By Paul Wheatley
I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. —Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters
“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” … They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. —Mark 16:6, 8 NRSV
Easter is a day of joy, a day of brightness. We gather our loved ones around, feast together, and look with hope at the world. “Alleluia! Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” The tomb is empty; new hope arises. After the long cold winters of our lives, flowers spring up from the ground, and we can open the windows and enjoy a refreshing breeze. Hope springs eternal.
However, in Mark 16, there is very little of that sentiment. Our story begins with a few grieving women walking through a cemetery, with the matter-of-fact practicality that anyone who has buried a loved one will know all too well: “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” Just 36 hours earlier these women had watched in shocked sadness as Jesus’ life spilled out on the cross. After the Sabbath, they return to his tomb to continue their mournful duties, to anoint the body that had been so hastily buried.
But the stone had been rolled away, and in the place of the body there is a young man in a white robe — an angel. “Don’t be alarmed,” he says. Jesus is risen. He is not here. See: There is no body. Go tell the disciples. The women hightail it out of there, seized with “terror and amazement,” and keep their mouths shut because, as Mark puts it, “they were afraid.”
That’s the story. That’s how the Gospel ends in the earliest manuscripts we have of Mark. We have an empty tomb, an angel, and some grieving women running, terrified, amazed, and afraid. Jesus doesn’t even show up. Happy Easter.
It’s a little uncomfortable, perhaps even a little embarrassing. A few centuries after Mark wrote this, scribes would start adding a few verses here and there to try to finish the story out. In these, Jesus shows up, gives the disciples a hard time for not believing these women, who finally got around to telling the message, and they all start working miracles and preaching the gospel.
The other Gospels, of course, continue the story: The frightened women do tell the disciples; the disciples don’t believe until they go and check the tomb for themselves. After that Jesus appears to them.
But Mark ends things with a few scared, sad women, wondering where their friend’s body went, running away, afraid. Why?
In order to let these eight verses speak on their own, as they did in the earliest manuscripts of Mark, it is important to avoid the temptation to jump ahead to the rest of the story: to Jesus showing up, to the joy and the awe of the Easter miracle. As we step into the experience of that early Easter morning, we will find a greater story than we could imagine.
Why were the women afraid?
The women came to the tomb after an exhausting week. They had come with Jesus and the disciples into Jerusalem from their home in Galilee just seven days before. Everything seemed like it was about to go from great to greater. The Messiah who had been healing, bringing joy and hope to thousands on the way, was welcomed with triumph as the King: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna!” But then there was betrayal, a perversion of justice. Finally the one in whom they had placed all their hope was lying in a tomb behind a stone, dead.
There was reason enough for them to be afraid: Jesus had just been killed. Maybe they were next. During Jesus’ trial, Peter was afraid of being implicated, afraid of winding up in the hands of the authorities, so he denied Jesus three times.
After all this, the women went to the tomb, found the angel, and heard the unbelievable announcement.
“Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” … and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
The world is filled with big promises that don’t deliver. This isn’t news to anyone who has been around the block more than once. Relationships fail, dreams and aspirations prove harder to achieve than they seem at first, and it doesn’t take long before we learn to adjust our expectations. “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst,” we might say at our most politely cynical. But more often than not, we simply find ways to deal. We lower our expectations, and we get to putting one foot in front of the other.
Don’t get me wrong, the resurrection was everything these women had ever hoped it would be, everything Jesus had said it would be. But sometimes the scariest thing in the world is to believe that your deepest most secret hopes might actually be possible. “They fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them.” Terror and amazement: the wonder, the glory of the resurrection, and the terrifying possibility that now everything was different, everything changed. They were afraid of a world turned upside down, afraid of what the resurrection might mean.
Saying that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead is not only a self-involving statement; it is a self-committing statement, going beyond a reordering of one’s private world into various levels of commitment to work out the implication. We cannot simply leave a flag stuck on a hill somewhere and sail back now to safety. (N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 717)
In other words, the resurrection requires more of us than most of us are willing to give. I am fine with Jesus telling me to cheer up when the road gets hard, and I’m even okay with him telling me I’ve sinned and I need to be forgiven. Where I grow uncomfortable is when God’s work of redemption takes me away from the areas of my life where I’ve done a little bit of work and into the places where I’ve long given up hope of real change coming. A little hope is a good thing, but in those places where our hearts have been broken, and we’ve failed or been failed by others more times than we can count, talking about hope is downright dangerous.
The Message with a Command
The angel says, “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Galilee is where they had come from, the home they knew before that crazy rabbi came into their lives and filled them with hope.
On a day like Easter, we come to church for all sorts of different reasons. Some of us come because there’s no place we’d rather be. Christ is risen, and we come to celebrate. Some people come because it feels like what we should do. It’s Easter, time for a new start, and church is as good a place as any to make that start.
But some of us come to church on Easter simply because we’re home, even if just for a weekend, and church is another part of home that we return to for a bit of nostalgia. Church, Jesus, and all the rest are right where we left them.
But there’s another part of going home that is a little harder. There are old patterns, old habits, and there’s also the fact that in the eyes of the people at home, you’re the same person you always were. This is what is so fearful about the angel’s message: “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.”
To go home, to go back to Galilee, is to face the people who know you better than you know yourself, and to say, “Something has changed.” Going to Galilee means doubling down after all the disappointment with the people who knew the same disappointments as you, or thought you were foolish to be hoping in the first place.
For those women, going to Galilee meant walking a four-day journey to the place where the failure of their hope was most evident. It meant talking to those who were just as let down as they were, and coming with a message that somehow something was different. Jesus, executed two days before, would meet them there.
This is what Flannery O’Connor gets at in her statement about the suffering of the faithful.
I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway as the process by which faith is deepened. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.
The resurrection is a message of hope, proclaimed in the middle of a tomb. It’s easy to treat it like an electric blanket — a story to comfort you when you feel down, a metaphor saying, “When things get bad, don’t worry; it will get better.” But John Updike sums it up nicely in “Seven Stanzas at Easter.”
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.
Going to Galilee is walking through the door. It’s going home, to those places closest to our hearts, places where we are most vulnerable, most unimpressive, most powerless, and most afraid. It opens us to the possibility that the risen Lord Jesus has already gone there, to the depth of the grave, and to the depth of our darkness.
I cannot help but wonder if Mark ended his Gospel with the amazement, fear, and silence of the women in order to invite us in. The end of the story has yet to be written. We still have roads to walk to Galilee.
This is walking in light of the Resurrection. This is the gospel. This is how a world turned upside down by sin is turned over again, not by correction, by subtle adjustment, but by the Savior of the world being buried in the earth and turning death itself inside out, calling us out of our tombs to the places where he is waiting to meet us and make us alive together with him.
“Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”