Easter Sunday 2012
Heavenly Father, on this Sunday of Sundays may I proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to the glory of the Most Holy Trinity Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Christ is Risen!
He is risen indeed, Alleluia!
If you are not a Christian, or perhaps even if you are, then it is easy to assume that Christmas is the most important time in the Churchs’ year. We often seem to make more of a fuss of the build up to Christmas with loads of carol concerts and children’s plays and so forth, whereas the build up to Easter seems to involve just giving things up, which, let’s face it, is a bit of a harder sell. Beatific babies in stables versus the barbaric execution of an innocent man, perhaps it is easy to see why one has more mass market appeal than the other.
And, as Annabelle quite correctly pointed out to me last week, when we were discussing this very question, if Jesus hadn’t been born at Christmas then we couldn’t have had the first Easter. As a matter of pure logic that is, of course, faultless.
However it is worth remembering that we do not celebrate Easter because of the events of Christmas, rather we celebrate Christmas because of the events of Easter. In fact we only celebrate anything at all in church, in fact the church itself only exists, because of the events of Easter. Make no mistake about it – the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the foundation stone of the Christian faith. If Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead on the first Easter morning then not only is our preaching in vain but everything we do, except perhaps sharing coffee and a biscuit, is in vain.
To the extent that Richard Dawkins concedes anything to Christianity he does, I think, concede the possibility that a good preacher man called Jesus may have existed in first century Israel, and that the gospels may even contain some of the original teachings of that man. But to Dawkins, and to most of the non-Christian world, the resurrection, the event which we celebrate today, is just a piece of superstitious nonsense tacked on by his followers after the event of his death on the cross.
Whilst that may be a logical way to explain some the events recorded in the bible, logical in the sense that it avoids any action on the part of God, it rather ignores the mystery of why the church came together in the first place. We know that when Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane that his followers fled in different directions into the night and that Peter, one of his boldest followers, denied that he even knew Jesus so as to avoid being arrested and perhaps executed alongside him. We know that when Jesus hung on the cross that only his mother and one or two others were with him at the end, whilst the others were keeping their distance and that in the days immediately following the crucifixion the church, such as it was, consisted of a few frightened people hiding in rooms expecting a knock on the door from the authorities hunting for other Nazarenes.
The Romans were very good at executing people, they were very well practised at it, and they even shoved a spear in Jesus’ side to make sure that the job was done properly before he was taken down. No one had any reason to believe that Jesus was anything other than dead and buried and gone. And of the fact of his death I have no doubt and, had he stayed that way, then I believe that the disciples would have dispersed and gone back to their home towns and this man Jesus would hardly have been a footnote in the histories of the Roman empire.
But something happened that morning, something so extraordinary and unexpected that it transformed this frightened group of people into disciples and apostles, people willing to take the story of the risen Christ wherever they went, and many of them were executed for doing so. Church history tells us that Peter, the disciple who first denied knowing Jesus out of fear, was later crucified by the Romans upside down. We know from simply watching the news that people are willing both to kill and to die for all sorts of crazy ideas but would someone, indeed so many someones, willingly be killed for something they knew was a lie?
However, that does not mean that the resurrection is easy or can be grasped by anything other than faith, something which Richard Dawkin’s certainly denies. Let’s look a little more at Mark’s account of that first Easter morning. In many ways Mark’s gospel is the most challenging and least superficially comforting. But, as I said at Christmas, when looking at the gospels we should avoid the error of conflating the different gospels into one story and glossing over the difficulties – God saw fit to give us four Gospel writers and we should look at them on their own merits.
The empty tomb, on its own, is not good news. Like other empty spaces that once were occupied, it merely signifies that something is missing, possibly stolen or lost. Our instinctive reaction is a distressed lurch of emotions when we realise something is badly wrong.
Mark makes no concessions: rather than provide a glorious climax to the story, he brings his fast-paced Gospel juddering to a halt with terrified women fleeing from the tomb, not daring to tell anyone what has happened. There is no joy in this episode for them, and Mark spares them no blushes: they are alarmed, seized with terror and amazement, and afraid.
They have waited through the enforced rest of the sabbath, no doubt with exhausting emotion, to anoint the body, to touch it and lavish care on it as a necessary part of their grieving — and now it is not there. Anyone who has mourned without a body to bury, or who is troubled by important things left unsaid to a dead person, will understand the awfulness of their situation.
The confusion engendered by the empty tomb and the untidiness of Mark’s abrupt ending are overlooked if we glide seamlessly from Palm Sunday and Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, via a hot cross bun on Good Friday, to resurrection appearances on Easter Day.
Those who have seen the Triduum through — Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday — know that there was a tomb holding a mutilated body. If we enter Mark’s world, we cannot rush to the assurance of resurrection with a politician’s or a scientist’s knock-down argument, but are forced to come to terms with a void in which faith is stretched to its limit. In his inimitable way, Mark tests any glibness in our confidence in the resurrection by confronting us with the perplexity of an empty tomb.
There is no easy way to encounter resurrection, and Mark does not rescue the women from their confusion. But, since he has been showing us perplexed disciples throughout the Gospel, we should not be surprised. He has told us (Mark 14.8) that another woman anointed Jesus’s body for burial before his death. These women are too late to do that. Instead, although they do not know it, they are at a pivotal moment in history and theology, a kairos rather than chronological moment, when “the time is fulfilled” (cf. Mark 1.15).
As the collect puts it, the old order of sin and death has been overcome by the mighty resurrection of God’s Son. In this new order, they are in the wrong place, for the wrong purpose, with the wrong things in their hands. They are standing in the confined space of the tomb, the ultimate symbol of the old order, and somehow they have to be pushed out of it. Once Jesus came to Galilee with the good news of God (Mark 1.14), and called his disciples; now he is going there again, and the women are to ensure the disciples get there, too. They are being recalled.
Much in human life is unfinished, from symphonies to relationships, and this is the Gospel for people living with unfinished business. Mark’s Gospel ends with a theological comma rather than a full stop. Once the emptiness of the tomb was established, there were indeed resurrection appearances, as we hear from Peter and Paul. But Mark’s story ends without tangible evidence for the disciples of Jesus’s resurrection. Perhaps Mark knew that seeing is not always believing; faith is part of the resurrection equation.
Everything that has happened since was left in the hands of terrified women and the male disciples who had not even been brave or devoted enough to make it to the tomb. God’s good news did not depend on the disciples’ readiness, and, mercifully, it doesn’t depend on ours. Instead, God’s grace catches us up in the story wherever we are.
God’s mighty resurrection breaks into a world of loose ends and frightened people. Mark is the Gospel for people who recognise themselves in that situation.
We, too, are called to leave the confines of the tomb and whatever holds us back from faith, and follow where the risen Jesus leads. Alleluia!