Thursday, April 05, 2012

Swallowing Death Up Forever -- An Easter Lectionary Reflection

Swallowing Death Up Forever

            Christ has died!  Christ is Risen!  Christ will come again!”  This is the message of Easter.

Easter morning we gather to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus the Christ, an act of divine vindication of his life and his death.  It is a glorious day of celebrating God’s vision of life.  On this day we sing hymns of great joy: “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and “Crown Him with Many Crowns.”  Now, many of us have our favorite Easter hymns, and we probably have a few not so favorites as well, but the message that comes through these hymns is that in Christ God has swallowed up death, so that death has lost its sting.  Indeed, where once there were tears, now there will no longer be tears to shed, for God has wiped them away from our eyes. 

Easter is a joyous day, though for some there are questions that are raised by science and history, questions that are not easy to resolve.  These questions can eat away at our Easter joy, and they’re understandable questions, especially for Christians that seek a faith that is rational as well as experiential.  So, how does one live bodily after one has died?  Would it not be better to see the resurrection as a metaphor or a story?  Can’t we have the spiritual experience without the intellectual baggage?   Theologians and philosophers and many other people have spent a great deal of time wrestling with this question, for if the resurrection stands at the core of the Christian faith, then how do we deal with the problems presented in our age?
I’ll admit that the story of the empty tomb is one of those unprovable beliefs.  The biblical writers don’t go into detail, we have him in the tomb and then he’s resurrected.  The how is never addressed.  Despite the questions that many wrestle with, Resurrection remains a core belief for Christians.  Without it, it would seem that the cross and the tomb have won the day.  I’m not sure how this works in a scientific way, but resurrection is something I find impossible to let go of.  However it may have happened, so Easter remains a powerful presence in my life.  Thus, as I observe the day, I bear witness to the declaration that death is truly swallowed up by God forever!

            One has a choice of texts for Easter Sunday, especially this year.  One could begin with the early Christian encounter with resurrection as told in the book of Acts or one can, as I chose, to listen for a word of wisdom from Isaiah 25.  It is a vision of a feast that God lays out on a holy mountain.  The Lord of Hosts or Heavenly Forces prepares this rich feast with the finest of foods and wines, and lays it out upon a mountain for all peoples to come and share.  It’s a grand and inclusive vision of all the peoples of the world gathering together on the mountain with God, sharing in this feast and enjoying God’s transforming presence.  As we feast together we hear the word proclaimed that that God who provides this feast has lifted the veil that separates life from death, and swallows up death forever.  Not only does God swallow death, but God wipes away the tears off of every face.  The Lord, we’re told, removes the people’s disgrace from the earth.  Yes, this is a powerful vision that declares that death has once and for all lost its sting, and in hearing this word, we are enabled to take in the Easter vision of life taking victory over death in the resurrection.

            The word goes forth – God has overcome death – so how will we respond to the news?  Here in Isaiah 25, the people declare:  “Look!  This is our God for whom we have waited – and he has saved us!”  Therefore, “let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation!”  And so as on Easter Sunday, the prophet leads us in songs of praise.  How can we do otherwise, when we receive this vision? 

            Isaiah speaks of God’s act of swallowing up death so that it will never again define our lives.  For Paul the resurrection of Jesus is the foundational moment when death is swallowed up in victory, and it becomes for him the definitive message of the gospel.  Thus, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul declares that he has “passed on to you as most important” this message, that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose from the dead on the third day, appearing to Cephas (Peter) and many others.  Paul numbers himself among those to whom the risen Christ revealed himself, but he was last of all to receive this vision. 

It is often pointed out that Paul makes little reference to the life of Jesus and no reference to his birth.  For Paul everything boils down to these three days, from Good Friday to Easter.  It may be that Paul has depoliticized the cross, but then again the question really is – what kind of sin is Paul talking about?  He doesn’t define it here, but we know that the Law of God focuses on two relationships, our relationship with God and our relationship with neighbor.  If the cross and the resurrection are the means through which this relationship, which is so often broken, is healed, then surely it’s not a depoliticized gospel.  Reconciliation has both vertical and horizontal dimensions, and the latter certainly has public implications.  As for himself, he can point out that his own relationship with God and neighbor was expressed in his harassment of the Christians.  Still, Jesus chose to reveal himself to Paul, and through this act of divine grace, changed Paul’s life.  Grace, it seems, emerges out of resurrection, even if Paul’s visitation was of a different order from the others.  The point in this, of course, is that experiencing or encountering Jesus changes lives.  And if our lives are transformed as a result of these encounters with divine grace, then should we not share the news?  Paul’s transformation was so dramatic that he was determined to work harder than anyone else to make this message known to the world.   As we gather on Easter morning, we shall do so because of God’s grace.  And as we gather we will proclaim that which has been passed on as of first importance.  Although we have been imperfect vessels and our interpretations of this message have often been errant, the message continues to be passed on and celebrated.  We continue to proclaim that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

            We come now the gospel reading, and the lectionary provides two possibilities –John 20 and Mark 16.  Although John 20 is a much fuller telling of the story, Mark 16 is rather intriguing and worth hearing.  John 20 has a full set of appearances, but Mark 16 ends suddenly leaving us in the lurch, wanting more.  Reading the ending of Mark reminds me of watching the Passion of the Christ.  All the violence that had was graphically displayed by the movie ends with a brief glimpse of resurrection.  I remember feeling so numb by the movie up to that point, that I needed something more.  I needed a resurrection appearance, but didn’t get what I desired.  No Emmaus Road; no encounter with Thomas, just a brief glimpse.  Perhaps that’s how the reader of Mark’s gospel feels when they come to verse 8 and find themselves standing a precipice with nothing to hold them up.  What comes next, we ask ourselves? 

