It might seem a small matter to you, but the last few months I have sat on the couch with my seven-year-old son and four-year-old daughter and read to them sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by page from my favorite epic: the lord of the rings. Do not worry this is not yet another sermon where Frodo plays a larger role than Jesus himself. Today is Jesus’s resurrection day and Jesus, in due time, will take center stage. Briefly, I want to speak to you about the inability hold on to the joy I experience in my time with my kids. If I had known that I would later feel this way around my children, I would have reserved the word “happy” until now so I could unfurl it today. This is happiness. This is joy, but I cannot stay here. We think we have the advantage over our ancestors because we have cameras and videos. We think we can post things online and thus capture them forever, but we can’t hold those moments. They come to us, change us, and we live in their wake. I am now father and husband. Those things have happened to me and the man who existed on the other side of those events has died. I remember him vaguely but he is just that, a memory. Everything that happens to me now flows from those events. And they happened in a moment. One moment I was not a husband or a father, the next I was. These events, though pivotal to my smaller story, pale in comparison to what we celebrate today. Today is resurrection day; the possible and imaginable has been unsettled by his rising. The distance between God and us — real or imagined— has been obliterated. The miracle has stepped into history and we must respond to it or be lost in its aftermath. The great event has happened, but we cannot stay here. Like the women, the resurrection has thrust us out from the tomb shaken, but changed. The old us, the old creation is a memory. We cannot stay here; the energy of Easter has cast us out.
Our gospel begins with mourning. The three women: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome go to buy spices so that they might anoint him. Our translations obscure a subtle question that is taking place here. Who or what exactly is in that tomb? The last mention of Jesus’ body occurs during the encounter with Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph goes to Pilate to ask for the body (soma) of Jesus. A soma can refer to either a living or a dead body. Soma is used in Mark’s gospel to describe the woman with the issue of blood. Her body, her soma was healed. At Bethany, the living soma of Jesus that was anointed for his burial. Jesus also used soma to describe the bread of the Eucharist: this is my soma, my body which is given for you.
Pilate, so unaware about the events taking place on Golgotha, did not even know that Jesus was dead. Once he finds out that Jesus has indeed died, Mark tells us that Pilate gives the corpse (πτῶμα) to Joseph. The only other use of πτῶμα in Mark’s gospel refers to the corpse of John the Baptist. He was also an innocent man who was murdered and his body given over to his disciples. After the corpse was laid in the tomb the women go to anoint him. Again Jesus’ name was not mentioned. From the moment Jesus was laid in the tomb and called a corpse, we do not hear his name until the angel speaks. Who or what exactly is in the tomb, a corpse or the person they loved? All of us who have ever faced the death of a loved one have asked this question: When I look upon the dead what exactly am I seeing?
I remember the first dead body I ever saw. It was my aunt. As a child she used to play with us; she even lived with us for a short time. She was one of those women full of vibrancy and life, but she got sick. Very sick. The disease slowly ate away at her until we knew what was next. I recall going to the hospital in her last days wearing a mask to cover my face while the doctor questioned us. Did we have any illnesses? If we did we could not go in to see her because the slightest cold could be fatal to her immune system. Once she died I remember struggling to understand the relationship between the dead body and the person I loved. Was it her? Something more or less?
The women come to him — the body or the corpse— because it is all they have. But the women were right! The body that lay in the tomb was inextricably tied to the one who preached, healed, and loved them. Our flesh and blood is part of what defines us as us. We are not mere corpses walking around before we return to dust. It is simply not Christianity to believe that what matters is our souls, that an escape from the body is the fullness of salvation. This is not the victory that Christ won for us on the cross: the escape from the body to some blissful floating around in the netherworld. All has and will be redeemed, including our flesh. This is what the resurrection means for the Christian. Our bodies are the locale in which learn and grow and live and love. It will be these bodies and all creation itself that will be transformed by Jesus’ second coming. It was in the flesh that Jesus came among us and it was his life in the body that was taken from us. This is what the women came to mourn. Before we move on to the shouts of Alleluia we must pause here and allow the full weight of Jesus’ death fall upon us.
