Two years ago a wrote a meditation about the odd Easter ending in the gospel of Mark.
Why is there fear on Easter Sunday?
The oldest gospel we have, the gospel of Mark, ends in the most curious of ways:
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”The ending is strange. We've come to associate joy with Easter. Christ is risen! And yet, here in Mark the news of the Risen Lord brings not joy, but fear.
But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”
Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
We find a similar reaction to the first proclamation to the gospel. On Pentecost Peter ends his sermon in Jerusalem with this accusation: "Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah." Finding blood on their hands the people call out, not without some alarm: "What shall we do?"
Why is there fear on Easter Sunday?
There is fear on Easter because according to the moral calculus of our world--"an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth"--after the death of Jesus lives are now in the balance. Vengeance is now the order of the day. Having crucified, abandoned or betrayed Jesus there is fear of retribution. The blood of Jesus, having soaked deep into the soil of Jerusalem, is crying out. Just like the blood of Abel crying out against Cain:
Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”Easter is not Good News for the guilty. It is not Good News to find out that your victim is alive. We know what's coming. We've seen the Hollywood movies where the victim comes back from the dead to seek revenge. So if Jesus is alive, if the victim has come back, we had better hide in fear. Judgment day is coming.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground."
That is how we expect the story to go. As did, it seems, those who first encountered or heard about the resurrection. And we can understand why they jumped to this conclusion. Every story we know works this way. The victim comes back, kills the bad guys and the moral calculus of the Cosmos is balanced again. This is the Hollywood Ending. And we thrill to the violence of the victim. This is justified violence. So we cheer for it. The victim has been wronged so everything the victim does to get even (and those words are telling) is right, good, and justified. In short, everything in human psychology and human moral history--and even the Bible to this point--suggests that Easter shouldn't be Good News for the perpetrators, the ones who betrayed, fled, stood at a distance, washed their hands, or called out for his death. All these, and you and I, are going to face the victim on judgment day. And that isn't going to go well for us. We have blood on our hands.
And yet, in a way we cannot comprehend, which is why we call it grace, this story ends up going in a very different, unprecedented direction. The blood of Jesus doesn't cry out for vengeance. The blood of Jesus is different from the blood of Abel, the archetype of all victims.
In the words of Hebrews 12 the blood of Jesus "speaks a better word than the blood of Abel."
What is this better word? It is this. Where Abel's blood cries "Vengeance!," the blood of Jesus cries "Peace!" Where Abel's blood cries "Guilty!," the blood of Jesus cries "Forgiveness!"
This is not the Judgment Day we were expecting. The victim returns to us and shows us the wounds we inflicted, yet brings to us no hate, blood lust, condemnation, or revenge. Only love, forgiveness, grace, and peace.
The joy of Easter, it seems, requires a first wave of fear. It is a joy of relief. A joy of finding ourselves inexplicably forgiven. And in accepting this forgiveness we step into this new story, this new way of living that is so very, very different from the rounds of victimage and vengeance found in the world. The way of living by the sword and dying by the sword. Swords that are physical, economic, social, verbal and psychological--there are so many ways we have of wounding each other. There are many kinds of swords to live by and die by.
But by stepping into Jesus' story, his way of life, we set those weapons aside. We have a new story. A new way to live. Receiving forgiveness from our victim we learn to forgive each other, shutting down the cycles of violence and hate. The hate stops here, with us. Or more precisely, it stops with Jesus, the primal victim who returned on Easter to start a new story, to inaugurate a New Heaven and a New Earth. And as we forgive others, Jesus says, so will we be forgiven. As Rowan Williams has written about the Easter narratives in the bible:
The preaching of the resurrection, as we have seen, is not addressed to an abstract audience: the victim involved is the victim of the hearers. We are, insistently and relentlessly, in Jerusalem, confronted therefore with a victim who is our victim. When we make victims, when we embark on condemnation, exclusion, violence, the diminution or oppression of anyone, when we set ourselves up as judges, we are exposed to judgment (as Jesus himself asserts in Matt. 7:1-2), and we turn away from salvation. To hear the good news of salvation, to be converted, is to turn back to the condemned and rejected, acknowledging that there is hope nowhere else.Easter isn't just the shock of being forgiven by our victim. Easter is about living under the blood of Jesus rather than the blood of Abel. Easter is about learning to speak those better words--peace, forgiveness, grace, mercy and love--in a world trapped in reciprocal bouts of violence, from the petty to the genocidal. We learn to forgive as we have been forgiven. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors...We are Christ's ambassadors, speaking his better words.
Today is Easter Sunday. Today Christians proclaim that our victim has come back from the dead and is now looking for us. It's news that makes us want to hide in fear or cry out, like they did at Pentecost, "What shall we do!?"
By any human reckoning Easter shouldn't be Good News.
But it is.
Praise be to God.