This sermon is part of the Patheos 2021 Easter season sermon series. See all sermons in the series here.
The Rev. Elizabeth G. Maxwell is Rector of the Church of the Ascension in New York City.
Mark 16: 1-8
“The women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
Is that it?
Mark’s gospel ends here. There is no encounter with the risen Jesus, no joyful witness from the women sent to tell, no transformation, catharsis or clarity. Just fear, awe…. and silence.
Christians have been struggling with discomfort about this from early times. There are two alternate endings to Mark, both of which scholars agree were written later than the original gospel. It seems there has always been a need to fill the space left by the evangelist.
Commentators debate why the gospel ends this way. Was the ending lost? Was Mark, ever breathless as he moves from one thing to the next, interrupted at the climax of the story? Or is the unfinished quality of the ending intentional, meant to make us wonder? Mark wrote to Christians who had seen the Temple in Jerusalem destroyed and the city burned. Perhaps he saw a parallel between the frightened silence of the women and the devastating losses experienced by his own persecuted, ravaged community.
Regardless of Mark’s intention or the explanations of the commentators, this ending moves me. This year, in particular, it feels deeply right to hang out with these three faithful, fearful women on Easter morning.
Who are they?
Mark names them: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Always in the gospels it is women who are the first witnesses at Jesus’ tomb. Women, who do the messy, unglamorous work of tending bodies at birth and death and in between. But none of the 4 evangelists mentions all the same women.
Mary Magdalene is in all the accounts of that resurrection morning. Mary the mother of James appears elsewhere too. She is also called the “mother of Joses”, or both children at once. Salome is only in Mark’s version, but all the writers speak of “other women who were with them”. Mark tells us that these three had followed Jesus for a long time, provided for his ministry in Galilee, and come up with him to Jerusalem. They watched his crucifixion, helpless, coming as close as they dared, when the male disciples had all fled. The two Maries saw Jesus’ body taken down, given to Joseph of Arimathea and laid in a rock-hewn tomb. That’s how they knew where to go that morning.
They come to the tomb bearing spices to anoint Jesus’ body, grief’s precious rituals for their beloved teacher and friend. They come, loyal and brave despite what must have been sickening fear, given the way Jesus died and the tension in the city.
But- they remember the stone that seals the tomb. The text emphasizes its heft: it is megas- huge. What do they think they are going to do once they get there?
I was talking with a friend about this who said that sometimes she is gripped by a conviction that she has to do something, and just goes. On the way, she may suddenly realize- oh no, there are logistics I haven’t thought through!
So it is; the women are saying to each other,”Who will roll away the stone?” Perhaps if they can’t get in to anoint Jesus, it will help to be close to where his body lies, to weep there.
But when they arrive, of course, the stone is rolled away. Things are not as expected. What they could not do has been done for them. There is no explanation, only puzzlement.
They go inside. The tomb is large enough for all three of them to stand and look around. There seems to be light to see, perhaps through the now open doorway. It is empty. There is no sign of Jesus’ body.
But the women realize that they are not alone. A young man in white sits on the right. They are alarmed, and he, like all messengers of the divine, tells them not to be afraid. Then he delivers this astonishing message.
“You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. (See, this is where they laid him.). But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him….”
Galilee is a familiar place for Jesus and his followers. They came from there. It’s where his ministry started. It’s also a backwater place, far from the centers of power, a place of need, marginal, often considered less than. Of no importance, value or promise.
The women ask no questions. They run from the tomb as fast as they can. I imagine them panting, stumbling in their haste- “seized with terror and amazement.” Preacher Barbara Lundblad says a better translation would be “trauma and ecstasy”- both of which indicate profound disorientation.
What causes the trauma, the terror? For a start, the brutal torture and death of Jesus. Helplessly watching the agonizing, cruel, public execution- not of a stranger, but of a beloved, over many hours- has shattered these women. It has also shattered their hope- born of hearing Jesus teach, sharing meals, seeing him heal, supporting his work- that truly in his ministry God’s kin-dom, a new community of justice, mercy and love, was being born.
Such trauma changes you forever, undoes what you thought you knew and the foundation on which you thought to stand. You may heal, but like Humpty Dumpty you will never be put back together again as you were before.
Now with this strange message, even the painful, tentative settledness of grief is shaken. What if??? What if Jesus is raised, God is not finished, and dead ends are doorways? What if they let their joy and hope and love be kindled afresh? What might that kindling cost them? Ecstasy- literally, being thrown out of place, out of all that is settled, secure and intelligible- seizes them.
The women’s world is shattered- and with it, knowing, meaning, and coherence. How could telling be possible?
Speech happens eventually. But before we go there, let’s return for a moment to two images of the story.
First, the stone. Can you picture it? It’s huge, immovable. But when the women come, it has been moved. It’s not in its place. It no longer creates an impassible barrier.
