Wow! I could just stand here and look at you all morning. It is so wonderful to see your faces, or at least your eyes. It is so wonderful to hear more than one or two voices joining together to say the prayers, the psalms, the responses. It is so wonderful not to be speaking to an empty room.
When we were last here, on March 15, 2020, we were sure we would be back for Easter. And here we are. It’s a year later than we had hoped, but at least some of us are here, and many more are with us online. I can think of no better Easter celebration.
We may be celebrating today, but those first moments of the first Easter so many years ago was not a time of celebration.
It was still dark when they set out. Three women, draped in grief, walking quietly, somberly, sadly to the tomb of their friend and teacher, to the tomb in which Jesus’ body had been laid.
The last three days have been the most difficult of their lives. They were disbelieving when they heard the news that Jesus had been arrested, had watched in despair as he hung dying on the cross, had quietly followed Joseph of Arimathea as he took Jesus’ lifeless body and laid in in a tomb.
There had been nothing they could do to stop his death. But at least now they can give his body a proper burial. They carry with them spices and oils with which to anoint him, to give him in death the dignity and respect he was denied by those who killed him.
As the sky lightens and they draw near the cave where Jesus’ body had been laid, they wonder how they will be able to get into it. They had watched on Friday as men rolled a large, heavy stone against the tomb’s door.
“Who will roll away the stone for us?” they wondered.
When they arrive the stone had already been rolled back.
Who did that? Cautiously they creep into the tomb and cry out in fear when a young man greets them.
“Don’t be alarmed,” the man says. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.
“But go, tell his disciples that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
Upon hearing this incredible news, Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome turn around and flee “for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
And that is how the Easter story in Mark’s gospel originally ends. Not with joy and alleluias, not with shouts of victory, but with terror and fear.
It seems an abrupt and unsettling ending. Apparently early church leaders thought so, too, because within a few years after Mark’s gospel was written, an additional ending was tacked on with reports of the resurrected Jesus.
But Mark’s original ending makes perfect sense to me. The women came to the tomb that morning not looking for hope, but to perform the rituals of death in their grief. Now even that small comfort has been denied them.
Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome see in the empty tomb not victory, but more loss.
Eventually the women must have overcome their fear and done as the angel instructed them — proclaimed the startling news that Jesus has been raised from the dead. If they had not done so, we would not be here this morning.
Eventually their fear and despair must have given was to amazement and joy.
But this morning, Mark leave us with the women as they flee in fear. He leaves us with the story unfinished.
It seems appropriate that this is the gospel story we hear on this second Easter of Coronatide, as we begin to emerge from what New Testament professor Esau McCaulley calls “the tomb of our quarantine.”
“The terrifying prospect of Easter is that God called the women to return to the same world that crucified Jesus with a very dangerous gift: hope in the power of God, the unending reservoir of forgiveness, and an abundance of love. It would make them seem like fools. Who could believe such a thing?
“Christians, at their best, are the fools who believe in God’s power to call dead things to life,” McCaulley writes. “The testimony of the Church is that in times of deep crisis we somehow become more than our collective ability. We become a source of hope that did not originate in ourselves.”
As we cautiously begin to emerge from our homes, we also may be feeling amazement and fear. Amazement at the vaccine that seems like a miracle; fear that the virus is still with us and questions about what is safe.
There is celebration and rejoicing, too, of course. But as McCaulley notes “we are also returning to a world of hatred, cruelty, division, and a thirst for power that was never quarantined.
“As we leave the tombs of quarantine, a return to normal would be a disaster unless we recognize that we are going back to a world desperately in need of healing.”
For Christians the source of that healing “is an empty tomb in Jerusalem. The work that Jesus left his followers to do includes showing compassion and forgiveness and contending for a just society.”
That work can seem overwhelming. But we are not doing it alone.
“Jesus is going ahead of you,” the angel in the tomb tells the women. “You will see him.”
The angel’s words to the women are also directed to us.
Jesus goes before us, always beckoning us forward, calling us to new life, calling us to join him in creating a new world, to leave behind our fear and despair, and to rejoice.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!