A sermon, based on Mark 16.1-8, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Easter Day, April 1, 2018
Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome approach the tomb. Two days before, their friend Jesus had been taken from the crucifixion-cross of his death and quickly interred. There hadn’t been a chance to perform the burial rite of anointing his body with spices to mask the stench of decaying flesh. These women come to offer their final act of devotion. Their only concern, moving the massive stone covering the mouth of the tomb.
They arrive. The stone has been moved. They enter. An angel greets them with this testimony, “Jesus has been raised”, and this task, “Go, tell his disciples.” But they, terrified, tell no one.
What an odd way to tell the Easter story. No joyful shout, “He is risen”, from the lips of those who first behold the empty tomb. No sudden appearance of the risen Jesus to his disciples and their initially shocked, then deliriously happy reaction. No commission from Jesus to his followers to spread the word of what they have seen and heard.
If we want scenes of celebration, we have to read Matthew, Luke, and John.(1) Mark, typically straightway, gets to the point.
Perhaps that’s the point of what Mark has done and the point of Easter. Mark leaves the story open-ended, refusing to tell us what the resurrection means, calling us to come to our own conclusions. Yet Mark does not leave us comfortless, providing companions on our journey of self-discovery, though odd, too, they are: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome; those who feared and failed.
To avoid the accusation of sexism, I hasten to add that these women were like the male disciples. They, all misunderstanding Jesus during his ministry, Judas Iscariot betraying Jesus to the authorities, Peter denying Jesus in fear of the authorities, and all deserting Jesus at his critical, crucial moment of his dying, also feared and failed.
Even more, all of Jesus’ disciples are like us. All humans know fear and failure as unavoidable elements of life.
Yes, there are marvelous mountaintop-moments of clarity of vision and mission when we know who we are and what we are called to do. And moments of nobility when the values we profess with our lips we demonstrate with our lives. We walk our talk.
Yet, truth to tell, we also know the valley-experiences of fear and failure. When we don’t know who we are or what we are called to do. When, in the wee morning hours, our rest is disturbed by dreams, haunted by nightmares of having left undone what we ought to have done and having done what we ought not to have done.
More truth to tell, our lives always will have mountains and valleys, courage and fear, victory and failure. Nothing new about that. Yet, most truth to tell, you and I know that we somehow never can keep these two in balance. For every ten mountaintop moments of courage and victory, it’s the one valley experience of fear and failure that we remember. About ourselves and others. And that others remember about themselves and us.
Nevertheless, an angel tells the women to tell the other disciples that Jesus, raised from the dead, has gone ahead to Galilee and there he will see them. Them! Who feared and failed. Them! Who misunderstood, denied, and deserted. They are the ones to whom Jesus will come. They are the ones Jesus wants to see. Not to tell them that they feared and failed, but rather to tell them that they are forgiven and saved!
So, when Mark the evangelist invites me to answer for myself what is the meaning of Easter, this is what I see and say. The resurrection of Jesus is the divine and definitive, universal and unconditional answer to all of our fears and failures. To every fear, the resurrection of Jesus means faith. The faith by which we dare proclaim “Yes!” to all that life brings, both mountains and valleys. The faith by which we dare to treat both mountains and valleys as equals in the experience of our daily living. To every failure, the resurrection of Jesus means forgiveness that allows us to be merciful to others and to ourselves.
So, this day, in the spirit of Mark, who refuses to tell us the meaning of Easter, who calls us to come to our own conclusions, I ask you, when you proclaim, “Alleluia, Christ is risen, the Lord is risen, indeed, alleluia!”, what does it mean to you?
(1) Matthew 28.1-20, Luke 24.1-12, John 20.1-18, or the addition to Mark 16.8 (And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation) and the longer ending of Mark (16.9-20), both written in the early 2nd century, doubtless, to change or to correct what was deemed lacking in the original close of Mark’s gospel narrative.
Illustration: Holy Women at the Tomb (c. 1590), Annibale Carracci (1560-1609). Note: Carracci depicts Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (with the jar of spices in her hands) standing at the mouth of the tomb terrified and amazed at the appearance of the angel with the declaration, “He has been raised.”