Last year, we had such big plans for Easter.
Lockdown was new, and although it was challenging in every way, we thought it would be short-lived, and so our plan was to hold just a nice, hopeful service online for “Easter proper.”
Then we thought we would go all out for that first Sunday back.
The church would be full.
The spirit of resurrection would need no explanation.
Our singing would raise the roof.
It was going to be “Second Easter” or “Resurrection Sunday” – we hadn’t settled on the name just yet.
I told Alexander to start looking for a contralto or at least a couple of coloratura sopranos in blingy gowns, like opening night at the Met. (He talked me down from that.)
Of course, none of that happened.
Now it’s a year later, and we’re still not quite there, although this morning is a very good start.
But safe to say, if you’d told us just how much was going to happen in the coming year, we would have been amazed.
In so many ways, everything to come was almost unthinkable.
Each Gospel offers its own account of what happened on the first Easter.
They differ slightly, just as the stories of Christmas do, and when it comes to Easter, we tend to blend the different versions into a composite, much as we do for Christmas.
Mark’s version is the shortest and the most unsettled.
It describes Easter as an encounter between Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, who go to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus, only to discover when they arrive that the stone has been rolled back, the body is gone, and the only one there is a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side, who tells them to tell Peter and the others that Jesus has gone ahead to Galilee and will see them there.
The other Gospels linger over the dawning recognition of the resurrection.
You may remember how in John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene sees the empty tomb and starts talking to someone she believes to be the gardener, only to realize that she is encountering the risen Christ.
It is a story of joyful reunion.
That’s not how Mark describes Easter.
What he describes is the “oh no!” moment without any subsequent “a ha!”
When the young man dressed in white speaks to the women, Mark says that “fear and amazement seized them” (16:8) and the women run for it.
That’s his story.
Mark’s word for “amazed” is the Greek word “ekstasis,” which is where we get words like “ecstasy” and “ecstatic,” but Mark is using it a little differently.
For Mark, what the women are feeling is not joyful or even transcendent.
It’s certainly not ecstasy.
It’s something more akin to that moment just before an accident – that moment when you see the car that’s running the red light or the coffee cup on the desk falling onto the keyboard.
It’s one of those moments when everything suddenly seems as if it’s in slow-motion.
You know what that’s like?
…You’re trying to stop something from happening but you can’t move fast enough…can’t call out a warning…can’t form the words properly…almost as if you’re under water, although you know that you are not.
The minute the women walk into that garden and see that stone rolled back and the tomb open, they’re in that sort of state.
That’s what their “amazement” is like.
Maybe they don’t respond to the young man dressed in white because they never really hear his words at all.
They’re under the waves of the moment.
We know moments like that, don’t we?
A friend of mine never goes to the doctor without a wingman because he knows that if there is anything he needs to hear, he won’t be able to hear it. If there’s a question to be asked, he won’t ask it.
We know what it’s like to be under the waves, sure enough.
But we don’t associate that with Easter.
Easter is all about good news.
So if you’re Mark, why tell the story that way – especially this story?
Why offer an “oh no!” without an “a ha”?
We can’t say for sure.
However, I wonder if the “a ha” that interests him isn’t theirs, but ours.
Mark also tells us that the women run away and don’t tell a soul what they have seen, which is something that makes sense for the purpose of the story’s dramatic effect, but which can’t be true, strictly speaking.
If it were true, we’d never have the story in the first place.
We’d never know about the resurrection.
So let’s remember that Mark is telling the story in a certain kind of way, and that there are things he chooses to tell us and others he chooses not to tell us.
When it comes to the resurrection, what he chooses to do is to draw the curtain just here, in this moment of amazement, stopping somewhere short of the ultimate realization.
For Mark, Easter isn’t a set of facts to be memorized so much as an experience to be understood.
It’s a truth they encounter.
It is a truth for us to encounter.
And the point of that isn’t to make Easter more remote, but to bring it closer.
