“Do not be alarmed…”

Easter Day, Year B.

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint Jesus. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But 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.” So 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 16:1-8

Let me ask you something: are you afraid? Are you afraid this Easter? Surely that is a ridiculous question, after all its Easter morning! What is there to be afraid of? This is a cheery little holiday with springtime weather, picnics, chocolates, colorful candies, and pastel pants! This is the reward, the happy ending, the celebration that all that nasty holy week business is over, and things can finally go back to normal. I’d wager that you haven’t been afraid of Easter since that time as a child your parents’ got a picture of you crying in the lap of some random guy at the mall dressed in an Easter bunny suit. Which to be fair, those suits still give me the heebie-jeebies. What could there possibly be to be afraid of when the corporate mascot for the holiday is a bunny, possibly the least threatening creature in creation? What great dread is there besides the existential dilemma of deciding what to do for brunch?

We have become so accustomed to treating Easter as the end, the “happy ending” that the women’s response of fear in this morning’s Gospel reading is entirely alien to us. It is so absurd to us that the women who find Jesus’ tomb empty with a handsome young man would react by running away and not saying anything to anyone. It is a troubling conclusion to Mark’s Gospel, and frankly buzzkill to our good time.

Much work has been done to try and invalidate or explain away the women’s unsavory reaction. At various times it was fashionable to look down at these women, thinking “look at those foolish women who were so faithless! Didn’t they listen to a single word Jesus said when He said He would return?” They were held up as examples of exactly what not to do when hearing the Gospel message. I mean, they didn’t even see one of those scary angels from the Old Testament, those ones with the hundred eyes, blinding radiance, wheels within wheels, or any of that business! All they found was a young man dressed in white telling them not to be afraid and to go and let the disciples know that Jesus is going to meet them in Galilee; an extremely tame encounter with the divine by Biblical standards. Yet they flee in terror and say nothing to anyone, failing the basic instructions they were given.

But before we are too critical of these women, let’s step back for a moment and consider the circumstances. First, let us note who is not present, the disciples. The “brave” men who swore up and down that they would follow Jesus wherever He went, even claiming to be willing to fight and die for Him, are nowhere to be seen. They scattered days ago after Gethsemane. It is the women who witness the crucifixion, a “secret disciple” Joseph of Arimathea who gives Jesus a proper burial, and the women who come to the tomb to care for Jesus’ body. Second, let’s imagine ourselves in their position when they arrive at the tomb:

You’ve just witnessed your beloved and respected friend, teacher, and leader be publicly executed through corruption and violent state-sanctioned murder. You are someone with no public voice, no political power, no economic independence, no legal protection, and are entirely dependent on your husband or your relatives for your livelihood and protection. You are known to be a follower of this rebellious leader and don’t know if the powers that be will come after you or your family next. Yet despite all that, you love Jesus and what He stood for, and want to say goodbye and give Him the dignity that He was denied by the public. You’re worried about how you can move a large stone that seals the entrance but when you come to the tomb you are startled to find someone just sitting in there, casually telling you to calm down and that Jesus is on His way Galilee, and if you could, tell those faithless disciples to meet Him there. Yeah, I think if I ran into anyone, angel or not, in a tomb that I wasn’t expecting to be there, I would also be alarmed.

It’s interesting to note that at first the women are alarmed by the angel, presumably startled and surprised to find anyone in a tomb, but when they run, they are no longer alarmed but afraid. But what is it that they are afraid of? Are they afraid that if they tell the disciples, or their friends and family, that they wouldn’t be taken seriously?

The other question that fills us with fear and unease is why Mark ended his gospel with “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”. What possessed him to end this gospel, this long tale supposedly proclaiming good news with such a strange and unsatisfying scene? We have no appearance of the risen Jesus, no understanding how we even have this story since apparently the women didn’t tell anyone. Mark is denying us as readers the catharsis and satisfaction of concluding the story! His choice to end his gospel this way was so disturbing that everyone who came after him tried to “fix” it. Scribes added 12 more verses where Jesus does appear to His disciples and gloriously ascends into heaven. Matthew and Luke in their gospels “fix” Mark’s ending by having long stories of the Resurrected Jesus performing miracles, wrapping up teachings with His disciples, and giving rousing speeches. Even our lectionary gives us a “get out of jail free” card by allowing preachers to choose John’s Easter story instead! What reason is there for Mark to end this way?

