Easter Sunday, April 12th
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. 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.
I’m writing these words today in the dark. I say that partially because I tend to get up early to tackle my writing projects. However, this seems most appropriate for this devotion, because Easter begins in the dark, or so the Gospel writers tell us. Additionally, as I write today there are still so many questions about how our current crisis is going to end. There are promising hopes for a cure; there are also optimistic projections of the flattening of the curve model that health authorities have used to chart the process of the pandemic. This flattening might be signaling a recession in the number of cases of infected people. Yet, we remain uncertain. We’re in the dark.
That statement does seem to resonate with Easter. If we are honest with ourselves, there are so many confusing things about it. For starters, the resurrection accounts of the four gospels vary in detail. In one account there are several women who go to the tomb; in another there are two women; and in yet another, just Mary Magdalene. Some of the gospels report two angels at the tomb; others report one angel. And then there are other differences as to conversations, etc. How do we arrive at Easter when we are still in the dark about so much? Well, we begin, as all the gospel writers began, with the resurrection. They wrote because Jesus was risen from the dead. That’s what created this genre of literature called Gospel.
Today’s passage of Scripture is the shortest of the stories of the resurrection and ends rather abruptly… so much so, in fact, that it is surmised that some early writer took the Gospel and added a dozen more verses (9-20) so that Mark’s account would conclude in a manner more similar to the other Gospel accounts. I point this out, because I personally believe that the abrupt ending was intentional in the mind of Mark’s original author, and that the extra verses were from someone else. My reasoning is that: (a) the added verses are not found in any of the most ancient manuscripts; and (b) the language of the 9-20 section seems more cliché, unlike the lucid prose of the rest of the Gospel. So the question for this Easter story is “Why did Mark’s account end so suddenly?”
Let me share three vignettes in hopes of answering that question.
(1) Attending the USC School of Cinematic Arts one can’t help but discover that one of its celebrated graduates is Will Ferrell, that off-the-wall comedian. USC is proud of Mr. Ferrell, even to the extent of bestowing on him an honorary doctorate. Now, Ferrell is best known for his many comedic roles including Elf and Talladega Nights, among others. However, the screenplay that we studied when I was there was Stranger than Fiction, a serious piece in which Ferrell gives a thoughtful performance. The story is about an IRS accountant who discovers that his life is being directed by an author who is writing a novel. This accountant, who hears the author’s voice, learns that this author always kills off her main subject. Thus, the movie proceeds with the ominous portent of an approaching death. Ferrell’s character gets a copy of the manuscript and reads of his impending demise. The death scene is eloquently written, but the author has stopped, infected by the writer’s dreaded nemesis, writer’s block, unable to finish. Meanwhile, after reading her story, his story, and after much contemplation, Ferrell’s character connects with the author and encourages her to go ahead and finish, because it is wonderful. Ironically enough, the author is then inspired to finish by creating a unique ending, actually reminiscent of an Easter-type experience. Could it be that Easter is waiting to be completed by our own stories?
(2) Several years ago, one of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion shows centered around a teenager by the name of Jimmy Beeler. It seems that Jimmy went to St. Paul one cold and wintry night to stand in line to buy tickets for a rock concert by a group named “Mammoth.” As he was standing in line his mother, Mavis, was fretting back home at Lake Woebegone. She had gone to bed but couldn’t sleep, because she was so worried about Jimmy, her youngest, standing out in the cold in St. Paul. Mavis picked up her favorite magazine, The Home and Hearth, which contained several interesting articles; but one article in particular, about the evils of rock music, sent chills up and down her spine. As she brooded over the article and her son’s life, Mavis’ emotional state took a nose-dive when she noted that one of the article’s examples was the rock group, Mammoth. The next morning Jimmy came home, looking tired and worn out, but also triumphantly clutching two tickets in his upraised hand. He grabbed a bite to eat and then went to collapse in his bed. Keillor ended the story with Mrs. Beeler hovering over her sleeping son and the tickets, those tickets that were so precious to him, wondering whether she ought to tear them up to protect him from the evils of rock music. Keillor left the story there, without disclosing what she decided. As he signed off with his customary, “And that’s the news in Lake Woebegone where all the women are strong, all the men good-looking, and all the children are above average,” you could hear the groans of the audience. A couple of weeks later Keillor reported that many people had written angry letters saying he had no right to leave a story unresolved like that and in so doing, leave them hanging.
To be honest, there is a part of me that can appreciate people writing those kinds of letters . . . I’m a person who likes to have my stories wrapped up; I don’t like it when I am left dangling, with “to be continued.” But maybe that is the intent of Mark’s Gospel, that we are called to finish the story ourselves. Karl Barth, the renowned theologian, said “People come to church on Easter and wonder, ‘Is it true?'” It is our job to answer that question, not in words so much, but in deeds. Mark intends for us to complete the resurrection.
(3) A final example comes to mind in N.T. Wright’s beautiful book Simply Christian, where he creates an imaginary story of an accidental discovery of an unknown work by Mozart. A collector rummaging around in a dusty attic in a small Austrian town comes across a faded manuscript written for the piano. He can tell by just looking at it that it favors Mozart, so he takes it to a dealer. After numerous puzzled consultations, phone calls and examinations, the conclusion is that this truly is a previously unknown work by the great composer. However, the piece seems incomplete. There are long pauses where the piano seems to be simply marking time. Gradually it dawns on the musical experts – this was meant to be a duet. The blank spaces were to be played by an oboe, cello, violin, or another instrument. A further search of the attic reveals no additional sheets of music, and the discoverers must accept that the brilliance of it all cannot be experienced until someone fills in the blanks of accompaniment.
Easter is the same way. Mark has written a masterpiece, but it can’t be experienced unless we play our parts.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- Read the scriptural text aloud in the manner of the lectio divina (divine reading) discipline, letting the words’ sounds guide you to meditative reflection. What image particularly stands out to you? Where would you find yourself if you been present in the story of the resurrection? Why?
- How do you share the significance of the resurrection in the way you live day by day? Listen for God’s illuminating voice to guide you.
- Where do we need to “practice resurrection”, continuing the story in our community? Let the Spirit direct you to ways to make this happen.
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.