Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Church Year and the Lectionary Commentary – Easter (Day 4)

Mark 16:1-8

1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb. 3 They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!) 5 Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled. 6 But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. 7 Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you. 8 Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.


Who’s afraid of a risen Jesus? The women who first hear the story in Mark’s Gospel, that’s who! Mark’s is the only gospel that does not tell a “happy ending” resurrection story. Fairly early on, though, some scribes copying Mark’s gospel could not abide his ending and added “happy endings” (a shorter and longer one). You can usually find these in the footnotes for Mark 16:8 in your Bible. They are clearly not original but offer compelling evidence of our desire for such a thing.

Yet Mark is what it is – and ought to be recognized as such. It’s story of Jesus’ resurrection, sans the warm fuzzies, captures a much neglected but badly needed aspect of this great event. And that is: what do you do with a risen Savior? The one thing we clearly cannot do is to control him. If he’s beyond death’s reach, then he’s certainly beyond ours. We’re not beyond his reach however. And that should leave us quaking and trembling with fear just like the women in our story!

Even now, two thousand years later, Mark’s story marks that awesome fearfulness as a genuine, if much ignored, part of the story. Annie Dillard’s oft-cited comment from her book Teaching a Stone to Talk is spot on:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

Mark’s resurrection story warns us that such an experience is part and parcel of encountering the risen One. It’s not the whole experience – there is the joyous “happy ending” part that is its climax and where the whole thing is heading. Without “sufficient sensibility” to the reality of the risen Jesus, his wild and uncontrollable presence, far beyond understanding and domesticating - an untame but good power, as C. S. Lewis described the Christ-figure of his Narnia stories, the great Lion Aslan – the living Christ becomes just another piece of “furniture” in the profile of our “religion.” Secure and unthreatening this religious Savior makes us feel good and guarantees our future and destiny.

Mark closes off this possibility from us, at least if we take his evidence seriously. But that’s the question, isn’t it? Even in years when Mark is the gospel the lectionary focuses on, our Easter celebrations are the same as when the other gospels are to the fore. The “happy ending” always seems to win out. And we are left with a domesticate “Savior” whose “power” consists of giving us what we want and guaranteeing the status quo. Without an experience similar to that of Mark’s women at the tomb, at least once every three years (if we follow the lectionary), such a “happy ending” Jesus is inevitable. But what Mark shows us is that the “happy ending” Jesus is inextricably linked to the One who excites fear and consternation.

Awe and joy belong together. Awe without joy leaves us distant and finally fearful in our relation to the risen Jesus. Joy without awe leaves us with a mawkish, sentimental figure scarcely recognizable of the risen One. Together, and only together, do with have the Jesus given in the fourfold account of his resurrection in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John!

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