Easter is the day when Christians shout from the rooftops: “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.” Most other Sundays we tend to be more circumspect, more ponderous about what we proclaim as truth, but not today. Today is a shouting day, a timpani day, a horn section today. It is an Amen, Hallelujah Chorus day: For Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.
Well, tell that to Mark. His Easter story is quiet and subdued. It has no timpani, no horns, no Hallelujah. Grieving women bring their spices to the anoint the dead body of Jesus, find the stone from the entrance has been rolled away, and meet a young man sitting in the tomb. He announces that Jesus is risen and is waiting for his disciples in Galilee.
On hearing that news, you expect to hear the women to break out in the Easter cheer: “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.” You expect to hear the timpani, the horns, and a Hallelujah Chorus. Instead, Mark tells us: “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
What an odd ending to the Easter story. The women hear the best news that they could possibly have hoped for but all they can do is run away in fear and in silence. Why? Are they afraid the news is too good to be true, just another in a long line of life’s great expectations dashed or are they afraid that it is true and they cannot fathom what that means? Whatever the reason, the women flee in silence from the tomb.
More and more people today are following the women’s lead. People are fleeing Easter, wondering if it is anything more than the church’s most wishful-thinking day, wondering if there really is life for us beyond the grave, wondering if what we have here and now is it. The three women flee the tomb in fear and in silence. And, increasingly, they are not alone.
Many years ago, the phone rang just after the last plastic egg was found on Easter Saturday. I raced to the hospital and was there for the rest of the day and well into the night. People paced up and down the halls. An ongoing flow of tears gave way to occasional outbursts of anger: “Why would she do such a thing? She had so much going for her.” “What parents would leave a loaded handgun in the house anyway?!” “How could God have allowed this to happen?”
When I found the family in the waiting room, I prayed with them, but like the women at the tomb in Mark’s story, I was mostly at a loss for words. I wanted to tell them that God loved them and that their daughter was going to be just fine, but I did not know that to be true and I was too mad at God myself and at these parents and too fearful of what might happen next to utter any such confident words. I kept fighting back a vision of standing by the grave of this young girl. What would I say? How could I comfort anyone when I was so full of anger and fear myself?
A long procession of people stopped by the waiting room to offer help. Some came armed with food, but no one was really hungry. Some spoke overly reassuring words, but few believed them. As time passed, the room filled with relatives, neighbors, church members, and friends.
When a very tired surgeon arrived, people rose in unison as he entered the room. In a few unnecessarily complex medical sentences, he said, “She’s going to be all right. There will likely be some minor nerve damage, but she is a very lucky girl.”
Then the strangest thing happened. There was dead silence. No one shouted for joy. No one spoke. No one did anything. Gradually, a few family members grabbed hold of each other. Some muttered a quick and quiet, “O, thank you” to the surgeon. Most, though, stood or sat in dazed silence. What do you say when the news is too good to believe? Or had we heard all the news? Was the surgeon telling us only what we could handle at the time? Was the hard news to follow?
At some point, the family asked me to pray again. I did, but there were no adequate words to express the myriad of feeling at hearing the surgeon’s news. Everyone in the room knew that it did not have to turn out this way. Everyone knew that it most often does not. We sat there for a long time after my prayer. It was almost Easter. By the time the room had emptied, Easter morning had broken, at least as the calendar measures it.
Later that morning, I put on my robe, walked out and sat on the chancel chair. It was one of my first Easter mornings as a pastor and I looked out over a large crowd of friends, many of whom knew exactly what had happened the night before. Throughout the worship service, tears flowed for no apparent reason. After the service, some embraced who typically are the first ones to rush out the door. On that Easter morning, there was little pomp and circumstance, only a mysteriously quiet and subdued mood.
Mark’s Easter story ends in a similar way. Good news has been announced, to be sure, but there are also lingering questions. What will these frightened and mute women do next? Will the male disciples dare return to Galilee after all they have done or failed to do? And, if they do, will the risen Jesus be waiting for them like the messenger in the tomb promised or will his promise prove to be just another cruel and idle hoax?
I love Mark’s Easter story. It seems to understand that for all its color and audacious celebration, Easter is also a deeply disturbing day. It makes a bold claim about life and death that will never be verified under any microscope. It lays claim on our lives asking us to believe in more than colorful bunnies and baskets full of goodies and nice new clothes. It asks us to believe that everything dead within us, within the church, within the world is finally subject to the life giving, resurrecting power of God.
Easter does not deny death or diminish it. The three women went to a tomb. Although old heresies said otherwise, Jesus did not fake his death on the cross and there was no “death-proof” soul that escaped from Jesus when he breathed his last breath. Just as you and I will be one day die, so Jesus was certifiably dead – heart, mind, spirit. In the words of the old baptismal creed, “He was crucified, dead, and buried.”
Easter does not deny death. It affirms life. The Easter question is not: “Will we die?” rather it is: “Will we live?” Will we face the fears that can silence us and cut short our living? Will we find our tongues to speak about God’s possibilities for life, even when our faith is very fragile?
Mark knows that there is a time to dance and shout from the rooftop and there is a time to realize that the story could have ended another way. Mark invites us to move from dazed wonder to dedicated discipleship. He invites us to follow the One who is always going before us, always awaiting us. He invites us to share with young Pete, soon to be baptized, and with his baptized brother Teddy, share with anyone and everyone who will listen, maybe not so much with a shout but with a quiet, confident voice: “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. O thank God. O thank God.”