A reflection on the readings for Easter Day: Isaiah 25:1-10; Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1; Mark 16:1-8 - by Janine Goodwin.
When the blog schedule came out and I saw my name by Easter, my first impulse was to ask to be switched to a different Sunday. Since I don't have a congregation, I was hoping to ignore Easter: the thought of it was painful. In the last few months, I have had to deal with the death of people I love. I was very angry with the people who told me everything would be all right when anything I'd recognize as “all right” was no longer possible, and even angrier with the ones who told me that “every thing happens for a reason” or that “God is in control,” despite the fact that many things can't be seen as good without making God seem to be cruel or incompetent by any standard that makes sense. My first thought about Easter was “Christ is risen. So what?” After a day or five, I remembered that what we want to ignore is very often what we most need to face, and took on the challenge of facing Easter with grief and anger. It helped a little to remember that God meets us where we are, not where we think we ought to be.
As I started studying the account of the resurrection in Mark, I began to realize how much my past responses to Easter had been shaped by fairy tales and movies. It was embarrassing to discover that I had, on some level, been thinking of the Resurrection as a version of the standard-issue happy ending, inwhich the heroine or hero or deus ex machina is able to use time travel or magic to restore the dead to life, undo the damage the bad people have done and conquer them decisively, get everyone out of danger, and make everyone live happily ever after in a world that is better than before. Sometimes they even explain the whole crisis and why it took them so long to work things out. Everything is tidy and everything fits.
No wonder I was furious. My expectations were all wrong. It was a relief to discover that Easter is not like any of those stories. It is far more strange and far more real.
The resurrection doesn't fix anything.Jesus doesn't come back to the life he had: he has gone on into new life. In Mark's gospel, he doesn't even show up except in an ending that was appended later, which does not appear in today's reading. In the gospel of John, his risen body is clearly different from ours,but still bears the marks of his execution; he is not an invulnerable superhero. The people who colluded to have him killed are just as much in power, and will not be defeated or changed. The disciples are in just as much danger as they were before: when they talk about what they have seen, their danger will increase. Happily ever after is nowhere in sight, and all we know about life after death is that Jesus didn't rise from the dead to to tell us all about life after death, but to insist that we keep listening to him about how to livein this world. The angel says only, “Don't be afraid. He is not here. Go tell the others, and go where he said he'd meet you.”There is no command to be happy ever after. There is no explanation of the way in which the contradictory truths of ultimate goodness and present pain fit together. There is change beyond our dreams and beyond our understanding, and we will never see the end of it; we will be finding out the meanings for all the time there is.
The very lack of consolation in Mark'saccount is a help to those who grieve. Everything the angel says is something a person in deep grief can hear without fury. It is direct and simple. It was an immense relief to me to notice that angels open conversations with “Fear not,” but never with, “Cheer up!” No one is required to act happy or to try to understand everything: all they have to do is act on what they know, whatever their emotions may be. The women are trembling and astonished after their encounter with the angel, and they say nothing because, despite the angel's words,they are still afraid. Everyone's initial reaction to the resurrection, in all the gospels, is one of confusion, with disbelief and fear close at hand. Joy and certainty come later. Safety never happens at all. As always, the reign of God refuses to show up on our schedule and be what we expected. We are called to see what is real and to listen, we are told to get moving, and Jesus is going to meet us: that has to be enough.
The most expansive visions of God's reign in one generation are found to be limited or perplexing by another. Isaiah makes a wonderful, prophetic song about a great feast, the end of injustice, the end of death and sorrow, the unityof all people, and a few sentences later the poetry is rudely interrupted (at least for people like me) by his insistence that the Moabites will be trodden down like straw in a dung-pit. I suspect the prophet's limitations got in the way there. I don't want a feast unless the Moabites are there too, but I can't be smug toward Isaiah,since I have just caught myself imagining a God who would give us a happy ending instead of a fundamental change.
Seeing all this has been healing in away that does not take grief away. I had been afraid there would be nothing left of Easter if I couldn't bear trumpets and lilies and rejoicing. Trumpets and lilies and rejoicing are good things. They are about Easter, but Easter is not about them. Easter is not a time when we are required to be happy because everything is fixed and figured out. It is a time when even the most wounded of us can assert that Jesus is not in the tomb even as we face that our loved ones will not come back. Jesus has transcended death. We don't know all of what that means; we don't have to. We can be trembling and astonished, but fear is not the point. We can still meet Jesus and be with him without trying to be stronger or happier or wiser than we are. We can be afraid, confused, and grieving, even as we believe that the Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.