For all of the buildup to Easter in our churches, one of the curious things I have always noticed about the Gospels is how little they actually say about the resurrection. And what little they do say is, well, not quite what we may have anticipated. Chapter upon chapter leading inexorably up to an expected triumphant shout of Christ is Risen!, and yet when we come to the moment of the empty tomb, what we get instead are mysterious stories of a risen Christ sneaking around in disguise, surprising his friends. “Pssst… it’s me!”
There is something of a scandal in this. What we would like of the resurrection is a 100-person choir, a light show and a triumphant Christ rising from the grave to begin a death march first to the Sanhedrin, then to Pilate’s palace, and then finally to Rome, in order to show all those idiots who is boss. A grand and public display of power and might.
What we get instead are whispers, rumors, and cryptic tales. “I swear to you guys… it was him!”
Such a scandal, it seems to me, is part of the reason that in the later attempts to tell the story, we get resurrection tales that are far more colorful and definitive (and, perhaps just thereby, heretical). The non-canonical Gospel of Peter, for instance, has the resurrection taking place after the tomb had been sealed with seven seals, and in the hearing of a whole multitude of people a shout comes from heaven, the stone is rolled away and a gigantic talking cross comes forth from the grave and so on and so on. It is fantastical. And also absolutely what we might expect from a story that has been fairly fantastical.
But that is not what we get. Instead we get accounts like Mark’s:
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 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been 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.
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”
Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. (Mk 16:1-8)
Huh. “Trembling and bewildered.” After all that buildup, Mark, the best that you can muster as an ending to this tale is “trembling and bewildered”? Seriously?
I often think that part of the reason that a so-called “longer ending” of Mark was written—one that is more thorough and complete and ties up the story just a bit better—was due to a bit of anxiety about how, well, odd this one is. I mean really, we’re going to begin Chapter 1 of the New Creation story with a couple of women (who were not credible witnesses in the first century, so the tale already has that against it) fleeing from the tomb “trembling and bewildered“??? Surely we can do better than that!
But that, I think, is why I like Mark’s ending better than the other Gospels. It is just so true to the nature of Easter. It is relational. It is open-ended. It is couched in rumor and mystery. And it also gives place to our human fears and confusions and disorientations, permitting and even blessing them, without embarrassment. We are like babies learning to walk for the first time, like kids trying to figure out how to ride a bike, like new sailors trying to find our sea legs.
The kingdom of God is here—yes.
The new heavens and the new earth are upon us—yes.
The great redemption and renewal of all things is underway—yes.
But we still need some time to figure out how all of this works. Be gentle with us, Lord. It may take us a minute to get used to this whole thing. “Trembling and bewildered” is about as much as we can muster right now.
I’ve been a pastor now for a dozen years, a follower of Christ and a member of his body my whole life, and what I can say with a high degree of confidence is that “trembling and bewildered” is a more or less apt description of how it is most of the time with God’s people. We have moments–yes, of course we do–of clarity and brilliance and courage, but–let’s be honest–a good deal of the time we are quite muddled and clueless.
We burned the boats in our baptism and stuck our flags in the soil of the new creation, and yet…
We still suffer fits of self-loathing
We still have doubts the goodness of God
We are more mistrusting of others than we’d like to admit
We’ve stepped out of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of light, and yet…
We still harbor bitterness and envy in our souls
We still covet our neighbor’s possessions
We still here and there wish the worst on those who mistreat us
We’ve beheld the glory of God in the face of Christ and heard him call our names, and yet…
We still lay awake at night worrying about the future
We still don’t care as much as we ought about the plight of the poor
We still live for mostly ourselves rather than for others
Except for those fleeting, grace-filled moments when we glimpse the possibilities inherent in our baptism, through which we have died out of the old creation and found ourselves born again into the new.
For there are times when…
Our self-loathing is swallowed up and we live fully and freely
We whole-heartedly believe the goodness of God
We trust other people
Here and there…
We let go of the bitterness and envy that have poisoned us
We live content with what we have
We learn to pray for our enemies and those who mistreat us
Less often than we’d like, but more often than we used to…
We go to sleep in peace, knowing we’re protected and safe
We open our hearts to the pain of those less fortunate
We start to habitually make our lives an offering for others
That we will experience such “growth in grace,” such an “acclimatizing” of our souls and bodies to the new creation, is the working principle of the New Testament writings, and the Epistles in particular. We can and will start to understand how to live congruently with this kingdom, this new world wrought in the resurrection of Christ. We will not always stumble around like babies first learning to walk, for as the rumor of resurrection makes its way into the depths of our being, and as we learn a familiar friendship with this resurrected Christ, our legs will become strong, and we will begin to march to the songs that echo from eternity future into our bedraggled, sin-stained present. We will, sooner or later, to use the words of St. Paul, begin to shine like stars in the heavens, as we hold out the word of life.
