There is a supermarket in the UK that publishes a magazine which is given out in their stores. A few years ago, about this time of year, the cover of the magazine had the headline: ‘Easter made easy.’ Don’t we wish it was so simple.
Easter isn’t easy. It is the climax of a story of injustice and tragedy and cruelty. It could have been written in any age, in any generation. It is mirrored in countless individual lives, from Syria in the Middle East to the unhappy family down the street. One tragedy among many. But something different is trying to break through.
I like the gospel of Mark, because it is the shortest gospel, making it the easiest to follow. In his last chapter, Mark tells us about 3 women who went to the tomb of Jesus. He makes no mention of their feelings of grief, yet we would expect them to be laden with it. Grief is an enormous darkness, which seems like it will never go away.
Mark chooses to concentrate on the facts to do with the women’s visit to the tomb. They were going to prepare the body for burial, something that would have been done on the Friday, the day of death, but was postponed because the body was buried in haste. Sunset had approached on the Friday, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. To be in contact with a dead body on the Sabbath would have made them ritually unclean. So according to the rules of their religion, the task had been postponed.
When there has been a death, there are always things to be done. The putting of spices with the body was something practical, to make it sweet smelling. But in reality, like everything we do associated with death, it was a part of coming to terms with the finality and absence of a loved one. It was part of the grief ritual for Jews. So what the women came to do speaks loudly of grief, even though Mark has failed to mention their feelings.
Often when I have been drawn into the sacred space of a family that has just come into grief, I am presented with feelings of ‘something must be done’, or ‘there is so much to do’, or ‘I don’t know what I am supposed to do.’ Death is so terrible for us that the immediate reaction is often the need to expend energy in some direction, to do something, anything, as if activity will make it all right, or help to cover the awful awareness of the complete finality of our loss. When my wife moved out, and took most of the furniture, I decided to lose myself in visiting second-hand furniture shops. My grief was overwhelming, and I needed to do something.
Anger can also be a strong feeling in grief. We may not realise the connection with the loss that has occurred. Our anger is projected on to those around us, who are associated with the things that have to be done, and they better do them properly, or they receive our anger.
It all flows from the extreme helplessness which is our natural human state in the presence of a great loss like death. Literally there is nothing we can do about it. To be told that fact when we are in grief can lead to a blast of anger. Death in all its finality is human defeat without parallel. Most of us have been there for someone we have known, just as the loved ones of Jesus.
Someone has written that the favourite hymn of people who are stuck in that place of loss has as the first line of each verse the words ‘if only.’ Our loved one is gone, Jesus was gone, and there were probably ‘if onlys’ among his friends: if only we hadn’t come to Jerusalem; if only Jesus hadn’t gone off his head when he cleared the Temple court of the sellers and moneychangers; if only Judas hadn’t led the soldiers to the garden. And there were certainly things to be done. So the 3 women went to the tomb bearing spices.
Then came the surprise that surpasses all surprises. The stone had been rolled away, and a young man, dressed in white, was sitting in the tomb on the side. The mourners who had come were invited to change their minds about everything to do with death and dying. This was a huge shock.
Do not be alarmed, said the man in white, you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. So far so good, at least they were at the right tomb. But then the bombshell: he has been raised, he is not here. This did not compute for the 3 women. It would not compute for anyone. Only then does Mark tell us their feelings: they were terrified and amazed at the same time, and they ran away in fear. And there Mark ends his gospel.
An absolute revolution had happened in the spiritual world; Satan and the powers of darkness and death had been defeated. From then on death would still be a significant event in human life, but it could never again be final. It would also be a beginning.
Mark must be the founding saint of 21st century journalism. He writes the perfect tabloid headline. I can see it now on the front page of the Herald Sun or the Daily Telegraph: ‘tomb empty - women flee in terror’. Down at the end of the article, in fine print, it reads: ‘a man in white says Jesus was raised from the dead.’ The actual story is too hard to print. It is just too far out of the ordinary. It is a footnote added on to the bad news which gets priority treatment for today’s journalism. If I was to write the rest of this story for Mark in today’s tabloid speak, it would say something like: ‘Police are looking for a man in white. A friend of one of the women says they should sue him for harassment.’
There have been several reasons suggested for why Mark ended his story with the women fleeing in terror. Maybe he had more to say, but the last page of his manuscript got lost. Maybe Mark was arrested by the persecutors of the early church, and taken away before he could finish the story.
The other possibility is that Mark intended to finish just as he did, with the women fleeing in terror. He had already written about present reality for him and his church: Jesus alive among his friends and in the community. He had presented the man Jesus in his 1st 15 chapters, teaching, healing, bringing the good news of the kingdom of God in his own person, challenging religious hypocrisy, being good news with everyone he met. There was no need for Mark to write about the resurrection appearances: Jesus lives and is still doing these things among us. If we haven’t got the point yet, we haven’t got it.
I have heard people say ‘I don’t have enough faith’ or ‘I can’t believe like you do’. This is reducing it to something we have to produce enough of ourselves, before we make the grade. Only a very cruel God would do that to us.
Suppose you use an dating agency to find a marriage partner. The agency sends you a video of the person they found for you, and also that other person’s answers to a questionnaire. You watch and read these repeatedly; you learn them all by heart. And then finally you send an email saying you just can not decide if you want to marry the person. I think the agency would write back to you and say, but don’t you want to meet the person 1st?
Jesus is here already, Mark is saying. Open the eyes of our heart to him. Don’t worry about how much faith or belief you have or don’t have – we’re just navel gazing when we do that. Look at Jesus, listen to him. Find him in the face of other Christians, find him in the community of the church, find him in the poor, find him in the pages of the gospels.
When Jesus calls us to be his, it is not to give us more worries, but to give us life. Choose life. We have been set free from living in our sorrows and our disappointments and our failed dreams. We are being offered life with the living one - he gives his resurrection life to anyone who seeks him.
Lord, open our eyes to you, alive among us. We give you our failures, our unfulfilled dreams and hopes. Replace them with your love and new life. May we live all our days in praise of your risen glory.