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from the “Nurture in Time and Eternity” collection

Easter Vigil, 2006

Mark 16:1-8

April 15, 2006
Robinson Chapel
Boston University

The day after Jesus died, which began at sundown on Good Friday and continued until sundown Holy Saturday, was a death-day. By belief and habit, the principals of our story, all Jews save Pilate, observed the Sabbath, a particularly important Sabbath because of its inclusion in Passover. The Jews had rushed the Romans to finish the crucifixions quickly before the Sabbath began, and Jesus’ family and friends rushed him into a temporary grave in order to wait until the Sabbath was over to embalm him properly. The ancient meaning of Sabbath was to celebrate the days of work by resting. The sudden new meaning of Sabbath for Jesus’ followers was numbing grief at the ruination of a life and work. Perhaps they would have been better off if they could have rushed around with funeral arrangements. But they had to stop everything and sit with their grief.

The gospel of John does not dwell on grief. In John’s account, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea had procured the spices for burial and taken care of the embalming before the late afternoon of Good Friday turned into Sorrowful Saturday. Matthew’s gospel says nothing about the women carrying spices when they went to the tomb early Sunday, only that they found the tomb empty. Luke agrees with Mark that the women went early Sunday with spices to complete the embalming. Given what we know now about the failure of communication between men and women, both accounts might be right. Perhaps the men did in fact embalm Jesus and didn’t tell the women, who fretted all through Saturday about how to get that organized and then went at first light on Sunday with spices of their own.

The remarkable thing about Mark’s gospel, the very first of the gospels to be written, is that it simply ends with the three women struck dumb with terror, amazement, and fear. They had worried about how they would roll the stone away from the tomb entrance, but found it moved when they arrived. Inside was a young man in a white robe, who might have been an angel, the traditional account. Matthew also reports an angel, and Luke and John report two angels. Or Mark might have meant the young man in the white robe with Jesus in Gethsemane who fled naked when the police tried to grab him, obviously a close secret disciple of Jesus. At any rate, the young man instructed them not to be alarmed, the kind of instruction that hardly ever works, especially if you think the instructor is an angel. Then he said that Jesus had been raised after being laid in the tomb, and that the women should tell Peter that Jesus was going on to Galilee where they should meet him. But instead of telling Peter, Mark says that “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That is the last line of Mark’s gospel.

Now this was obviously an unsatisfying ending for the early Christian community, especially in light of the endings of the other gospels. Although they differ among themselves concerning who went to the tomb, the number of angels, whether the tomb was opened before or after the women arrived, and what happened at the tomb, the other gospels all record appearances of the resurrected Jesus. Mark has only a second-hand report about the resurrection, and leaves the women simply numbed by fear. Later manuscripts of Mark’s gospel than the earliest ones attach other endings, written in a different style from Mark, that borrow from the other gospels’ resurrection account. But we know that these were later additions. Mark’s gospel ends with dumb fear.

The profound truth in Mark’s authentic ending is seen from Saturday’s perspective. After Jesus’ bloody crucifixion, his family and friends were broken with grief. Their hopes in Jesus’ messianic message were shattered. Their confidence in the power of his teaching was ruined. Their faith that he was the instrument of God, the Son of Man, the Son of God, the Anointed, was destroyed by Jesus’ overwhelming defeat. Those close to him had given up much to follow him, and all that was ruined. They must have been fearful that the Temple police or the Romans might come after them too. And all day Saturday, the Sabbath, they could do nothing but sit with their devastation. When the dull and unclean routine of burial rites brought them to the tomb Sunday morning, and they found it empty, save for the youth in white, how else could they act but in dumbstruck fear? Something wholly unexpected had happened. Nothing in their previous life with Jesus prepared them for this. Nothing in their Saturday despair prepared them for this. The young man did not explain things: his message was the problem. Something new, and inexplicable, whose consequences were wholly unknown, had happened to their broken Jesus, and them, and they simply shut down in fear.

We too live with this fear. I don’t mean the small rational fears we all have, fears of illness, or accidents, or disappointments in our careers. I mean the deep fear that our lives have no real meaning despite our projects. Jesus’ devoted followers had found the meaning of their lives in following him and buying in to his vision of the new age. When that was shattered, they had nothing to fall back on except the Sabbath rituals of their inherited religion, rituals that Jesus had taught were not enough. Every one of us, too, harbors a deep fear that our lives are meaningless in the ultimate sense. Of course, we have our projects that give meaning to our lives. We nurture our family and friends, we work at academic programs, we engage in specific ministries, and each of these projects has a meaning, significance, and value. We can measure relative success in life by how well we do with projects such as these. But they have only the meanings they have, small finite gains in significance, or loss when they fail. Neither by themselves nor cumulatively do they give ultimate meaning to our lives. Beneath the surface of our activities, rich as they are, we fear the sulfur-smell of ultimate vanity. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

