First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Easter Day

William Loader

Easter Day: 5 April Mark 16:1-8 (see also John 20:1-18)

The Easter story in Mark is a celebration of defiance. The authorities killed Jesus. That should have been the end, but now the stone has been rolled away. There is no Jesus in the tomb. He has risen! The story invites colour and grandeur. Matthew adds an earthquake and perches a shining angel atop the stone. Luke has two shining figures. John makes it the scene of a first ecumenical competition as Peter and beloved disciple race to the tomb in response to the news. The story-tellers run wild with celebration, leaving a trail of quite diverse accounts, which defy harmonisation and bear witness to the power of the imagination.

That power generates the poetry of faith, but it is also grounded in the deep conviction that the Jesus story did not end in hopelessness. It reflected a syntax of hope in which people face life with a defiance of hopelessness. The resurrection paradigm is a response to injustice, defeat, failure, brokenness, and death. It depends on daring and has no proofs except what flows from the reward of trust. It does not seek peace by denying the almost crushing realities of pain and injustice in our world, but reaches its conclusion having passed through those shadows of death or at least having taken them seriously. It is not a naive optimism, but ultimately a decision to live and not die. The story can, of course, be made to serve many other ends: naive optimism, denial of pain and doubt, jingoistic triumphalism (we won and we feel good!).

Already Mark's story shows signs of being a well-worked piece. It is therefore all the more interesting how he appears to have used it. We can begin with his conclusion (16:8). The women remained silent. They said nothing about what they had seen. They were afraid. How then could the faith have developed and spread? How could the situations arise of which Mark 13 reports, that believers would face persecution, which assume a future of faith? Why does Mark convey that finding the empty tomb was not the event which restarted the movement? This is so different from what we find in the other gospels, though Mark is probably their primary source for the account.

Perhaps Mark has tweaked the ending deliberately. Earlier he shows how the male disciples progressively fail to understand who Jesus is and what he is about. Then, we are taken almost by surprise when Mark tells us right near the end of his gospel that women followed Jesus, already from Galilee, and they remained in the vicinity of the cross, when the men had fled (15:40-41). Why had we not heard of them earlier? Now, in the passion narrative, they seem to be the only faithful followers. Some even take note of where he was entombed and, at the beginning of our story, come to anoint his body. But then, Mark sends our expectations crashing to the ground: the women fail as well! Who is left? Perhaps Mark wants us to respond: "God". Such an ending was too much for some later scribes who added their own endings, one of which is known to many through the King James Version, whose translators did not have access to the better and earlier manuscripts which we have today.

The young man robed in white functions as a prompt from the angelic world. Appearances of angels, experiences of visions, having dreams, were all part of the repertoire of story-telling, by which authors provided a kind of voice-over interpretation to help hearers get the message which they wanted to convey. This message concludes in 16:76 with a reminder to the women (and the hearers of the story) that Jesus said he would meet his disciples in Galilee (14:28). Even though the women failed to pass on the reminder, it is enough for us to recall the statement and realise that Mark would have to believe that it would happen. Most likely, then, Mark believed that Jesus appeared to Peter and the disciples in Galilee.

It all began with Peter, so it seems. This certainly matches the earliest report which we have, namely, Paul's account of the tradition which he received (1 Cor 15:3-5). It seems also to be the foundation for the disciples' belief according to Luke 24:34 and probably had some relation to the early attestation of Peter's leadership - he was, in one sense, the rock on which the church was built (Matt 16:16-18). The appearance - nowhere described in the early material - convinced Peter that Jesus was alive and if Jesus was alive, that meant God has raised him from the dead - and that meant God had vindicated him and his ministry - and that meant that the kingdom of God was indeed breaking in and soon to be fully realised.

The first Christians saw Jesus' resurrection as the beginning - the resurrection of the other dead would follow on the great day to which they looked forward and on which Jesus himself would appear in glory. He was the 'first-born from the dead' - that means: the first to be raised. So they re-gathered in Jerusalem, the place where they believed the fulfilment would be realised. The experience of the Spirit, also an eschatological phenomenon, simply enhanced their sense that the fulfilment was at hand.

Paul says nothing about an empty tomb, but he shared with the others an understanding of future existence which understood resurrection as the transformation of the dead corpse into a new body of a different constituency, but without remainder (i.e. no bones left over). Paul helps us understand this 'spiritual' resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15. It helps explain why Jesus can materialise and materialise, pass through closed doors, and do such things as the later Easter legends of Luke relate. On this basis, Jesus' resurrection had to mean that his previous body was no longer to be found anywhere. It could not be lying in a tomb. Either this conclusion helped create the story of the empty tomb or the discovery of an empty tomb actually occurred. We may never know. Did belief in Christ's resurrection arise in that sense simultaneously in Jerusalem and Galilee? Mark apparently does not think so.

Whether historical or not, the story behind Mark is remarkable for another feature. It has three women, two Mary's and a Salome, find the tomb and hear the message. Some argue that originally it was only Mary Magdalene, as in John. I am more inclined to think that this reflects a trend of individualising the stories, so that we see a move from disciples doubting in Lukan tradition to Thomas doubting in John, and here, a move from three women to Mary Magdalene in the more developed story in John. More importantly, this celebration of resurrection faith places women at the heart of the story. This reflects, I believe, values already central in Jesus' ministry of subverting norms which put women (and others) on the margin (though we must not generalise this as if no other Jews ever thought positively about women). It is surely of major significance that this celebration of new beginnings should embody part of what is central to that new beginning:, namely the affirmation of women, who also, in that sense, represent all who experience marginalisation.

Not everyone today shares with the early Pharisees and the Christian movement a belief in their kind of resurrection which assumes transfiguration without remainder. In their time there were many options, including Essenes and others who envisaged a heavenly world from which people could look down at their physical remains. There were many images of future hope. In love and hope poetry rules. However we imagine it today, Christian faith has at its heart a defiance of hopelessness, symbolised by the story of Easter. As God raised Jesus, as Jesus' future is in God's being, so also faith asserts the sufficiency of the one detail of the future beyond death to which it can hold fast: God, the God of compassion. This is the God also who makes the journey with us when we dare to face the realities of pain and suffering and dare to share that compassion and God's life in the world. Christians are baptised into this story so that with regard to resurrection and hope his story is our story, and what we believe about his future we believe about our own and vice versa - whatever that may be. But we are more than joined in hope: we are joined also in a shared life, which, when allowed to have its way, generates hope and reproduces the syntax of the story in the here and now.

Epistle: Easter Day: 5 April  1 Corinthians 15:1-11

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