It had been such a fast moving week. Six days ago, Jesus and his disciples had been at dinner with friends. Over the next day or two, he had done some fairly rash things in the Temple – overturning the tables of the money changers, driving out the animals waiting to be sold for sacrifice. That had all happened before the Passover, when, at table, Jesus had made some momentous announcements which the disciples had probably not even begun to comprehend. Events had overtaken them. Judas had gone, and done his worst. Jesus had been arrested. There had been a trial, of sorts, that very night, before the High Priest and the Council. Jesus had not spoken, had offered no defence. On the basis of lies and false evidence, he had been convicted and sent, early the next morning, for a second trial before Pilate, the Roman governor. Again, without proper prosecution or defence, he had been convicted and sent to die. He was on the cross by nine in the morning and dead by three that afternoon. Before nightfall, he was in the tomb and then it was the Sabbath, and everything stopped. No work could be done, no rituals observed. It is a sudden and complete cessation of activity.
Dealing with death is always complex. So many emotions come into play. At the forefront, often, is grief. We feel the loss of the one who has died very acutely. There can be confusion too, sometimes fear or uncertainly, often a kind of numbness which defies description. And there can be other feelings which we are maybe less willing to name. One of them can be relief. There can be relief when we have seen a loved one suffer and know that the suffering is now over. There can be relief that the burden of caregiving has now been lifted, relief that something more like normal life may now resume.
If we know these to be true in our own lives and experience, then it is not unreasonable to suppose them to have been true for the disciples. Clearly, there was enormous grief, made all the more bitter for the shocking and sudden manner of Jesus’ death. But there was probably relief too. The worst had happened. Terrible though it was, at least they had personally survived. It seemed like it was now all over, and normal life could resume, after a fashion.
I like Mark’s Gospel because he is the least theological of the Gospel writers, the one with least by way of a personal agenda. That means that what he writes is the least filtered by considerations of how the reader will interpret what he has written. That means, at least to my mind, that what we have here is the most authentic, least embellished account of Jesus’ life. Nobody is being made to look good, to look heroic. As near as is possible, Mark tells it like it was.
So, on this first day of the week, who is there? Three women. And that’s all. So that tells us who wasn’t. The Romans aren’t. Their job is done. The Chief Priest and the members of the Council aren’t. They are back to normal already. Even Peter, the hero of John’s account of this morning, is not there. Nor are the other ten remaining disciples. Just the three women.
And that’s worth pausing to note. The people in this story are the ones who are used to doing the necessary but unpleasant things in life. It is they who would have looked after the ill, they who would have dealt with the mess and pain and danger of childbirth, they who would have drawn water and tended hearths and cooked and cleaned, they who would have known what to do during and after a death. And though none of these tasks was exactly glamorous, and though many would have involved getting their hands dirty, all were tasks made possible and necessary by love.
So it was with love that these women came to the tomb, to do what they knew was necessary, to complete the loving care of Jesus’ body which had been cut short by the Sabbath. But it went beyond this. Every tending of a body, every funeral ritual is about coming to terms with a death. This death had robbed them of a particular hope. It seemed that, as Jesus died, his promise that God would reign for the benefit of the world died with him. They grieved the loss of a loved one and mourned the loss of hope.
But as they reach the tomb, another emotion surfaces – terror. Finding the tomb open, they are addressed by a young man in a white robe, at whose identity and being we are left to guess. He tells them that Jesus is risen. It is too much for them. Only a fool would suppose that grief could turn instantly to joy. Because of their fragile and conflicted emotional state, the good news of this story escapes those who first heard it. The message the young man gives is that the dream is alive, God is not dead, and that the reign of God begun in Jesus’ ministry continues.
“He is going ahead of you to Galilee.”
Why the terror? There is nothing inherently frightening about an empty tomb, or a body which is not there. The white clad young man does not seem frightening either. Rather, what is alarming is the sudden change in reality. The women cannot make their peace with death, because, although it was real, it is no longer so. Jesus is once again one step ahead and is beckoning his disciples to follow him. They might have approached the tomb relieved that the ultimate price had been paid. Now it seemed that that was no longer so, and that there was more to come. The challenge of costly discipleship was on again. No wonder they were terrified.
True to Mark’s unvarnished telling of this story, the women run away, and say nothing to anyone, so great was their fear. Today, that maybe shows us how we should respond. Today it is enough to know that Jesus is risen. It is not necessary to say more. And though we have sung, “this joyful Eastertide, away with sin and sorrow,” that is not the whole emotional story. For as last week ends and this begins, we are in a maelstrom of emotions. There is joy and gladness, but if our response to Jesus’ resurrection is authentic, there should also be fear, alarm, terror, as there was for Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. For Jesus is risen and he has gone ahead of us and is beckoning us to follow. Follow we must, even though we cannot know or calculate the cost of discipleship.