Of course, we cannot admit often to this fear, and most of us bury it deep in our unconscious lives. Moreover, we cover over the fear with many forms of whistling in the dark, religious tunes, I must say. Very much of our religion has to do with assuring ourselves that everything is alright, that our lives do have meaning before God. Think of all the brave texts and stirring hymns we have sung tonight. We all know, however, that God did not really help the Israelites rip off the Egyptians and urge genocide on the inhabitants of Canaan; that was just the story the Israelites told themselves to make sense of their migration from Egypt to Canaan and to legitimate their claim to the land. We all know that God did not really guarantee that a descendent of David would sit upon the throne of Israel for ever; his dynasty barely lasted two generations. We all know that the defeat of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians was not in punishment for Israel’s sins but an accidental conflagration in the politics of empire. We all know that Jesus as messiah had none of the major marks of the messiah: he did not bring in a reign of peace and justice. We all know that the second coming Paul expected within his lifetime did not happen, and has not happened since, and that the arguments for indefinite postponement are wearing thin. We all know that if we take the prophetic judgments and promises at face value, they either have been just plain falsified or else made so distant and un-falsifiable as to have no immediate impact on our lives. If we know all this and still keep our faith, we are to be congratulated. Our catechumens and soon-to-be baptized members will put on the Christian way, including the Christian story, with a faith that we welcome. But if we are honest, we acknowledge both the cognitive and emotional dissonance of that story with what we know to be true.

Yet we rehearse these stories throughout the year, and on this night of despair and fear, we put them all together in a great symphony of whistling in the dark. I suggest that we stop this for a moment and confront the traumatic fear of the absence of ultimate meaning. With Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, let us simply accept and own what our conscience tells us, that the grand Christian saga we had thought to give us meaning is false at face value. You can deny this with a flurry of affirmative convictions and slogans about God’s promises. But that evasion is not appropriate for Holy Saturday. It would be a blasphemous denial of the cruel fact of the crucifixion. With the death of Jesus, the religion of promises dies, and with it hope based on those promises. If we cannot confront this awful and honest truth, then we cannot accept the life God has given us in this time when we understand how people invent fictions to give their lives meaning and justification. God did not give us life in a mythopoeic age when people simply told those stories and lived in them as if they were true. God gave us this sadly enlightened life, here, in the basement of a university church.

Lest we move from despair to cynicism, however, remember that after Saturday comes Sunday morning. Jesus is not in the tomb but is waiting for us up north somewhere. Of course this news should strike us dumb with fear. We cannot go back to the innocence of the Christian story as before. Those who do, live in denial, and in that denial many are tempted to outrageous power-plays of doctrine and morals in the name of religion. The resurrected Jesus did not regroup his followers and lead them on another teaching mission after Passover, like the ones before, nor did he raise an army to establish a worldly kingdom. He did not reaffirm the old story at face value.

Nor can we go on to a known new history, to a confident participation in an historical situation described as the reign of Christ. We cannot even say, with many theologians, that we are already in the early stages of the new age. We must admit that, despite our best efforts, things still might go from bad to worse. Neither of those scenarios would be terrifying: returning to the old story at face value or believing a new story of divine success. However, those would be false moves, knowing what we do on Holy Saturday. What is terrifying is that the claim about the risen Christ is wholly new. If we are not terrified by the risen Christ, then we probably have not admitted the full weight of the knowledge of the deaths of the old story and the magical fix-it hope gained on Holy Saturday.

For you to find out what I think about the wholly new reality of the risen Christ, you will have to come back tomorrow morning at eleven. Tonight I can tell you, however, that in the new reality it is still possible to inhabit the Christian story, but not at face value. We should know that other religions have their own stories, and they also can be inhabited, but not at face value. We ought not try to live without stories of salvation. It is still possible to enact the rites of the Church, to welcome new members, and to celebrate our union with Christ through the Eucharist, but only with studied innocence, the innocence that knows how fictions and symbolic actions are true in ways other than what they seem. We should acknowledge the practices of the other religions in the same way, with studied innocence. We ought not try to live without practices that shape our lives toward ultimate reality, but religious practices are not safe without the studied innocence.

Tonight I can tell you that the spirit of Easter morning is one of ecstatic joy. Transformative as it is, that joy cannot and ought not be allowed to extinguish the awesome fear of the new reality in Christ. The resurrection of Jesus Christ can never be an “I told you so!” experience. The experience is “Oh my God!” Mark’s ending is an essential and true version of the gospel. Until we come to accept deep in our hearts, with appropriate anguish and fear, the death of our human projects as providing ultimate meaning, including the death of our religion, we cannot begin to accept the power and the majesty, the surprise and shock, the beauty and holiness, of the empty tomb and the young man’s command to go somewhere to meet Jesus.

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