Mark offers no explanation for the displacement of the stone. (In Matthew, a great earthquake shifts it, and an angel who appears like lightening sits on top of it.) But even without the dramatic affects, we- and the women- understand. God has done this. What they could not do, God has accomplished. God has made a way out of no way.
The faithful women came to the tomb, carrying their burial spices, not knowing how, or if, they could move the barrier to anointing their Beloved’s body. Not knowing, nonetheless they did what they could. They remind me of Mark’s story of another woman, who just a few days previously burst into a dinner party carrying a costly alabaster jar, broke it, and poured pure nard over Jesus’ head. To those who complained about the waste (and perhaps the sensuality) of her act, Jesus says “she has done what she could; she has anointed my body for burial”. Ironically, since we do not know her name, he goes on to say, “wherever the good news is proclaimed in all the world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Perhaps one of these sisters is this nameless woman.
What does it mean to do what you can? Faithfully to bring your love, your gift, your loyalty, your grief until you reach a dead end? What are the barriers that seem impassible in your life? Do they have to do with a weary, heavy heart? With the trauma of the year past, and losses upon losses? With the healing of mistrust? With forgiveness? With the persistent, bitter legacy of racism and white supremacy? With the relentless impact of exploitation and the unfolding climate catastrophe? With your longing for justice and Beloved Community? Could God to make a way out of no way? Could the stone be rolled away?
Beyond the new opening there is the tomb of Jesus- a stark space of radical ending. Granted access, the women think only to offer their last acts of mourning love before facing the emptiness of their lives without him. But things are not as they expect. The tomb is empty. The place of radical ending has become a place of radical potential. There are so many images echoing here in the spacious emptiness: the deep, formless void from which creation emerges. The womb that shelters and nourishes new life. The cocoon in which transformation happens, as a caterpillar literally dissolves and re-forms as a beautiful being with wings. The baptismal font- round and open- where we come to die and rise with Jesus.
The empty tomb opens, through the stone doorway, into the wide world. The foundational Exodus story celebrated by our Jewish siblings in this Passover season, which the women would have marked with Jesus just two nights before, tells of moving forth from a mitzrayim, a narrow place- of bondage in Egypt into the unknown, frightening and wide open liberation of God’s promise.
Opening surely speaks to us this year. This second Easter on zoom, this second Easter of the pandemic is very different from last. Then, shocked and uncertain, we were hunkered down, grateful to be together online though grieving our separation in person. We have been through so much since then- individually, as a church, a city, a nation and a world- that we could never have imagined.
Now, we are pondering reopening. Many of us are getting vaccinated. We are doing more, carefully, hoping, fearing.
We have so many questions. How, when? What will reopening look like? How will we open, not into what was before, but into new ways of being church? Of envisioning public safety and well-being? Of caring for everyone in our communities? Of doing justice and tending God’s creation?
How will we open our hearts, weary and sad, traumatized but loving as they may be? It will not be all at once. It will involve doing what we can, bringing our gifts, welcoming the gifts of others, and a huge measure of grace. This process invites us first to open our imaginations- to play with what we do not yet know, to imagine the calming of our fears. To dance with the Spirit who moved over the deep void to bring forth creation. Who is moving still.
The story tells not only of empty space, but also of silence: a silence far holier than hasty speech. Our foremothers were seized by terror and amazement. As the dear Good Friday hymn says, “sometimes it causes me to tremble.” They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
Maybe we need to linger in the story, hearing the strange word of the strange messenger. “He has been raised. He is not here; he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” To Galilee- a place both familiar and out on the margins of need and grace. Let this story work on you. Let it shape your imagination and encourage your heart with God’s dream and promise.
This story is for you, for me, for all of us. It is God’s story. We are invited to participate, but in the deepest mystery of emptiness and silence beyond our knowing, God acts. God makes a way out of no way. God raises the dead to life. God claims the crucified Jesus and all that he lived and died for, with a love that is stronger than death. In raising Jesus, God claims us.
I think that is how it was for Mary Magdalene, the other Mary and Salome. The message worked on them, the words they heard strengthened their frightened hearts, In theologian Nelle Morton’s wonderful phrase, the silence “heard them into speech”.
For speak they surely did- how else would we hear the story? They whispered to each other as stammering conviction began to press them forward, urgent to tell the other disciples what they had experienced. They stepped out together- one step and then the next- where Jesus had led the way, to Galilee.
For Mark and for us, Easter is a beginning, not an ending. It is an opening we step through, where Jesus goes before us. Like the women, we are called to make our witness, find our way. We may be seized by trauma and amazement. We may need to linger in spaciousness and silence for a time.
As we do, the story, God’s story, works on us. The message resounds, and it is trustworthy. Beloved friends, Christ is risen! Alleluia!
Christ is risen indeed.