Easter: Opening to the Complexity

On Easter, many churches fill to capacity. Women pin flowers to lapels, men wear suits, and small children don new outfits in bright colors. The whole congregation teems with excitement, joy, and expectation. There are Easter eggs hidden on the church grounds and potluck dishes are warming in parish hall ovens.

Few services in the Christian tradition clash so violently with what really happened in our sacred texts. The resurrection does not begin with triumph, hope, or shouts of joy. Instead, the resurrection begins with fear, disbelief, and troubling silence.

Early Sunday morning, a small group of women arrive at the tomb of Jesus, and find the tomb empty, a man dressed in white bearing a cryptic message that Jesus had been raised. Their response isn't to clap their hands and weep with joy. Nor is their response to cry out, "Alleluia, Christ is risen indeed!" 

Rather, they run like hell in fear and don't dare breathe a word of the resurrection, so terrified were they. In the gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four records of Jesus' life, the story ends there, disarming in its abruptness, troubling in its lack of closure. Even when later gospel writers fill out the story with more satisfactory embellishments, the disciples' response is almost always fear and disbelief. For example, in the gospel of Luke, the disciples refuse to believe the women's report of resurrection, calling it nonsense, and Peter so distrusts them that he races to the tomb himself. 

I often remark to my friends that my favorite resurrection story is the one in Mark, partly because it the best storytelling of the four. It refuses to tie up loose ends and leaves the idea of resurrection ephemeral, filled with conflicting, tragic emotions. And to me it goads readers to look for the resurrection, not on the page, but in the world around, for evidence that indeed Jesus lives and that the Reign of God is here. In effect, in Mark, the resurrection is dethroned from its place of centrality within Christian faith. In Mark, Jesus' life, not his death and resurrection, is the source of inspiration. While the way Jesus lived certainly led to his death and resurrection, it is not necessarily the primary point. 

Yet, Easter remains critical to Christians, historically and theologically. In their book, The Last Week, scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan suggest that without Easter—the resurrection of Jesus—there would be no Christianity. Without Easter, Jesus would not have been known as the Christ and he would not have been worth remembering. Instead, he would have been just another prophet, one more zealous subversive that died unceremoniously at the hands of Rome. 

And, to me, this is the great tragedy of Easter: that the three years of Jesus' public life, his profound teachings and subversive social work would not have been enough on their own—and still are not enough—to keep his followers faithful. In this formula of faith, it can be difficult to remember that Jesus didn't live in order to die on Good Friday and be resurrected on Easter Sunday. Rather Jesus died and was resurrected because of the way he lived on every other nameless day of his life. Somehow, in the course of 2,000 years, many Christians have gotten this backward, focusing on the final three days of Jesus' life at the expense of the three years of Jesus' public work.