One of my rituals on the Saturday before Easter is to go and get the rose petals we use for our early service at the Stone Arch Bridge. Red, pink, white, orangy-yellow… they smell deliciously sweet against the spring mud, the ice-cold water, the tender tree buds. We raise our hands above the railings of the bridge and those colorful petals flutter out of our palms. They plunge to the river below and dance with the currents—bright, joyous splashes against the dark, murky, shiny, mystery of the river. Easter is proclaimed in the chill of morning, whether it is a chill that promises warmth or one that warns of stinging wind and rain in sheets.
A few years ago, in the fall, I flew across the Stone Arch Bridge on my bike. On the damp, leaf-covered curve of the sidewalk at the foot of the bridge, my bike tires slipped out from under me and I crashed. Stunned, I lay on the ground for several seconds. I got shakily to my feet and told the onlookers out of a hazy shock, “Yes, I’m okay, yes I am headed just a few blocks from here, I’ll be fine.” But the truth was, I was not fine. My clothes were ripped. I was covered from head to toe with bloody road rash and one spectacular bruise on my hip that grew to the size of a basketball over the next several hours. The bruise has since healed into a funny looking angular protrusion that will be with me for the rest of my life.
I feel a visceral wave of fear, a sense of walking over my own grave, when I visit the scene of the accident. And yet, as I stand on that same stretch of sidewalk, contemplating the river, the trees, the city and its people, remembering our Easter morning ritual of rose petals scattered and Alleluias raised, I also feel more alive than ever. The experience of resurrection, in Mark’s Gospel, is kind of like this. For the women on that first Easter morning, the stone rolled away, the tomb standing empty, the promise that Jesus was alive didn’t bring joy, at least at first. When they discovered the possibility of life in the place where they expected to find death the only sane thing they could think of to do was to run like hell away from there! This experience filled them with such terror and amazement that they could find no words to describe it.
The whole of Mark’s Gospel ends with these words: “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” In the Greek, this sentence is constructed quite awkwardly. It reads more like ”To no one anything they said; afraid they were, for…” Scribes through the centuries have tried to smooth over this dangling moment. You might notice in your Bible that there are a couple of different “longer” and “shorter” endings to Mark added in brackets. But scholars have concluded that verse 8 is the real ending of Mark; the conclusion the Gospel writer intended.
I love Mark’s ending because it’s honest. There are no words, really, when a resurrection occurs, when something happens to change you or me so profoundly that it we must begin to live in a whole new way. A baby is born; a sudden accident occurs, a marriage of many years ends; a child learns to read, a young adult leaves home; an addiction no longer rules a loved one’s life, a mental or physical illness is diagnosed, an opportunity arises to take on a new job or return to school. Resurrection life—new life that comes out of a death—is, more often than not, completely terrifying, even when it also brings joy.
In Mark’s Gospel, the resurrected Jesus is elusive. It is not Jesus’ presence, but his absence, that Mark points to as the good news, the sign of hope, the promise of new life. The angel, or whoever that guy in a white robe is, declares to the women: “He is not here; he has been raised. Look, there is the place they laid him.” There is no wounded and decaying body to anoint. There is no teacher in the garden waiting to call them by name. There is no encounter with that mysterious stranger they learn to recognize again on the road, at the table, or in the boat. There is no touching the wounds of Jesus, no hearing his voice. There is only an empty tomb that points mysteriously beyond itself. In the words of the poet, R. S. Thomas:
I have nothing to hold on to,
an absence so much richer
than a presence, offering
instead of the skull’s
leer an impaled possibility
for faith’s fingertips to explore.
There are no words, for Mark, that can capture the essence of who Jesus is, resurrected, and what an encounter with the risen one will be like. There is only the promise that he is alive and that we will meet him again. That, as Marilynne Robinson puts it, “Memory will fulfill itself and become flesh.”
“But go and tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Galilee, for those first disciples, was home. It was the place where they grew up, but also the place where they turned from their families, their occupations, their lives as they knew them to follow Jesus. In Galilee, the disciples witnessed people changed when they encountered Jesus, and his ministry of healing, feeding, blessing, teaching, and serving. They came to believe he could change the whole world. But they could only imagine that transformation happening through violent rebellion against the oppression of the Roman government. They could not see how Jesus’ death on the cross, the empire’s instrument of torture, used to silence its critics, could possibly be anything but the end of their movement for change.
In an opinion piece for the Boston Globe, religion and culture reporter Brandon Ambrosino writes:
“What’s radical about Easter…is not that Christians claim a dead man rose from the dead. What’s radical is what that means—specifically, what it meant for Rome, and, by implication, what it means for all kingdoms everywhere, including the ones we live in. Jesus’ resurrection marked the end of Caesar’s way of doing things. It established a new kingdom in which enemies are loved, the marginalized are given primacy of place, and the poor are blessed. In this kingdom, hierarchies are subverted, concentrated power is decentralized, and prodigal children are welcomed home. Black lives matter here, as do queer lives and the lives of undocumented aliens within our borders—‘Remember the stranger in your midst’ is a common refrain in this kingdom.”
Mark proclaims the resurrection through Jesus’ absence, rather than his presence. He ends the story of the Jesus movement with the women’s flight, and a sentence that truly leaves us hanging. “To no one anything they said; afraid they were, for.” I wonder if Mark writes his ending in this way because he hopes we will be able to see, a bit more clearly than those first disciples, that this story is as much about us as it is about Jesus. Perhaps he is beckoning us to strike out beyond the singular, historical problem of what happened to Jesus’ body. Maybe he is saying that we, too, are participants in the new life made possible in Jesus. We, too, are also Christ’s body, and it is up to us to finish the unfinished narrative of his resurrection life. Resurrection happens not just to Jesus, but to the community shaped by his spirit, formed by his way of being in the world. Jesus is alive in us—and there are no words to adequately express the terror and amazement of living toward that truth.