“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb…”
-from Mark 16
Tuesday started off as a normal morning for me. I got up and put the dog out. The cats gathered at the back door and protested the idea of letting her return, but I let her gallop through the door again anyhow. I got my cup of coffee, put a bagel in the toaster oven, and opened my laptop to check my email and catch up on the news.
I read some emails, then opened a couple articles that looked good. I scanned my Facebook notifications: some birthdays, my cousin Levi checked in as safe in Brussels, something about the church’s page, my cousin Michelle posted about her progress on her daughter’s Easter dress, my sister posted a video of her daughter, a.k.a. the best baby in the world.
I got my bagel, drank some more coffee, started in on the news on my reader. Campaign coverage, Easter themed reflections, terrorist attack in Belgium, book review, wait, what?
Terrorist attack in Belgium? I’d consumed enough coffee to be more or less awake, and the pieces came together. I clicked back over to Facebook, and sure enough, there’s a Facebook app that lets you tell your friends that you weren’t killed in a terrorist attack. Levi used it, in Brussels, to let us know that he was safe.
I don’t think that I got back to reading the rest of the news, to be honest.
Here’s the thing: that terrorist attack was at the top of my media consumption because I have family living in Belgium, and because we tend to publicize stories about violence in Western Europe.
But what about all the violence I don’t hear about? If someone is killed and the story doesn’t make it to CNN, what then?
I was thinking about this on Good Friday, because that’s exactly how Jesus’ story was supposed to end: silent and forgotten. The Protestant half of the ecumenical service here in town was held at the Methodist church, from which we processed with a giant cross over to St. Columbkille. I didn’t count how many people came along, but it was a pretty good number parading down Locust St.
For some reason, this year, it struck me as absurd that we stopped at all of the pedestrian crossing signs. I mean here we were, carrying a huge symbol of the death of the Almighty King of Heaven, being held up by an automated orange hand, sometimes when there wasn’t even traffic!
It seemed all out of proportion. How could traffic not be stopped for the great drama of the death of the Son of God?
And yet- that’s exactly how it goes. You lose someone, suddenly, and it crushes you. Meanwhile, people are driving to Lowe’s to look at hot water heaters, or to Kroger’s for dinner supplies, or to a class, or to meet a friend for coffee, and the traffic doesn’t stop for your grief.
The Son of God died just like that. A small group of disciples went into shock, surrounded by a city full of people heading to the market for bread, fish, lentils, maybe some milk or dates. They were cleaning up, after the Passover festival. They were preparing for the Sabbath.
The Son of God died, and the traffic didn’t stop. That’s how the story was supposed to end.
You know, back at Christmas-time, we talked about how important it is that God shows up in the form of a vulnerable baby. God could, conceivably, have arrived as a full grown man, as a warrior or a wizard from some far off land, needing nothing, showing no weaknesses.
Instead, the God of the universe showed up to have dirty diapers and no fine motor control.
This matters for all sorts of reasons, but here’s a big one: God came to earth as a human being in order to show us what God looks like. So when Jesus shows up as a vulnerable child, we see that God is courageous enough to take risks. When Jesus’ parents flee with him to Egypt, we see God in solidarity with the refugees.
When Jesus grows up to be a healer, we see that the heart of God is set on healing the world. When Jesus invites women and foreigners and poor and rich alike to follow him, we see the radical hospitality of God. When we see Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, we see a God who uses power in order to serve.
What do we see of God, then, when the face of Jesus becomes the face of a political prisoner, of a torture victim, of a convict, of someone slated for execution. What do we see of God, when Jesus is denied justice?
I believe, as a good Quaker, that everyone is capable of responding to the Light- that there is “that of God in everyone.” I believe that each person is created in the image of God, that we bear that likeness and should accord one another that dignity.
It matters, though, that Jesus didn’t show us the face of God as a mighty ruler, but rather as a poor day laborer, as a prophet of love, as someone killed for his religious beliefs. This, somehow – this is what God looks like – a man preaching peace who was tortured to death for it.
