Prayer of the Day: O God, you gave your only Son to suffer death on the cross for our redemption, and by his glorious resurrection you delivered us from the power of death. Make us die every day to sin, that we may live with him forever in the joy of the resurrection, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
If, like me, you accept the majority opinion of New Testament scholars that Mark’s gospel ends at Chapter 16, verse. 8, then we are not left with the joyous revelation of Jesus’ resurrection, but with the horrifying discovery of a grave robbery. We read that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome came early to the tomb of Jesus. They had come to “anoint him,” to give him a decent burial.
We who are disciples of Jesus understand what that is all about. We have a process for dealing with death. When a member of our community dies, we surround them with comfort. We bring meals to lessen the burdens of a family in deep pain as they struggle with funeral arrangements, burial details and the financial issues that arise with a person’s passing. We visit them as they gather for a wake or visitation, expressing our love, offering our prayers and sharing memories of the lost loved one. We frequently say our final farewell in a sanctuary surrounded by the symbols of our faith, the baptismal font where life with Jesus begins and the altar where it continues and extends to dimensions we cannot see with mortal eyes, to that great “cloud of witnesses,” that throng from among all nations tongues and peoples robed in white praising the Lamb, that realm of “angels, archangels and all the company of heaven.” Finally, we place the remains of our loved one into the earth, not as though it were a “final resting place,” but in the hope and expectation that this “seed” we plant today will bloom in a new creation on the day of resurrection.
I can only imagine how traumatized the three women must have been that morning. They had seen Jesus, the one they had followed, loved and in whom they had placed their hope cruelly tortured to death. With this wound still raw and fresh, they arrive at his tomb to find it torn open. The body of Jesus is gone and one could only imagine where it might be, what Jesus’ enemies might have done to it and what condition it might be in now. Small wonder the women ran from the tomb filled with terror without saying anything to anyone. They remained silent for the same reason sexual assault victims so often say nothing to anyone of their trauma. When you have been so deeply and intimately hurt, the last thing you want to do is open up the wound to further injury.
All of us have shared the women’s experience in some measure this year. We have seen a lot of death over the last several months. And like the women, we have been robbed of the faith practices that assist us in grieving, getting closure and moving toward healing. Three deaths that were close to me in varying degrees illustrate the point. The first was the death of an elderly woman in a nursing home. Her family insisted that she have a traditional church funeral although Covid-19 infections were spiking at the time. Though the state in which this woman lived permitted in person funerals subject to size limits, social distancing and masking, many friends and family members did not feel safe attending the event. As a result, there were hurt feelings and disappointment on the part of the grieving family and a good deal of guilt and unresolved grief on the part of those who did not attend.
The second was the sudden death of a young man in his 50s with a large and very close family. After some painful soul searching, the family decided that having a funeral at the peak of an epidemic was not a responsible thing to do. They resolved to do some type of memorial once the danger of infection subsided. In the meantime, however, their grief remains in many respects unaddressed and one wonders whether a service more than a year after the fact will fully meet their needs.
Finally, I viewed the recording of a Zoom funeral for another man who died after years battling cancer.The pastor gave a powerful gospel sermon. Participants were able to see the faces of the family and the family could see those of all the other participants. Participants were able to share in singing the hymns we all love and, though we could not be together in the sanctuary, we could at least view that holy place where we worshiped together for so much of our lives. Nevertheless, a funeral in which there are no hugs, no back slaps, no handshakes nor any one-on-one conversations leaves a lot to be desired. Despite the best efforts of the pastor, church and family to make this event as meaningful as possible, so much was achingly absent.
But here’s the thing. True, the gospel tells us that the women ran from the tomb in terror and told nobody anything of what they had seen and heard. Yet we know that could not have been the end of the story. If it were, I would not be writing these lines and Easter Sunday (and every other Sunday for that matter) would be just another day. So we are left with the question: How did these women finally overcome their trauma and their paralyzing fear? How did they manage to discern the dawn of a new age in the midst of what seemed to be the ultimate desecration? How were they “forced outside” themselves? How did they manage to find their voices, speak the good news of Jesus’ Resurrection and persuade their fellow disciples to return to the mountain in Galilee where they encountered the resurrected Lord?
Perhaps Mark intended to leave us with these questions because he understood that Jesus’ church was experiencing some traumatic body blows. Perhaps the Evangelist understood that his church would need a resiliant faith to see it through the dark times ahead. Maybe this gospel comes up in this cycle of readings in this time in order to challenge us to recognize the presence of Jesus in the midst of our own trauma. Perhaps we need to be reminded that we have been here before, that the worst thing that could ever happen to us already happened on Good Friday and the Jesus we thought we had lost for good came back to us. He comes back to us again. So take heart, people of God. We are going to be alright after all.
Here is a poem by Maya Angelou exploring the struggle between hope and despair. It is here where discipleship is lived out and where Easter dawn repeatedly shines through the cracks of death made by Jesus’ Resurrection.
A Plagued Journey
There is no warning rattle at the door
nor heavy feet to stomp the foyer boards.
Safe in the dark prison, I know that
light slides over
the fingered work of a toothless
woman in Pakistan.
Happy prints of
an invisible time are illumined.
My mouth agape
rejects the solid air and
lungs hold. The invader takes
seeps through the plaster walls.
It is at my chamber, entering
the keyhole, pushing
through the padding of the door.
I cannot scream. A bone
of fear clogs my throat.
It is upon me. It is
sunrise, with Hope
its arrogant rider.
My mind, formerly quiescent
in its snug encasement, is strained
to look upon their rapturous visages,
to let them enter even into me.
I am forced
outside myself to
mount the light and ride joined with Hope.
Through all the bright hours
I cling to expectation, until
darkness comes to reclaim me
as its own. Hope fades, day is gone
into its irredeemable place
and I am thrown back into the familiar
bonds of disconsolation.
Gloom crawls around
between my toes, at my ankles,
and it sucks the strands of my
hair. It forgives my heady
fling with Hope. I am
joined again into its
Source: Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? (c. 1983 by Maya Angelou; pub. by Penguin Random House LLC). Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was a multi-talented American poet, author, singer, dancer and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She is perhaps best known for her well known autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969. The book earned her the National Book Award. Angelou was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2010. You can read more about Maya Angelou and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.