When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could come and anoint Jesus. Then, very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb, just at sunrise. They were saying to one another, ‘There’s that stone at the door of the tomb – who’s going to roll it away for us?’ Then, when they looked up, they saw that it had been rolled away. (It was extremely large.) So they went into the tomb, and there they saw a young man sitting on the right-hand side. He was wearing white. They were totally astonished. ‘Don’t be astonished,’ he said to them. ‘You’re looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has been raised! He isn’t here! Look – this is the place where they laid him. ‘But go and tell his disciples – including Peter – that he is going ahead of you to Galilee. You’ll see him there, just like he told you.’ They went out, and fled from the tomb. Trembling and panic had seized them. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
‘They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.’ Well, wouldn’t you be? Terrified, more likely. Graveyards are a bad enough place at the best of times, especially in a culture where grave-robbery was common, and stories of ghosts, hauntings and other spooky events even more common. And when you belong to the small group that had gone around with the leader the authorities caught and executed two or three days earlier, you had to be extra careful. Afraid? You bet.
People today are afraid of Easter for totally different reasons. Well, perhaps not totally different. The gatekeepers of ‘modern’ Western society have decreed that religion is dangerous non-sense; that if there is a ‘god’ he’s a long way away and only interested in your private spiritual life; that Progress, Technology and ‘Science’ (by which they mean not real science, the delighted and humble exploration of the universe, but an ideology that uses the same name) are in charge, and taking us towards a golden future. And that dead people do not rise.
They have to add that last bit, of course – not that it’s a new idea. Homer knew that the dead don’t rise. Pliny, the great Roman naturalist, was well aware of it too. That’s hardly surprising, since it is the universal human experience. Dead people stay dead. The early Christians knew that too, and that was why what they discovered on that first Easter morning blew their minds and imaginations. They weren’t ignorant folk who didn’t know ‘the laws of nature’. But those who try to shape today’s Western world-view insist on ‘no resurrection’ for the same reason as all other totalizing systems insist on it. If Jesus was raised from the dead, a new power has been let loose in the world, a power which goes beyond all other power known to the human race. All other power, in the last analysis, ends up killing people. That’s the bottom line. But if there is a God who raises the dead, all other powers are called to account. Resurrection challenges human empire where it hurts most. Hence the strident calls to tone it down, to find something that will appeal to ‘modern man’. (I had two letters saying that just this last week.)
It can’t be done. The women wouldn’t have been so terrified if they’d merely had a new, heart-warming spiritual experience. They wouldn’t have run away in panic just because, in their heart of hearts, they had suddenly come to believe that Jesus was somehow ‘there’ with them, that his cause would continue, that his teaching would stand the test of time. (All of these are things that people have said in the misguided effort to avoid what the New Testament writers are saying. But the word ‘resurrection’ simply doesn’t, and didn’t, mean any of those things.)
I take it more or less for granted, by the way, that verse 8 is not where Mark himself concluded his gospel. Look at the Dead Sea Scrolls (in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, or in facsimile, online or elsewhere). A great many of them have lost the beginning and the end, or both. That stands to reason: the two ends of the scroll would be attached to sticks, and might easily have been torn off. If, instead of a scroll, a very early copy of Mark was bound up as a primitive book (a ‘codex’), the same thing could happen to the sheets at either end. In any case, Mark certainly doesn’t mean us to understand that the women never said anything to anybody, that they stayed silent for life. He must only mean that in their panic and fear they went straight back to the house where they were staying without telling any passers-by, or people they saw in the street, what was going on.
This account, in fact, reads like what it almost certainly is: a very, very early description of what happened that first Easter morning, told from one point of view, told (like all eyewitness accounts) quite selectively, with a few details tossed in with an almost breathless wonder. The stone! The young man! Going to Galilee! It made no sense then, and it barely makes sense now (we can see Mark saying), but this is the way they told the story and, once told, it’s better to keep it as it is. Certainly we can contrast this quick, unadorned tale with the developed account of the crucifixion, where in the telling and retelling the early church has quite properly allowed all sorts of hints of scripture, and other shapings of the narrative, to come in. Here we have none of that.
Easter is meant to be a surprise. It is certainly not a ‘happy ending’ after the horror of the cross, though sadly some churches treat it like that. Mark 16 doesn’t read like a ‘happy ending’. It reads like a shocking new beginning – which of course is what Mark intends. The story is not over. In fact, it’s just starting: the new story, the story which is now possible because Jesus has been enthroned as king of the Jews, as king of the world, as sovereign over death itself, as the one who is now going to do strange new things, surprising his closest friends and his most implacable enemies. A new way of living, a new way of being human, has been launched upon the world, a way that people thought impossible then and think impossible still today, but a way that has caught up millions and transformed their lives beyond recognition.
Easter Day is, of course, an event of cosmic significance. But, as always in the gospel, the large-scale meaning doesn’t squeeze out the deeply personal implication. Notice the little mention in verse 7: ‘go and tell his disciples – including Peter . . .’. Peter had, of course, let Jesus down badly. He boasted and blustered and then fell flat on his face. But Easter is all about new starts. That was true for Peter. It’s true for us, too.
Lord of life, risen from the dead, lead us on through fear and astonishment to share in the new work of your kingdom.