Of the final eight verses in Mark’s gospel, four of them are told from the perspective of women who think Jesus still dead. Easter begins with a tomb, a place of mourning. The Christian is not someone ignorant of death and sorrow. The Christian has stared them in their face and seen their downfall.
So our women approach the tomb to honor the body and they find the stone rolled away. Now things begin to slip away from our women. Events happen quickly and the ground shifts beneath their feet. They cannot stay here. They see a young man clothed in white, clearly an angelic figure.
There are three reasons for thinking this: (1) the word used for “young man” was used on occasion during the time of Jesus to refer to angels. (2) Our young hero was clothed in white, the common dress of angelic figures. (3) The context of the resurrection creates a sense of wonder and Mark, the story teller, allows the wonder to grow as we enter in. We have the stone rolled away. We have a young man who is clearly more than a young man proclaiming good news.
Now we come to the words of the angel and the question about the body and the identity of Jesus is finally answered. For the first time in the chapter the one who has been called a mere corpse is given a name. Mark has the angel speak tersely and with great effect: Jesus you seek. He has a name; the body you came to honor was a person. We are not simply spirits dragging around flesh, but that body was Jesus and you were right to come here. You seek Jesus the Nazarene and with that phrase the images of his youth and ministry are conjured up. He lived and brought the kingdom of God into our midst. Jesus you seek, the Nazarene, the one who was crucified. That may have been the last time those words were ever heard by a follower of Jesus devoid of hope. Then a pause. In that silence the entirety of human history teeters, but we cannot stay here. The angel speaks four more words and history bends under their weight: raised, is not here. Jesus, you seek the Nazarene, the one who was crucified: raised, is not here. Sixteen chapters of Mark, page after page of the biblical narrative that begin with the first words of Genesis, all the hopes and fears of Israel and the world, resolved in four words: raised, is not here.
As much as we talk about Easter, we cannot talk about Easter. The one who was dead now lives. Raised and transformed. We want to stay here and linger in that thought, but we are immediately pushed towards its implications: If Jesus has died and been raised what does it mean? When I became a father there was no going back to the other side of that. The person who existed beforehand died. The world that exists before dead people come back to life is no more. Jesus has transformed the world and we live in its aftermath.
The women have a moment. The angel tells them to go look at the place where lay and then go tell the disciples. The resurrection of Jesus demands a response. What will you do? What do you believe? The entirety of Christian history is nothing less than a response to the resurrection. The angel told the women to go and we have been running ever since. We can’t stay here; the energy of Easter has cast us out. The church finds itself identity in celebrating and telling the story of Easter.
But the first actions of the women was not to go tell. Mark ends his gospel with the women shaken and afraid. They should be. Maybe we have heard the words of Easter too many times. If an angel told me that a man has defeated death and now walks ahead of us. I would be shaken. Death for all its horror makes a certain kind of sense. That Man is alone in the universe, responsible for all that occurs, is a dreadful thought but it leaves us with the power. We are masters of our fate. We control the future and we with our expertise we can shape it suit our taste. We take what we want. Some get more, some less, then we die. I know plenty of people who grew up in my neighbor who are not afraid of death. Death does not require us to change only acceptance. The resurrection of Jesus makes a claim about the nature of reality that is unsettling.
Most of us have not taken the claims of Jesus seriously enough to be afraid. If these words are true, we are not playing a children’s game. We have encountered something and someone who has reordered human history and destiny. Fear is the proper response. I am unsettled by Jesus. I know life and I know death, but I have never encountered the eternal. I long to see him; but I also fear him. One day the living God, the lion from the tribe of Judah will appear before us all. Then we will know both the fear and, later, the joy of the women. Alleluia he is risen; Lord have mercy upon us all.