With Christians around the world, today we celebrate the ultimate mystery of faith: Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
Our liturgies always engage the five senses. And on this most joyful occasion, that all is enhanced. There is visual splendor in vestments and altar adornments, the aroma of lilies and incense, chant, choirs, strings and tympani complement the piano and organ. Touching and tasting the bread and wine, in the company of family and friends, we delight as we share in the goodness and loving presence of the Risen God.
How different this is from the feeling on that day nearly two thousand years ago! Then, in the stillness of dawn, there were just the three women. Shocked and sorrowful, they came to the barren place of death outside the walls of Jerusalem, where they had seen Jesus’ broken body laid. They carried spices with them to honor their teacher by anointing him in death.
All four gospel resurrection stories begin with the same details: Mary Magdalen and other women come to find the stone rolled away, the empty tomb, and an angel messenger or two present to bear witness.
In Matthew, Luke, and John, the Risen Christ ultimately appears: first to Mary Magdalen then other disciples.
But not here. Instead, when the women enter the tomb an unknown messenger tells them that Jesus is risen and that they should to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee.
“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.”
And that, dear friends, is the end of Mark’s entire gospel.
It’s so anti-climactic that later writers decided to fix it: twice! A short and a longer ending were added in the Middle Ages; they are printed in most Bibles today with the note that they are apocryphal.
Mark’s real ending is challenging. But it feels right. Like the rest of the gospel, it’s lean. It’s short in length and short on detail. It’s mysterious.
And it’s dynamic.
Mark’s Jesus was always on the move, leading the disciples from one village and territory to another, crisscrossing the Sea of Galilee, healing, teaching and casting out demons.
So it’s not surprising that Mark’s Jesus didn’t wait around to appear to the disciples after he rose. He didn’t linger in Jerusalem. Nor did he want his followers to. He directed them away from the city that kills the prophets, away from the corrupt collusion between the Roman and Temple authorities, away from the capital that the Roman army might already have destroyed when this gospel was written.
He called them to meet him back in the Galilee, the home of their common ministry. In Galilee, the disciples had already cast out demons and healed people in his name. In Galilee there was still much work to be done.
That’s all well and good. But why did the gospel end this way, leave the women hanging? Mark and his audience knew the stories about the Risen Christ’s appearances. But this author chose not to include any of them.
We don’t know why. But the effect is to focus us on the women: Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James, and Salome.
In Mark, when the three women are introduced at the end of the gospel, at the cross, we learn that they were very important. They provided financially for Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. And Mark says that they are among “many women” who followed Jesus to Jerusalem.
Jesus had real relationships with Mary Magdalen and other women like Mary and Martha of Bethany. We read about them especially in Luke and John.
But in Mark, the women Jesus encountered are all unnamed. It’s appropriate, really; because the stories are not personal. Instead, they are emblematic of the power of faith in Jesus. Each shows how faith in Jesus brings a blessing.
Faith of the parents brings healing for Jairus’ daughter, and the daughter of the Syrophonecian woman. Faith also brings forgiveness to the woman who anoints Jesus in the house of Simon the leper on the eve of the betrayal.
Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James and Salome are exemplars of faith and devotion themselves. They remained near Jesus in his final hour, through his suffering and brutal death, after all of the disciples had fled.
But where is the blessing? When they make the Easter morning pilgrimage to his tomb in Mark, they get the perplexing news that he is risen and he is gone. Then, they get the task of sharing the news with the disciples. No wonder they leave in confusion and fear!
I’ve come to think that of all the resurrection stories Mark’s is the most true to life—then and now.
Put yourself in the women’s place. They last saw Jesus’ lifeless body being laid in the tomb. Still in shock from that, now they hear he’s resurrected from the dead? Really? Who could take that in at all—much less on the spot, in an instant?
Then, having heard the unbelievable, the women were told to do the impossible. The disciples hadn’t believed Jesus when told them he would rise from the dead. Why would they believe the women now?
Jesus’ present-day followers have the same challenges as the women in this story. First, believing the unbelievable: that Jesus rose from the dead. Then, accepting the accounts of other people, long dead, that they had met Jesus, resurrected, in the flesh. Then (and this is particularly tough for Episcopalians), sharing the news with all manner of people who likely won’t believe us!
How on earth?
Let’s follow the example of the women at the tomb in Mark’s gospel and carry on in faith. You recall that on their way to the tomb they wonder who will roll away the stone for them. They don’t let that obstacle keep them from going. They just carry on.
Another lesson for us from the women: don’t demand to see the Risen Christ yourself. Some rare mystics may, but most of us won’t. We may have fleeting, ineffable experiences of Presence—or not. Like John Wesley, we may be surprised suddenly to find our hearts “strangely warmed”.
We have countless stories of faith—past and present–on which to draw. As we hear them in church, in small groups, in conversations, as we share the recognition of our own, over time we will grow more accepting of what was written in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
So, like Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James and Salome, let us carry on. Let is walk together: in incertitude or amazement or fear, or joy, or some combination of them all.
Let us trust in the promise of Jesus’ resurrection, in faith that Jesus’ resurrection brings the truth of a life beyond this, a life not seen, but still hoped for.
That life may well be beyond reason, and for many perhaps “beyond belief,” yet it is still true. It’s a life that we can have and that we can “know,” inexplicably, in our own being.
And on this resurrection day, for that we say,
Thanks be to God. Alleluia!