Untaming the Resurrection

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My roommate and good friend throughout medical school was Jewish. One of my favorite stories that she would tell was about her first introduction to Easter. She grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, right next door to an Irish Catholic family named the O’Sullivans. Every Easter the O’Sullivans would creep over into her yard and leave Easter eggs, stuffed bunnies, and other items in and around their shrubs. But the O’Sullivan family wasn’t known for their stealth. So every year my friend would yell: “Hey mom! What are the O’Sullivans doing in our bushes?” It became an annual ritual, and it was how my friend knew about Easter – she would see her neighbors crawling around in her bushes, and then there would be all sorts of treats.

Many of us have probably grown up knowing more about what Easter means, of what it is that we celebrate on this day. But even within our own tradition, we can lose the power of the resurrection. It was for our children that we initially painted a safe picture of Easter – it’s a picture of Easter bunnies, eggs with candy, and time with family. Dresses and shoes are white, smiles are obligatory, and pastels rule the day. The only threatening thing about our portrait Easter is the thought that someone might get a head start on the Easter egg hunt. 

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this lovely way we celebrate Easter – in fact, I’m likely to scavenge some candy myself from the children who make it to the egg hunt first. It’s just that this sweet and calm depiction of Easter is a little misleading; it tames the power and the experience of the resurrection. This portrayal that we initially created for our children is mirrored back to us, and too often we accept it as the total, non-threatening truth about this day.

The gospel of Mark, though, doesn’t let us tame the resurrection. We actually have two choices of gospel readings for today. We could read the resurrection account from the gospel of John.  It’s beautiful and richly meaningful, with images of a garden, a comforting word from Jesus himself, and a confident Mary Magdalene who announces to the disciples right away “I have seen the Lord.” We glean a very different picture from Mark’s resurrection account. Most ancient manuscripts of Mark end with this verse: “So they [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” 

This abrupt ending, with its raw and intense emotion, must have proven too unsettling for some of the scribes in the early Church. Because soon other verses would be added – verses more comforting, verses that made the disciples sound more faithful, verses that left no question at all about the fate or success of the mission of the early Church. Perhaps it was “impression management” as one of my friends calls it, the desire for good press. Or maybe these other endings of Mark suggest that the impulse to tame the pure power of the resurrection has been there all along.

The terror and amazement the women feel is simply what any sane person would have felt. After announcing that Jesus has been raised, the man in the tomb gives Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, and Salome this instruction: “Go, tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” The women and the other disciples are being called once again to follow Jesus, after just having seen where the last journey into discipleship landed them. To have only a shallow happiness upon hearing this command would be to have only a shallow comprehension of it as well – and the women have seen far too much already for that.

The truth is that the three women come to the tomb that day expecting defeat. They come bringing spices to anoint Jesus’ dead body as was the tradition – it was for them an act of devotion. As they travel to the tomb, they wonder among themselves: “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” Perhaps at some level it would have even been a relief to find the stone still in place, freeing them to return home to face their grief in a safe, insulated setting. But instead, they look up to find the stone rolled away, the entrance to the tomb sitting there like an invitation.  And the invitation to enter the tomb gives way to the command to go out into Galilee and look for the risen Christ. No wonder the women flee from the tomb in fear, telling no one – the call to go to Galilee crushes any protective walls they may have begun to rebuild.

If we’re honest, Mark’s account resonates with the truth many of us experience. We, too, often make peace with defeat because it seems like a “safer” option than accepting the challenge of discipleship. We live with what we think is the inevitability of the tomb, instead of proclaiming the reality of the resurrection. Because the knowledge that the risen Christ is alive in our midst and calling us to do things that we would never dream of accomplishing on our own – that knowledge can be overwhelming. It can cause terror and amazement to well up in us, just as it did in the women that day long ago in Jerusalem. 

We look at the burdens in our world – the injustice, prejudice, greed, hunger, absolute poverty, illness, grief, the lack of healthcare, violence, mass shootings – and these are just to name a few. We hardly know where to start, and trusting that we can make a difference seems far-fetched. Of course, we would be scared if we thought that these problems were ours to fix alone. But knowing that the power of the risen Lord is working in us, well, that also scares the daylights out of us. Our empowerment can be just as terrifying as our inadequacy. Yes, we’re called to go out into the world and meet Christ.  But to take our spices and go home, while the more grief-filled option, may sometimes seem like the safer one. 

Still, we can’t shake the voice of the young man in the tomb: “Don’t be afraid! Jesus has been raised, and he will meet you. You will experience this resurrected Christ in your own lives. And you will see him in faces and places that call you to attempt things you would never dream of doing alone.”  We can’t tame the resurrection, because its power doesn’t let us, no matter how hard we try. The new life we have in Christ invites, even demands, us to continue Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world around us. 

Today we will baptize Henry, Selena, and Oliver into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We trust that the Holy Spirit working in them will roll back stones in their lives and empower them in ways they never imagined. Knowing not only the terror and amazement but also the deep joy that comes from a life with Jesus, we invite them to go forth into the world alongside us to seek and proclaim the risen Christ. And may we all have the courage to choose the “good” option before us, and not merely the “safe” one.

Alleluia. Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

Untaming the Resurrection
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