Because Mark is saying that in life’s most bewildering moments, the risen Christ is present, just waiting to be revealed.
When tragedy strikes, when emptiness looms, when exhaustion seeps in, when duplicity snaps the trap, the risen Christ is present, just waiting to be revealed.
Mark is serious about the challenge of life at its hardest, reminding us not just what it looks or sounds like, but how it feels, because he is so sure that the grace of God, the power of God’s transforming love, is right with us in those moments.
The only other time in his Gospel when uses the Greek word ekstasis, amazement, is near the beginning, when he describes how Jesus heals of a little girl who has been sick.
Mark tells us that getting to her takes a while. The crowds keep stopping Jesus with their own needs, their own struggles.
He’s trying to get somewhere, but there they are, pressing in, even grabbing at his clothes as he passes by.
The Bible even says that he can feel some of the power flowing out of him.
This slows him down, and the trip takes long enough that the girl dies before Jesus can get to her.
He goes anyway.
He arrives to another crowd waiting and wailing outside the house.
He tells them to take a step back and goes right into the house of misery.
“Why do you make a tumult and weep?” Jesus asks those closest to her. “The child is not dead but sleeping.”
I’ve always wondered if the tumult he mentions is referring more to the people outside than the parents inside.
I’ve always pictured them as more numb than anything else.
Lost in their grief, when Jesus arrives, the little girl’s parents probably don’t hear a word he’s saying.
Talk to her? Fine. Sit with her? Fine. Pray by the bed? Sure, if you want.
For the little girl’s parents, it’s all so unreal.
Jesus calls to the girl and says, “Little girl, I say to you, arise,” and Mark reports that: “immediately, the girl got up and walked. And immediately, they were overcome with amazement” (Mark 5:39-43).
She’s standing there. Restored to life. No tomb for her today.
Mark reports that they are “amazed” – that word he will come back to later when the women encounter the empty tomb.
Amazed? I’m sure they were. Switching gears from devastation to jubilation takes a minute.
From the numbness of grief to being in the presence of a power beyond all hope.
If you’d been there…if someone had asked you what just happened, what would you have said?
For Mark, what the story shows so clearly is that the transforming, healing love of God in Jesus Christ is with us in the darkness, right there next to us, even in the house of misery.
In the deepest of our losses, the love of God is making a way forward, moving toward a new beginning, a new chapter, a renewed Creation, even in the face of death itself.
This is who God is.
This is what God does.
Mark’s Easter is a story about what happened to the women: what they encountered, and how they responded.
But it’s just as much a story about what we see—what we come to know—and how we will seek to respond.
It’s about the risen Christ who is still present, and it’s about the work and witness of the community that still gathers to seek and to do His will.
Their testimony is also ours.
Where is the presence of a resurrected, resurrecting God at work in our lives?
Isn’t that where we most clearly see the power of a God whom even death could not contain?
Like the women at the empty tomb, we know what it is to be bewildered with fear—to see everything happening in slow-motion…to feel a sense of powerlessness in every muscle.
We know how it feels when instinct kicks in, and it seems unthinkable to imagine a deeper purpose at work, or a deeper truth that abides.
But if a tomb could not contain Jesus, then neither can our hesitations and confusions.
Our dependencies and delusions and our wounds are no match for him.
That deeper purpose is at work in us and in the world.
And in those moments when we hear his voice, we find within ourselves the power not to give in to the powers that would diminish us.
In him, we begin to see how things might be and find the strength to reach for it.
Because the meaning of Easter is that, in Christ, fear has been dethroned.
Hatred has been dethroned.
Violence and selfishness and ignorance and death have been dethroned.
They don’t have the final word.
God’s word is the final word, and the story of God’s love is from everlasting to everlasting.
Wherever people look down into an empty tomb and lift their eyes in hope, a new day dawns, and Easter comes again.
May it be so for us today, and every day.