Maybe, just maybe, Mark wants us to be a little afraid. Maybe in our obsession with reaching a tidy and satisfying conclusion, we miss the reality of the resurrection. Fear in the biblical tradition is not always a bad thing. Not only is fear a rational response to a confusing and threatening world, it is a response of wonder and respect to things beyond our usual understanding, especially when encountering God. Though God is intensely personal, especially in Jesus, someone we can talk to, be friends with, love, trust, and rely on, God is also the almighty infinite eternal creator of the universe. God operates with a power and magnitude that we can scarcely comprehend, being at least a little afraid is understandable and entirely rational.

There’s also how we handle fear to consider. We are wonderfully able to adapt and normalize all kinds of horrible situations. While this allows us to function in a world full of threats, violence, injustice, and evil beyond any individual’s ability to control, we can get too comfortable with things that should make us afraid. Think of how state-sanctioned violence has become such a regular part of our daily lives. As a nation we have been in a state of quasi-war for nearly twenty years! I barely remember a time where we were not in violent conflict, and there is an entire generation who has no memory of peaceful times. Before that we spent half a century amassing apocalyptic weapons over economic theories! Why in a time of a public health crisis did we create this bizarre dichotomy of human lives vs. the productivity of the economy? How did we become so comfortable and willing to talk about our neighbors as worth sacrificing for our nation’s GDP? Yet we have grown accustomed to it. After all, what can you or I do to change it? These are complicated and difficult questions, answers are hard to come by, and not knowing what the right thing is to do is as scary as the problems themselves. In trying to tame our fear, we try to fit things we don’t understand into tidy boxes. We make ridiculous dichotomies, or simply minimize or ignore what in a just and righteous world be cause for deep fear. In our desire for closure, for relief so we can get on with our lives, we look for solace in tidy clean “happy endings”, or at least ones that we can tolerate.

But this cannot really be the end.

Thankfully, it is not.

I suspect it was entirely intentional that Mark chose to give us an Easter story that leaves us uneasy, hungry for more, and searching for meaning in confounding circumstances. I suspect that it was the same reason the women fled in fear and did not share their experience of the empty tomb. I don’t believe the women were afraid of the angel, the empty tomb, the political turmoil, or even their own reputations. The ancient playwrights talk about catharsis, or emotional satisfaction from a story, being achieved in two main forms: Comedy and Tragedy. Comedy of course is the satisfaction of seeing a “happy ending”, while in tragedy we get a similar catharsis from an entirely bad ending. Why? Because whether happy or sad, the story is complete, there are no complex lingering doubts about what we witnessed. The stories provide something that is elusive in our ever-changing and complex world: closure, completeness, conclusion. We can accept and even feel satisfied by a terrible ending, because it abates our fear, because even if it’s an awful, mean, terrible thing, it’s something we can understand and normalize.

When the women were coming to the tomb, they were seeking that closure. Though they may not have been able to admit it, even to themselves, there is a relief in Jesus’ death. His troubles are no more, and though He spoke of a new world, one ruled by love of God and neighbor, peace among nations, and the flourishing of all people, it was a dream so different from reality that it in a way, was quite frightening. They could keep the dream alive in their hearts and memories, but all the difficult and frightening demands of discipleship were no longer expected of them or anyone. Things could go back to normal. It was not a good normal, but it was what they knew and there is a quiet comfort in that. All good things must come to an end.

Yet upon seeing the empty tomb and hearing the testimony of the angel, they had to face the reality of the resurrection. The reality dawned on them that everything Jesus had said and taught was true! The world they knew was destroyed that morning, though a new one was dawning, coming to grips with the massive shift in reality was nothing short of terrifying. The massive weight of discipleship now rested on theirs and all of Jesus’ follower’s shoulders. The terrifying reality that the world had indeed been saved was thrust upon them in a single moment. So they did the only thing any rational person would do when having their entire concept of reality disintegrate before them, flee in terror.

Mark chose to end his gospel with this story of the women confronting the reality of the resurrection to confront us the readers with that same earth-shattering reality. This is not tidy “happy endings” with catharsis and closure, but a challenge. He denies us the ending we so desire simply because this is not the end! Jesus is alive! He’s just ahead of us, on the way home, waiting for us to meet Him to continue the work of salvation already begun. This is not an end but a beginning, going on to Galilee where it all began.

So what are we going to do with this terrifying reality? Are we to flee in terror? Keep our status quo, our quirky little holiday with candies and pastel pants, quietly tolerating the violence and evil in our world? Are you prepared for the weighty responsibility of discipleship? The demands of the Gospel are indeed frightening, and rightly so, but imagine how the world will be when all of us who follow Jesus have the courage to live in the reality of the Resurrection. Amen

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