This is the resurrection story as recorded in the Gospel of Mark:
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 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. (Mark 16:1-8)
Think, for a moment, about the astrophysics of a sunrise. The dizzying mechanics are cosmic in scope:
The earth spinning on its axis at 1,000 mph, orbiting in a 584 million-mile track around a star that’s about a million times larger than our planet, so far distant that its light – dashing through space at nearly 300 million miles per second – travels more than eight minutes before kissing the face of the earth.
Sadly, because the sun rises every day – literally like clockwork, we’re not much impressed when dawn breaks. Sure, an especially colorful dawn earns a hurried glance, a quick pic, and a post to Facebook, but most days, not so much.
We usually sleep or snooze-alarm right through sunrises or ignore them altogether in the morning zoo of showering, dressing, making breakfast, corralling the kids, and getting everyone out the door and off to wherever it is that everybody needs to be. Yet, none of life’s busyness makes sunrises any less awesome or miraculous.
Easter can be as nonchalantly familiar to us Christians as a sunrise. We know the story, kinda, sorta – as it’s been told to us in the Bible or shown to us in the movies, and we likely expect to greet Easter in the same, predictable ways every year – with the fun and enjoyment of colored eggs, chocolate bunnies, frilly dresses, and family gatherings.
But, if you’ve been holding on tight and riding the roller-coaster of spiritual emotion that’s filled the past seven days – the loud, thrilling excitement of Palm Sunday and the anxiety of Holy Week that brought cunning betrayal, wrongful arrest, lynch-mob mentality, and bloody execution, then you – like those three women in our Scripture lesson – just might be able to experience Easter as a breathtaking, heart-stopping, throat-lumping experience. And Mark’s Gospel shoves you, perhaps reluctantly, onto that wild ride.
Like all of his Gospel, Mark writes in a straightforward style without any frills – or much joy!
The sun is barely poking over the horizon when they come to the tomb – Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome – to do what far too many have been unable to do during a year’s worth of COVID: To touch and anoint the body of their loved one, to provide a proper burial, and to honor the loss of a life well lived with some sort of tribute or memorial.
But the women, at dawn’s early light on that first Easter morning, are feeling as empty and hollow as the tomb before which they stand, filled with the exact same feelings that all the grief-stricken experience: dread and terror, fear and loathing, confusion and disorientation. And that’s how Mark ended his Gospel – at least the first version of it anyway.
Our Bibles today add another dozen verses that, in typically brief Markan fashion, succinctly mention post-resurrection appearances, marching orders to proclaim the Good News, and Jesus’s ascension back to heaven. Those who study such things say those verses were added on later to make Mark’s telling better match up with the other, later-written Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John.
But in his original telling, Mark apparently wants nothing to do with breathless tales of Mary running off to tell the apostles that Jesus is risen. Mark has no sentimentality for exuberance and celebration that Jesus is alive. Mark finds no need of post-resurrection appearances on the road to Emmaus or the sands of the seashore. No, Mark in his first draft of Easter’s resurrection leaves the women – and maybe us, too – numb, confused, afraid and silent. Period. Full stop.
Perhaps, for Mark, there’s nothing more that needs to be said.
And the questions that his omissions stir in the literary wake – How could this be? How’d the stone get moved? Did someone steal the body? Did we come to the wrong tomb? Jesus is going where? Galilee? Say what? – aren’t worth asking much less answering.
Still, you can’t be too hard on these three women for wondering about such logistical details. This particular Sunday morning finds them and all those closest to Jesus in a profound place of deep sadness and stunned grief.
Think about those first few days after you’ve lost someone, and you stand in that confusing place between the death, and the funeral, and the days ahead that look dim and confusing. Closure hasn’t come – if, indeed, it ever does. Mornings remind that the nightmare is real, and it’s hard to imagine how you’ll face today, let alone the lonely, painful days to come.
