse of the gospel: “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. What happens when we read the whole gospel as the beginning? Then we are brought to the threshold of it all: the story of Jesus who, having been crucified, is now alive in a world throbbing with the powers and possibilities of resurrection and is waiting … for us! What will we do when we have lived long enough to overcome the terror of leaving behind our “old” world, and allowed God to let the Holy Spirit – the power by which God raised Jesus from the dead – loose in us?