That’s how the story was supposed to end. That, frankly, is how many of these stories end. How many victims of Stalin’s repression can you name? How many personal stories can you tell about persecuted Christians in China? How often to activists from Honduras make it into the news you gather about the world?
The powerful erase the powerless. That’s the way of the world. Dissent is stamped out.
If my cousin Levi had died in Brussels on Tuesday, would any of you remember his name? Would I, if he weren’t my cousin? Or would he end up just another nameless victim?
I’ll be honest with you, if Easter were merely the story of a group of disciples standing up to that tendency, insisting that their failed Messiah’s name was going to be recorded in the history books, inventing a story that would go on to found the largest religion in the world… I’d still think that was a pretty good story.
Most people in Jesus’ sandals weren’t remembered, after all. I mean, can you think of any other victims of crucifixion? I can’t, offhand.
So, if this were just about ensuring that force of violence didn’t win in the end, if this were just about remembering one particular political prisoner and denying the Roman Empire the ability to erase his life and work, I’d be on board. If this were just the story of God teaching us that we should look for God in the faces of the powerless, I think that would be a pretty good religion.
Easter, though, is about more than that, and the disciples are in for an even bigger surprise.
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.
The sabbath was over. It was very early on the first day. The sun had risen. Don’t miss all those literary signs of a new adventure beginning.
The women are being faithful, as best they can, but they’re heading in the wrong direction. They’re looking for a dead Jesus, a broken-bodied Jesus stretched out in a borrowed tomb. Their choice to honor his body by preparing it for burial was a courageous one, and we should aspire to that kind of faithfulness in the face of fear, but they aren’t quite in on the plot.
It’s scary, to think of someone’s life being taken without recourse. A dead Jesus, though, isn’t nearly as scary as a resurrected one.
See, the obstacle the women planned on facing was that of the stone, blocking the entrance to the tomb, too heavy for them to move. I’ll be honest with you, here: I think this is evidence of the book of Mark having been written by a man. Joseph of Arimathea rolled the stone into place, and three women’s only conversation in approaching the tomb is about wondering what man will move it for them?
I mean, it’s possible that Joseph of Arimathea was a bodybuilding giant, capable of muscular feats beyond imagination. It’s a lot more likely, though, that those three women were more than capable of moving the stone together.
Doesn’t matter, though, because the stone is already rolled away.
As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.
Honestly, alarmed seems like an understatement.
The young man said to them, Do not be alarmed; (good luck with that!) you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.
The young man offers further explanations, none of which assuage the women’s fears one bit.
We should not be uncharitable, when we read that the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
I think the fact that Mark’s story stops there speaks well to a time as uncertain as ours. There’s no tidy wrap up, no debriefing with Jesus, just terror and fear and a distant hope of glory.
They were afraid. That word afraid, though, is better translated as in awe. These women were Quakers, right? They saw the divine glory revealed, and their response was to sit in silence. They had no words to describe what they had seen, so they chose to keep quiet.
Of course, they must not have kept quiet forever- otherwise, we wouldn’t have this story. They, like we, had to find their voices eventually. They had to speak out of their awe inspired silence, find some way to tell the tale.
Let me suggest one word to you, Friends: alleluia. It’s a Hebrew phrase which means praise ye the Lord. The choir is going to come up, now, and share a song that will lead us into silent worship. As you settle into the silence, open your heart to praise the Lord who both identifies with the downtrodden and shows that new life is possible.
Open your heart to praise the Lord who defeats darkness and death.
Open your heart to praise the Lord who came to us as a vulnerable baby, as a refugee, as a healer, as a teacher, as a dissident, as a convict, as a victim of state violence, and as a victor over death.
Open your heart to sing alleluia, praise ye the Lord. As Pope John Paul the Second put it, “Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”
Sing, Friends. Tell this story that stands against despair, against the fear of vulnerability, against the fear of death itself. Sing alleluia. Praise ye the Lord.
[In our Easter service, the choir shared Randall Thompson’s Alleluia following the sermon. You can listen to it here.]