Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC
Easter Vigil - Sunday, April 2012
Somewhere in my adolescence I got my hands on a book called “A Harmony of the Gospels.” It told the story of Jesus by drawing from the four Gospels and made it into one continuous flowing story with all the best parts kept and all the repetitious or embarrassing parts removed. I quite liked it. It made the story of Jesus move smoothly and rationally from beginning to middle to end, from conception to ascension in one satisfying narrative arc.
The only problem, as I later came to understand, is that when it comes to Jesus, there is no one smooth narrative arc. There is rather a number of sources, each with its own perspective, its own audience, its own emphases and metaphors, its own “take” on that sacrament of God that is Jesus Christ. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the stories surrounding the Easter event that we celebrate today. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and other New Testament authors all have slightly—or not so slightly—different stories to tell as they try to communicate the central proclamation: that the teacher Jesus who had died a dreadful, shameful death and was hurriedly buried was no longer in the grave, that he had been raised, that he was on the move and that his friends were now reporting transformative “encounters” with him...encounters that were at once intimate and mysterious and that went on for we know not how long...perhaps for years if we accept that Paul's reported encounter with the risen Jesus is on the same level as those of the original disciples.
The account we heard this morning from the Gospel according to Mark is perhaps the strangest and most baffling of all these Easter stories. It starts off well enough: the women who saw where Jesus had been buried go to the tomb early Sunday morning to perform the traditional burial rites delayed by Sabbath and festival. They are surprised to find the grave open. They enter and find a young man dressed in white sitting there who tells them that Jesus has been raised, that he is not there, that he is going before them to meet them in Galilee. Please tell his apostles. And then it ends with these enigmatic words:
So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.
That's it. That's where the most ancient manuscripts of this Gospel end, a fact so troubling that by the second century another ending was added and yet another by the fourth. Surely Mark must have intended to add stories of encounters with the risen Jesus. Perhaps the original ending was lost. We'll probably never know.
Obviously, however, the word did get out. Sooner or later the women talk, else we would not have what we do have in Mark's Gospel. But the first reaction of these faithful, frightened followers and friends of Jesus has much to teach us.
These women react in a way that is, at least for me, at least at first blush, entirely credible. Their reaction is one of anxiety, of confusion, of chaos, of terror unallayed by the young man's words: “Don't be alarmed.” It is, in short, a reaction to trauma...trauma in the face of an event so overwhelming, so outside of normal expectations, that the initial response has to be one of muteness and flight. Their response was and remains perhaps the most authentic response to the traumatic rupturing that is the resurrection of Jesus—the total, sudden reversal of all things: of our customary way of thinking about God and about ourselves, about history and its meaning, about the demands of a new and unimagined holiness and all that this implies for the living out of our lives. Could it be that at some level these women recognized this? And if so, is it any wonder that they fled in terror and amazement? The real wonder is that they ever spoke at all.
We are still trying, two thousand years later, to grasp and live into this central traumatic event of our faith, an event that is simultaneously within the bounds of time and space and yet totally transcends them, the event that has changed everything, this event we call the Resurrection.
The Bible I use in my cell has this little footnote:
Mark's Gospel is open-ended and must be completed by the hearers and readers of the Gospel.
Too true. The story is unfinished, incomplete, open-ended. Christ indeed is risen. But we his Body, the Church, the People of God, are still in process. And the two stories are one, eternally intertwined. An ancient homily for Holy Saturday imagines the so-called descent into hell, with Christ raising Adam from the underworld and saying: “Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.”
That is the deep truth of our baptism, as Paul tells us in his Letter to the Romans just read, a reality we have ritually and verbally reaffirmed this morning. Dying with Christ in baptism, we also rise with him. We have been grafted into him. We are now one with him, one undivided person. And therefore one with each other.
And the work of completion goes on year after year, a work that will not be finished until all the baptized have been raised with Christ and all creation has been transformed in him. It is a work that will continue until the end of time, when Christ returns to gather it all up and present it to the Father, and when, at last, God will be all in all.
Like the women on that first Easter, who of us would not react to such traumatic news with “terror and amazement”?
The Guatemalan poet Julia Esquivel puts it well:
What keeps us from sleepingis thatthey have threatened us with resurrection.Accompany us, then,on this vigiland you will knowhow marvelous it isto livethreatened by resurrection.
Threatened by resurrection! How marvelous! May we live this threat daily. May we come to know its terror and its promise: Fullness of life. Authentic life. Eternal life. Life together. Life with God. Life in God.
Alleluia, Christ is risen. Don’t be too alarmed.