If you were going to write a story on the life of Jesus of Nazareth, you most probably wouldnt end it with the words:
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.
But as we heard thats how Mark ends his story; more with a whimper than a bang. We know that later editors of Marks gospel were also unhappy with this blunt and somewhat depressing ending so they added a more hopeful conclusion.
And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by signs that accomplished it.
So a diligent scribe penned another 12 verses to protect the faithful from discomfort. But the fact is the original author was satisfied with the final words, for they were afraid, because I think it begs the question, "What were the afraid of?" What was it that caused these women who were the most faithful followers of Jesus to be fearful of or to feel threatened?
Scholars tell us that these last words fit the pattern of Marks Gospel with it short sharp and straight to the point style. There is little theologizing in Marks story about the life, death and finally the resurrection of Jesus; considerably less than we find in say the Gospel of John and little of the "why" of Jesus death we find in Matthews narrative and almost none of the rich descriptions we see in the story from Luke. Marks story is brief and seems to stays close to the real life experiences of those who knew Jesus. And while this is the earliest gospel written perhaps 20 years after the death of Jesus and it does state clearly that "Jesus has been raised," but with little said about the how, when, where or why of this encounter.
What is helpful for us in the 21st century is that Marks story gives us a picture of the human response to the unimaginable. While the other gospel tell of resurrection in far more detail the bare bones approach of Marks narrative draws us into this encounter and invites us to explore it from a more human perspective. We observe the raw emotional experience of these women who had loved and served their teacher Jesus. Through the dark events that had culminated in the death of Jesus on a cross there fragile faith had been challenged; their inner doubts were amplified; there deep disappointment was confirmed and most of all their haunting grief at the death of Jesus made them tremble.
The story draws us toward their pilgrimage to the tomb. They arrive at the tomb and are confronted with a mystery; Jesus body is not there. So they flee in fear; fearful before the unexpected and the unexplainable. They lived in a world in which that which was dead remained dead. And now our author wants us to see that the women and we the readers, must confront a new world, a new imagining, in which death is not an end but a new beginning; that all deaths spiritual, physical, emotional can be the place of new life, and a new birth. Perhaps that truth frightened them. They were threatened by resurrection!
Threatened with Resurrection:
In the 1980s, South American refugees fleeing the terror created in their own countries, poured across the Mexican and the United States borders seeking sanctuary. Guatemalan poet, Julia Esquivel, recognizing the terror, torture, and death in her own country, and wrote a poem conveying her faith in a God who brings resurrection over and against terror, torture, and death.
The epic poem chronicles the suffering of the Guatemalan people after a decade of violence and political instability. But what is remarkable about her poem is the notion that the powerless are in fact the powerful; that the God of Jesus identifies with the people suffering and that it is resurrection that names them and not death and sorrow as real as that maybe. Not an easy concept to live by. Here are a few lines from the poem.
What keeps us from sleeping
is that they have threatened us with resurrection!
Because at each nightfall
though exhausted from the endless inventory
of killings for years,
we continue to love life,
and do not accept their death!
In this marathon of hope
there are always others to relieve us
in bearing the courage necessary . . .
Accompany us then on this vigil
and you will know what it is to dream!
You will know then how marvellous it is
to live threatened with resurrection!
To live while dying
and to already know oneself resurrected.
What Esquivel helps us see is that resurrection is a way of life rather than a single event and that it is in fact, in some sense at least, threatening to live such a life. In this poem as in the story of Jesus trail and crucifixion the powerful always believe that they control the lives of people by threatening them with death. But to already know that one is living into new life, then death in some sense loses its power, "Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" to quote the Apostle Pauls words to the church at Corinth.
What can be threatening about life dominated by resurrection is that it means taking a risk and moving out beyond the safe parameters of this life into which were born. The story and message of Jesus continuously turns conventional wisdom on its head; love your enemies; the poor shall inherit the kingdom of God; the peacemakers are the true children of God; the last shall be first and so forth. So here in this brief story in Marks gospel we see not only a tomb broken open, but the lives of these women as well.
Elizabeth Lesser in her book Broken Open, tells the story of travelling in the Jerusalem where she meets two men selling paintings in a market. They show her a painting of a rosebud with the inscription,
"And the time came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more powerful that the risk to took to blossom."
She tells how the painting and the kindness of the men touched her in ways that surprised her. One of the men said,
"Your heart is like a flower. Let it break open. What you want is waiting for you in your own heart. The time has come."
Later Lesser reflected on the events of that day and wrote:
Somehow, the long haired men had seen into me and named the source of my pain. I was like a rosebud holding myself together, tight and tense, terrified of breaking open It was time for me to step boldly into the fullness of life with all its dangers and all its promises. Remaining tight in a bud had become a kind of death. The time had come to blossom.
For these women fleeing from the tomb their hearts were about to break open but before that they were fearful of what this new life would consist of. There is certain security in our preconceived ideas. At least we know what they are like and if we have lived them long enough they are very difficult to discard. The way we see the world our world view traps us into believing this is the only world and the new, the resurrected life is unknown and therefore threatening.
Im sure many have heard the story of the bear that had lived in a cage and travelled with a circus ever since he was a small cub.
The bear spent every day of his life pacing back and forth in his cage. One day a wealthy animal-lover visited the circus and saw the harmful acts committed against the bear. Because he felt great compassion for animals he approached the circus about purchasing the bear. He explained that he would take the bear and place him in a large open area. In this area the bear would have cool pools of water to play in and lush grassy fields to run.
The circus agreed to sell the bear to the man and set up a delivery date. When the day arrived for the bear to be delivered everyone was anxious to see what would happen when the door of the cage was opened for the first time. To everyone's amazement, when the cage was opened, the bear did what he spent every day of his life doing. He simply paced back and forth the length of the cage. The bear didn't even seem to care that the cage door was open. Finally, the bear's keepers got the bear outside the cage and rolled it away.
The bear looked around at his new beautiful home. He looked at the cool pools of water and the lush green pastures. Then to everyone's surprise and disappointment, the bear began his pacing. Back and forth he would go - as in an imaginary cage.
Threatened by this new life the bear retreated to his old ways of being. And I must confess that I know through my own experience, that I have chosen at times the place of perverse comfort, rather than face the challenge of new ways and by implication resurrection.
Mark has given us a gift in this story of these women running frightened from the tomb. He has shown us that the faithful doubt, and that grief, their grief at the death of Jesus initially blinded them to seeing any new possibilities here. Marks story shows that it is not easy to embrace a world of unimaginable possibilities and that perhaps its not the death of Jesus that is threatening to the world but that he and his followers transcended his death and begin to live a new life unshackled from the limitations imposed on them.
Over the years I have become increasing amused that every Easter the same stories are trotted out in our newspapers about Jesus. Usually it is one theologian arguing against another theologian about the resurrection. Did it happen? How did it happen? Could it have happen? And so forth. Seldom is the question asked, where is it happening now, today? Where are the people who are living the Easter life today, the life that transcends death?
Mark gives us an honest story, but still only a moment in the whole story. These women did not continue to live fearful lives. The very thing that they fled from later gave them the quiet confidence to witness to the love God had shown in their lives and demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus. Thats the Easter message. This Easter and every day, when ever some death in our lives or our world threatens to overtake us we are greeted by the one who is not seen yet present; not just here but everywhere; the one who has risen in our hearts and lives.