Now Mark’s telling of the Easter story starts in a similar fashion to that of other telling.  A few women approach the tomb hoping to finish the job of preparing Jesus’ body for burial, a job cut short by the approach of the Sabbath on Friday afternoon.  Now, these three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome make their way to the tomb early on Easter morning, wondering how they’ll get the stone rolled away from the tomb.  They’re not sure how this will work, but they’re determined to finish the job.   

            As we take in this story, it’s important to note that it’s women who are coming to the tomb.  This is true for two reasons.  First, the women appear to be the most faithful of Jesus disciples.  When the male disciples flee and hide, the women stay behind to watch as Jesus is taken down and laid in the tomb, and it’s the women who visit the tomb.  Perhaps, even more importantly, Mark includes their testimony, even though culturally their voice was not considered a valid testimony.  Society says that they just can’t be trusted.  They’re too vain and can be distracted by triviality, and yet, Mark trusts their testimony.  He ends the story with them as the lone witnesses. 

            Now, when they arrive at the tomb, they find the stone rolled away.  This sight is troubling, but even more troubling is what they find when they enter the tomb – the body is missing.  As they consider this disturbing reality, they’re startled by the sight of this young man sitting to the right of them inside the tomb.  The young man – a messenger (angel) from God – says 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” (vs. 5-6 CEB).   Although it’s natural that the women don’t find the assurances of the young man to be calming of the nerves, is this not the message that we’re meant to hear.  Is this not the message that Paul received and passed on to us as being of first importance?  Christ has died, Christ is buried, Christ is risen!  Having captured the essence of the message in these few words, the young man (angel) gives these women a charge:  “Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee.”  Here is the commission – go and tell.  It’s given to and through the women. They are the chosen ones, for they are the faithful ones, but will we hear their witness?

            The Gospel ends by describing the women’s response?  “Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb.  They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”    The story ends in silence.  Surely there is more to the story.  We just need to come back from the commercial break for the “rest of the story.”  But there’s no rest of the story to be found.  The women have the message, but for now they keep it to themselves.   Although Mark celebrates the women’s faithfulness when no man was willing to step forward, as Bill Placher writes in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark, “in the end no human beings are completely faithful.  Fear captures us all” (Mark (Belief), p. 247).   

So, the gospel, as we have it, ends in silence.  It’s sort of fitting that the story would end this way, since Jesus continually warned his disciples to say nothing about what they had seen and heard, but surely now is the time for the truth be known.  But, of course, fear caught up with them and they couldn’t speak.  Does this sound familiar? 

So, what do we make of this ending, or lack thereof?  We know that there have been attempts to resolve the tension with longer and shorter endings.  The longer ending that we find present in brackets or in the margins adds interesting details about handling snakes and drinking poison that we moderns would rather leave in the margins.
What we have before us is rather open-ended.  We know that the message didn’t stay hidden.  The message got out, and we are the recipients of that message.  So what is our responsibility?  David Lohse writes:
Mark isn’t bad at endings, it turns out, he’s brilliant, and by ending his account in this way, he invites us into the story, to pick up where these women leave off and, indeed, go tell that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, has been raised, and is going ahead to meet us, just as promised.        
The open-endedness of the close of this gospel, invites us to join in and be transformed by the message so that we can pass it on to others.  Christ is risen and he will meet us.  He will meet us in our fears and our brokenness.  As Lohse declares, the story doesn’t end with Mark’s gospel, but continues into our lives.  We too get the opportunity to invite people into the story, so that we and they can bear witness to the Christ of God. 

            We come on Easter morning burdened with many burdens, including grief, but the good news is that God has swallowed up death in the cross and the resurrection.  God has begun wiping away the tears from our eyes.  And we have the opportunity to share the news!   

1 comment:

John said...

Maybe Paul ignored the ethical teachings of Jesus because they were normative for Jews of the era?

Perhaps Paul's teachings regarding the significance of Jesus death and resurrection were in fact an attempt to frame an answer to your question: what do we make of the open-ended closing?

Christians take for granted the idea that Jesus' ethical teachings, and his focus on table fellowship, were unique and formed a part of the core of new teaching he brought from heaven. However, virtually all of Jesus' ethical admonitions find their antecedents in existing Jewish scripture. Perhaps there really was nothing new in those teachings for Paul's audiences, and the really novel teaching had to do with how one interprets Jesus' death and resurrection.

Likewise, the core purpose and central message of the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John may well have been to present a framework for answering your question regarding the open-ended closing. The difference between the letters and the Gospels being that the Evangelists wanted the teaching to originate from Jesus instead of Paul, because Paul was still too controversial of a figure to be the primary source for such teaching.