And thus, the terror of Friday gives way to the horror of Sunday as the women arrive to find the stone removed and a strange young man telling an outlandish story. Nothing about this jaw-dropping sight is recognizable or comforting. Instead, the women run away – terrified and unable to even speak of what they just saw!
But resurrection still came, even if they weren’t yet able to receive it, much less understand it. Strangely, things can be scary and OK at the same time. Again and again, the sun rises on a new day, often without physical acknowledgment or spiritual embrace.
The same is true of resurrection. Even if we can’t wrap our heads around what’s happening, God is literally and figuratively turning around the chaos of the world!
It’s as if the story of Creation is unfolding once again.
The dark horizon breaks open; light and wind sweep over the deep void of a vast, churning sea. Tulips, daffodils and hyacinth burst forth in blooms of colorful radiance; robins and red-wing blackbirds return with the rest of the snowbirds as suddenly as they all left; the merciful end to an abhorrent pandemic suddenly seems much closer.
Though darkness continues to linger – hanging on in futile, desperate attempt to stand in the Lord’s way, those still caught in its shadows sense glimmers of sacred hope beginning breaking through the clouds. Fear and trembling still prowl and lurk, but the story doesn’t end there. The promise of God will open a way forward.
In this awkward, uncomfortable, confusing, already-but-not-yet space, Jesus once again proclaims that fear and uncertainty are still held preciously within the promise of resurrection. For this, thanks be to God, is the promise of earthly living: Resurrection, re-creation, and re-birth happen not just once but again, and again, and again.
In Italian, the phrase, “to give birth”
Literally means, “to bring into the light.”
A mother will labor for hours and days,
Breaking herself for you,
Whispering between fractured breaths,
“This is my body, broken for you.”
A mother will do this as long as it takes
So that you, her beloved,
Have a chance at life.
So that you, her beloved,
Can feel the warmth of the light.
And after all that pain,
The sun will rise.
The doctor will put a baby on her chest.
The mother will hold her child as if
Letting go is indeed physically impossible.
She will breathe easy,
And then she will whisper softly,
“All this time,
All these deep breaths…
It was love, again and again and again.”
It is childbirth,
But it is also resurrection.
A body broken.
A long night.
And a love that won’t let go.
Friends, maybe Easter is just God whispering,
“All this time,
All these deep breaths…
It’s been love, again and again and again.”
I think we’ve been standing in the light all this time.
Now that I think of it, isn’t it warm?
That poem by Sarah Are mirrors the mystery of faith that the women in Mark’s no-frills ending proclaim: Resurrection is exaltation to God’s glory, not just another moment in the sequence of events we neatly and factually catalog as history. And, in the end, much to everyone’s dismay, there are no heroes among Jesus’s followers. The hostility that puts Jesus on the cross reduces them all to skittish flight and fearful silence.
Even so, the Holy Spirit of God in Christ kindles faith out of precisely such weakness and failure.
Jesus doesn’t stick around to choose a new team of disciples in some grand lottery for better followers.
However imperfect our faith, however many times we remain silent when we should testify to the Gospel, however often we fail to show empathy, compassion and grace with friend, neighbor and stranger, we nonetheless can always return to the Lord, for the Lord is always reaching out to us. God holds fast, even if you and I do not. None of us can get so far away from Jesus – living so sullied and run amok – that we cannot be touched by the Lord’s healing presence and forgiving love.
Maybe it really is possible, in Mark’s understanding, to believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus without appearance stories and miraculous tales to confirm that “up from the grave he arose with a mighty triumph o’er his foes.” Thanks to Mark, we are reminded – and assured – that Easter comes to us, again and again, even if we don’t know what to make of God’s resurrection ways.
Again and again, the sun also rises, and God’s mercies are new with each and every dawn. And some days, that is enough. And, like Mark, there’s nothing more than needs to be said.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021. Scholarship, commentary and reflection by T. Denise Anderson, Lisle Gwynn Garrity, and Pheme Perkins inform the message. (Artwork: Lisle Gwinn Garrity, The Promise, SanctifiedArt.org)