This Easter Sunday comes to you, sponsored by the Gospel Mark. It’s the shortest and weirdest of all the stories of the resurrection. It begins and ends with the women. They come to the tomb, early in the morning after the observance of the Sabbath is over. They come to pay their respects, to offer last rites and to perform rituals on behalf of the one they loved and cherished.
Maybe you can understand their need, their desire, their compulsion to come to the place where the body of their beloved lay entombed. I didn’t arrive in time to be with my father as he lay dying from pneumonia as a result of Parkinson’s. My husband Bryon and I arrived half an hour after the death of his mother this past September from sepsis. But I needed to be there. I needed to touch once again the beloved flesh. To weep over the diminished body. To anoint with the sign of the cross the dear forehead and to hold once again the stilled hands.
The women come to the tomb filled with grief, loss and deepest woe. They came with love, but without hope. They come out of duty, not expectation. They come for an end, not a beginning.
This Good Friday, Mother Hillary preached a powerful sermon on facing the cross, not averting our eyes or numbing our hearts. She encouraged us to feel our feelings; feelings accumulated over a year of pandemic suffering and death; racial injustice and violence; uncertainty, confusion and loss. She called us to join with those courageous, strong women who not only stayed through the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross, but risked returning in order to anoint the body of one executed by the state for insurrection.
Because something powerful, confusing, overwhelming happens to the women when they come face to face with their devastating loss. Something they could never have expected. The tomb is empty. The heavy stone is rolled away. There is no body to anoint with strong spices to mask the smell of decay. There is no beloved forehead to stroke or hand to hold. There is no need for their services to be rendered.
There’s a tomb but no body. There’s a grave but no corpse. Instead a messenger is present to try and ease their fears, to assure them that they will find Jesus who was crucified. Just not here. Not now. They will find him after they tell the others that he has risen. They will find him when they go to where he told them to go, back to Galilee. They will find him in both expected and unexpected places.
We want to hear a story about how they told all the disciples the good news, especially Peter who was stuck in shame and blame for denying Jesus at the last. We want to hear how they found Jesus on the beach with breakfast or on the road to Emmaus or in the myriad of ways his beautiful, wounded body was revealed to them. But we don’t. Mark’s gospel ends with the women seized with terror and amazement, silent with fear. Mark’s gospel ends in the middle of their ongoing sorrow, confusion and anxiety. It leaves the women hearing the message of resurrection but without the ability or willingness to accept it.
Have you ever felt this way about the resurrection of Jesus? Perhaps you have been seized with amazement that contained a fair amount of doubt or cynicism. Maybe the resurrection has been told to you like a fairy tale to comfort you in your grief or as an indefensible doctrine that you are forced to accept regardless of your skepticism. Perhaps you are afraid to trust it or maybe you’re terrified of what it means for it to be real.
I love Mark’s ending. The story is not finished, whether by intention or by accident. The story doesn’t end with the death of Jesus, but it doesn’t end with the triumph of his disciples, emboldened by his resurrected presence transforming the world by the power of the Holy Spirit. It ends with three women afraid and silent.
The women don’t know what’s going on with the resurrection and neither do we. No amount of theologizing or explaining can ever adequately allow us to grasp that God has loved His Holy One through the grave to the other side, that life has conquered death and love has the final word.
Will the women find their voice and embrace the message of resurrection? Will they leave behind the empty tomb for a journey to Galilee? Will they encounter the risen Christ and find healing for their grief and despair? And will anyone believe their story? Will they be the first to hear of the resurrection, or the last?
It seems like the only one who has ever been certain and assured of the resurrection is Jesus. He lived his life in sure and certain hope of the resurrection from the dead. It doesn’t mean he wasn’t afraid or sorrowful when facing death. After all, he asked that the cup of bitter suffering be taken from him. But he also predicted over and over to his doubting and confused disciples that he would be raised, that death would not have the last word. He faced into the very worst that the world could do to him, proclaiming that unless he died, as a seed dies, there would be no fruit, no new life.
Jesus lives his life as the resurrected one. He is already fully alive and death cannot hold him. He lives as one who knows and trusts in God’s ultimate power. It enables him to endure the betrayal, mocking, misunderstanding, weakness, denial and folly that brings him ultimately to the cross.
This story ends with an empty tomb. But the story is not complete. The open ending offers the opportunity for each one of us to finish it. How will you complete the resurrection narrative in your own life? We all know that death is a reality, but what would it be like to live as one who is guaranteed of resurrection? How are we to make our way through the trials and tribulations of this life, knowing about our own impending death and the grief and sorrow of all the other endings? Like the women, on our own, we are afraid, confused, abandoned, and, if we’re honest, not in control. If there were ever any delusion about that, this year has stripped away a lot of our denial.
But what if we are ultimately the resurrected ones, the ones who will taste life in all its fullness, the ones from whom all tears will be wiped away? The ones from whom all disgrace will be removed? The ones who will share in the boldest and best of feasts, fully reconciled with friend, foe and stranger?
To paraphrase the poet, Mary Oliver, “What will you do with your one, resurrected life?” How will you look forward, lean forward and move forward into the fullness of resurrection? It’s nothing we can earn or deserve. I believe it’s offered to all, even to Judas who betrayed Jesus and to Peter, who denied him. Why else would the messenger of God make clear to the women that they were especially to reach out to Peter? Why else would Jesus share a cup and intimate moment with Judas, knowing that he would soon act against him?
What will it mean to live as one who has already been raised to new life? The resurrected one has the power to forgive, to offer grace, to love in spite of how love is received. The resurrected one doesn’t need to defend or build himself up or put others down. After all, what could be more marvelous than being fully, completely alive? The resurrected one can give freely and generously, laugh and cry with abandon and step outside her comfort zone.
As we live into our own resurrection, we are met by the risen One, who goes before us, accompanies us and has always been with us. We follow where Christ leads. We learn to love those Christ loves. We enter more fully into life and all the varied emotions and experiences it provides. We have the courage and strength to endure because we are never alone. The risen One is with us always. And because Jesus is raised, so too are we.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!