“Do not be alarmed, you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.”
The story of Easter begins with absence. It begins with grief interrupted. Three women begin their day before the dawn intending to do one of the few things which can give their grief something tangible to hold, some practicality to perform. They buy spices for anointing, they take a walk. Having left the men behind them they worry some about what will happen when they get there. They want to spend some time with the body of their beloved friend. They want to mourn together, to touch something of what has touched all three of them so deeply and to say goodbye. But that is not possible. When they get to the tomb, the relief of finding the stone rolled away is quickly replaced by alarm at the missing body. A man in white tells them that the one they are looking for is not here, he has been raised. He instructs them to go and tell their other friends. But they don’t. Because they are afraid.
That is how Mark’s Gospel ends. Later editors tried to splash a few extra verses onto the earliest evangelist’s abrupt ending -surely he meant to say more- but those verses hang awkwardly beyond the trim; the terror and amazement and silent fear placing a heavy period on the end of a terrifying story. Perhaps for Mark’s earliest readers he didn’t have to say anything else about what happened. Perhaps the women’s silence was like a joke -of course they said something! We all know what happened after that! But for us, centuries removed, the absence can feel erie. Where is he? What happened to his body? What is it like now, how does it move and speak? The first Christians created a whole movement out of trying to answer these questions, out of trying to discern exactly what God was up to now. They told stories of appearances, of a man who walked through walls. They told stories of how hard he was to recognize, stories of encountering strangers and realizing at some length that he was with them again only to suddenly disappear. They told stories about how hard it was to convince one another of what was happening. God was doing something incomprehensible, inexplicable, something which looked at first for all intents and purposes like nothing, like an absence, like an emptiness where there should have been a body. The closer the first Christians leaned into that emptiness, the more they learned to rely on what was really there.
My friend Marcus died this year. He would have been more of an acquaintance except for the fact that he embraced everyone he met with warmth and hospitality and friendship. He was the Canon Theologian at the church where my husband works, and where Marcus’ wife Marianne worked also, and the two of them were kind enough to have us over for dinner several times, and as guests at their ranch when they moved to Eastern Oregon. As I listened to the stories which poured out of his Memorial, I learned just how ordinary my experience of him had been, just how much he radiated the same love to everyone he met. The refrain we kept hearing over and over again was that he was a man who loved to love. In her remembrance, his friend Jill said, “To be with Marcus was to see love shining from him, and to find yourself becoming more loving, not just more fully reflecting love but more boldly emanating that bit of God we carry within us. He loved Jesus. He understood in the entirety of his being that God is love. He knew that luminous sacred love is closer and more real that we easily recognized in our ordinary living and he knew that such love is more powerful than death. Though the price of love lost in this world is grief, love is always of vastly greater value than its cost.” Jill went on to speak of the gratitude with which Marcus lived his life, how it lended him an equanimity at his end, how he had gained the grace of a holy death with Marianne by the fullness of their intimacy and faith, by leaving nothing undone or unsaid. And she spoke of how Marianne had suffered in his absence, and would suffer still. “She and we stand now on this side of the veil Marcus has passed through. It would be unbearable save for the cloak of love that he has wrapped securely and eternally around her and which she feels with her now. It is as though he has reached back through the veil and fashioned it into that cloak, leaving his love with her.”
Jill’s words about death and the love which survives it are the truest I’ve ever heard about what is born again in resurrection. They are the clearest thing I can imagine of what happened to Jesus’ disciples, his love for them still radiating so fiercely from their bones that it ripped the veil of death in two and started sewing superhero capes out of it, obliterating for good the illusion that death could separate them from the love of God which they had learned in Jesus. This understanding is a deep consolation to me. But after a while, I find myself returning to the emptiness, too, and wondering about the places where grief has still been inexplicably arrested. What about all the graceless, unholy deaths that plague the world each day? Where, for instance, is the consolation for the Kenyan families of students from Garissa University, where 147 people were gunned down on Thursday morning by religious extremists? Scenes from the massacre show bloodied bodies slumped in piles. Many who remained were flown away. For them, there will be no spices to prepare, no final anointing, no body to touch one last time and remember. The very idea of a bodily resurrection -of ultimate justice for the human flesh and blood that human sin has desecrated- came from people like them. The first biblical mention we have of resurrection comes from the Maccabean revolt, in which one martyr stood on a battlefield of bloodied bodies, and flung his own disemboweled entrails at his tormentor, saying he would take them back in the resurrection.
The idea of resurrection began as the only sensible answer to the purely senseless violence of the world, if that world was to retain any orientation towards God’s justice at all and not be annihilated by despair. Resurrection is God’s ridiculous answer to our ridiculous selfishness and war mongering, God’s insistence that he will not give us up to death no matter how obsessed and determined we may be to perpetrate it, and it can be our insistence that hate and greed and violence do not have the final say, that every bit of kindness and compassion and good will and hope which we can muster belongs to the one glorious end which we are all destined for. When the world has taken what is most precious to us, when life has been robbed of it’s meaning and seems to be for all intents and purposes as chill and empty as a tomb, a Resurrection people wail at the night sky and shout it in the streets, “Alleluia! The Lord is risen!”
Marcus’ memorial ended with the Officiant saying, “Marcus is not here. He is with God. And God is here with us.” For all the trying in the world that presence can feel and seem like absence when we first encounter it. Do not be afraid. That is where this story begins.