But we must start where we are, with who we are. For in truth, that is where the risen Christ meets us, to provoke us into his depths. Indeed it is the ONLY place the risen Christ could EVER meet us–in our lives, with who we are, for better or for worse, right now.
Whether we are Peter, the failure who ran to the tomb upon hearing the rumor of resurrection, or the two women, who fled “trembling and bewildered,” or the incredulous Thomas who declared, “Unless I see the wounds myself and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe,” Christ meets us, where we are, with who we are, coaxing us into life.
John 20 is surely one of the most pertinent resurrection accounts on this score. Mary Magdalene, who owed the Lord a debt of gratitude she could not repay (as we all do), had gone early in the morning to the tomb. Upon arriving, she saw that the stone had been rolled away and that the body was gone. Immediately she reported this to Peter and another disciple, both of whom darted off to the tomb to see it with their own eyes. They did, and then they left. Mary was left alone.
Or so she thought. For as she stood outside the tomb, heartbroken, weeping, she decided finally to take a look inside. Two angels were seated there. They asked her why she was crying. She replied, “They’ve taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put him.” The heartbreak and insult of the crucifixion was one thing (how could that soulless mob do such a thing?); this is salt in the wound.
When she turned around, John says that she saw Jesus, though, as was typical, she did not know it was him. He asked her the same question, and she answered him by saying, “If you’ve put him somewhere, please tell me and I’ll retrieve him.”
And then the moment…
Jesus addresses her, personally: “Mary.”
And she recognizes him.
Though it doesn’t come through in English, when he addresses her, he does so by her Aramaic name, ”Mariam”, the name of her ancestry, her childhood, her Jewishness, rather than the more generic name “Maria,” which she probably would have heard barked at her in the the public square. I imagine that Mariam was the name her parents used of her, and quite possibly the name she was called by in that most intimate circle of Jesus’ friends. It is bathed in endearment and tenderness. “Mariam” named her dignity, her depths. And when the Lord calls to her in that most intimate place, it is no wonder that she bursts forth an answering call to the Lord in Aramaic: “Rabboni!”
There is something profound there, if we have eyes…
The living Lord cuts through the fog, through the muddle and mire and endless accretions of hurt and baggage and horror we have had piled on us, to address us in the depths, by the name we were given in the cradle, before all the pain and confusion made his voice so hard to hear. He speaks his gracious words over and in us, calling us by name, and it calls forth in us an answering response: Teacher! The Word resounds in us, recognizes itself in us, wakes our heavy hearts, and enables us to be caught up in wonder and adoration.
I have walked with him for long enough now to know that it is just this way with this Jesus. Under normal circumstances, the spread of resurrection life does not take place in dramatic, public, visible, “Gospel of Peter” type ways. Much more typically it takes place in private, intimate encounters with the Lord who loves us and knew us before even our mothers who named us did, through which we are transformed and provoked to live differently.
I could multiply story upon story in which this happened for me. I will relate one that is so embarrassingly mundane that I struggle even to tell it. But I remember once, when I overreacted to one of my kids, I heard the voice of the Lord in my depths: “Andrew, this is not you. That is not your heart. And you do not want to leave that with your son. Go, apologize.”
So I did. My son was four or five at the time—a little bee-bop. I went up to that little boy, and got down on my knees so that I was eye to eye with him and with tears welling up in my own eyes said, “Son, daddy is so sorry for what he said to you and how he said it. Those words should never have come from my lips, and I did not mean them. Will you forgive me?”
He did. I melted.
It is a weird and unnatural thing, I think, for a grown man to get down on his knees before a four year old and literally beg for forgiveness.
Strange, that is, unless we are talking about this new creation that Jesus has brought about in his resurrection. This new creation in which lions lay down with lambs and swords are beaten into plowshares and all the fearful and antagonistic and prideful ways in which we have learned to live are no longer relevant to our existence.
In the new creation we hear him addressing us in our depths, unmaking us with love, gently prodding us to new forms of gentleness and unflinching grace—all the while finding that we are growing in Him paradoxically younger and older. Older because as we learn to see with new eyes, our wisdom increases. Younger because as we learn to live without fear, our innocence and joy are restored.
The promise of new creation is for us. For all of us. May we with courage begin to take our first, feeble steps into it, until one day with legs and backs strengthened by grace, we march triumphantly with all Creation into the coming Kingdom of God.
This blog post is an adaptation of a chapter by the same name in my book, Only Where Graves Are.